This week, everything Pakistanis had been led to believe about terrorism was shattered into the tiniest of pieces with the arrests of well-educated, productive members of society in connection with the attacks on the Ismailis and Sabeen Mahmud. The media, social, print and electronic, was filled with shock and surprise as to how could these individuals be terrorists. The common refrain – they never acted like terrorists.

And therein lies the rub.

For someone like me who has watched the footage of every human orchestrated tragedy on television, from school shootings to terrorist attacks, the one line that is most commonly repeated statements by the people who knew the attacker is “they never acted suspicious,” “I would never believe that he/she could do this.” Understandably, it’s a shock to the brain when someone that you know personally, lived in your neighborhood and even went to school with, commits such an atrocity, but with time, the shock wears off and the anger begins to build, much like the father of one of the suspects said – “if he is found guilty of this, I hope they publicly hang him.”

But the problem isn’t that we are unable to understand this perceived shift in personality of a terrorist. No, that’s not the problem. The problem is that we, as citizens, have been fed a steady diet of believing that terrorists only come from one place, one ideology and one mentality. The arrests this week exposed the fallacy of that argument and set Pakistan on edge as to who else is amongst us in our offices, neighborhoods and even homes that might be a terrorist.

That’s the uneasy feeling that is moving through our population.

Educated Terrorists

This, however, doesn’t come as a shock to those who are well-versed in terrorism recruitment, operations and tactics. This is par for the course. If you look back at the most well-known terrorists, they are all well-educated. Osama bin Laden came from an extremely wealthy background and studied public administration, some say his degree was in civil engineering, at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah before taking up the mantle of global terrorist leader. Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri studied medicine at Cairo University and worked for many years in the Egyptian Army before getting his masters in surgery.

As a matter of fact, Peter Bergen and Swati Pandey, using a database of 79 jihadis responsible for the five most serious terrorist incidents between 1993 and 2005, found the most popular subjects about those who had attended university were engineering and medicine.  54% of the attackers had either attended university or obtained a university degree. According to them, they “appear, on average, to be as well educated as many Americans – given that 52% of Americans have attended university.”

They also observed that two-thirds of the 25 terrorists involved in 9/11 had attended university.

From the Shahzad Tanweer, Mohammad Siddique Khan, and Hasib Hussain to Omar Khyam and Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, all are from educated, financially comfortable family backgrounds. They were not disenfranchised madrassa educated, underprivileged youth pushed into a life of terrorism. They made a conscious choice.

But this is not limited to just those following the path of terrorism from the Muslim world. The IRA, the PLO, the Israelis, Americans and any other terrorist of their time, are more likely to have jobs, trade skills and an education typical of their peers. The most famous of the American terrorist groups, Students for a Democratic Society, were all children of wealthy, well-connected, influential families. You know them better as the Weather Underground.

William Laqueur, the world’s preeminent terrorism expert, in his book No End to War: Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century, said “for terrorists to survive, much less thrive, in today’s globalized, technologically savvy and interconnected world, they have to be educated, have some technical competence and be able to move without attracting attention in alien societies. In brief, such a person will have to have an education that cannot be found among the poor in Pakistani or Egyptian villages or Palestinian refugee camps, only among relatively well-off town folk.”

So what does that say about our understanding of terrorism and terrorists in Pakistan?

Simple, we have been completely deceived into believing that we should be on the lookout for one stereotype – the poor, underprivileged, madrassa educated individual.

How do we change dynamic?

The reason that this view has become the excepted understanding is because no one, not government, media nor universities, has ever become proactive in this fight. We have always waited for an attack to happen and then moved resources to find the attackers, cells and planners. This is not the way. Sure, the most vocal are the imams and leaders of extremist groups and they draw our attention to the accepted stereotype, but without any coordinated work on the problem, we are left defenseless. And to be clear, the model I am proposing is the same in every civilized country of the world.

The universities need to be engaged for academic studies into the problem of terrorism that has afflicted Pakistan for decades. Around the world, universities are studying the causes and reasons for terrorism, how people are recruited, and the methodologies that are used among other things. Which Pakistani university has done a similar study for the government, media or for public consumption? Additionally, universities need to establish anonymous hotlines on their campuses for students to report students and groups that are working against the state and the people. The embarrassment that IBA and Sir Syed University could have been avoided if they had been actively involved in grooming and protecting their students, rather than just giving them an education. Until the universities in this country don’t plan an active role in protecting the country, we are fighting fires, not keeping them from being started.

We also need to look at the media’s narrative on terrorism and terrorists to understand that most of the pundits called on these programs are not experts in terrorism or counter-terrorism. The media calls the politicians of the day to come, have a cup of tea and entertain us for an hour with their arguments, opinions and political positions, never really informing the public of the real threat or potential solutions to that threat. Go ahead, find one program in the last 10 years, that has delved into terrorist activities and provided any understanding of the demographics, the recruitment, the training or the tactics.

The civilian law enforcement agencies need to be structurally and operationally empowered to perform policing duties. When 30-40% of any city’s police force is dedicated to VVIP protection and poor investigative procedures, they are not winning any wars for us. We need better police officers that are better educated, sent for regular training in police administration, investigation and operations. The days of political appointees is gone and we need to make sure this ends forthwith. And, for Allah’s sake, please use the commando forces to protect the citizens, not the politicians. When the taxpayer money is being used to train them, they should be at the taxpayers’ disposal, not those who already have more security than they should require in a truly democratic government.

We need to empower our citizens. The government needs to stop hiding information from the people. When they can spend millions of rupees on advertising to pat themselves on the back for the useless projects they launch, they should be willing to spend the money to take out full page advertisements with the pictures and names of every wanted terrorist, with details of their last known locations. They should make it a regular process at the beginning and end of every headline break to flash those pictures on every TV screen in Pakistan. The more you make us aware, the more we can assist you. There are 190 million of us that you can use as ground intelligence, yet you chose to hide the information from your biggest assets.

Now, I know where you are going to turn – the intelligence agencies and the armed forces. Nothing that the ISI, military intelligence or the armed forces produce in terms of research or background is for public consumption. There is a wealth of confidential information included in those documents that is limited to specific people within a circle of knowledge, usually the top echelon of the military command at GHQ and Aabpara. This information is used in the intelligence based operations (IBOs) that target terrorists camps and hideouts. This is true of all intelligence agencies, not just the ISI and military intelligence. Certainly some of this information is shared with the civilian government officials, but they can never comment or release it to the general public.

You’re scratching your head and saying, why not? Here’s a scenario to help you understand.

Hypothetically, the ISI prepares a field study that points out 8-10 well-known universities who have terror cells working actively within them for recruitment and training purposes. The list is made public through one of the government officials it has been shared with and hits the overactive Pakistani media. The media brings former military officers, politicians, human rights activists and other fringe pundits onto their hour-long entertainment programs, I mean current affairs shows, to discuss the leaked information.

The result?

First, pundits will beat up the intelligence agencies for targeting public universities with such claims. Second, the politicians and human rights activists will scream bloody murder about the “real power in Pakistan” attempting to silence liberal educational institutions. Third, the retired military officials will be put in the uncomfortable position of either accepting that similar reports have been sanctioned in the past and asked to defend them publicly.

More importantly, and the most devastating result of a leak like this, is that the terror cells that were being monitored by the civilian law enforcement and military intelligence agencies, would go underground and the intelligence stream would be lost. The potential of spies within the groups would be explored and lives would be lost based on suspicions. And Pakistan would be more unsecure than it is today.

Until we are willing to understand that the cancer of terrorism is deep within our society at all levels, we will not be able to counter it with just military force. Everyone who stands with, defends and debates in favor of the armed forces in the fight against terrorism has always said that this must be a multi-pronged fight – the military operations are only the first step to break them.

This must become a national effort otherwise we will lose the next generations, destroy our educational institutions and find Pakistan bleeding again and again.

If we learned one thing this week, access to education is not the problem that drives people to terrorism. All of the accused come from some of the finest educational institutions in Pakistan.

It’s not an education problem anymore. It’s an information problem.