Counter-terrorism officials in Karachi believe more than 100 women from affluent households are part of a lethal terrorist network that lies somewhere between Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
The revelation came as police made new arrests related to the Safoora terrorist attack in May, in which 43 Shia Ismaili passengers of a bus were shot and killed one by one.
In July, police had arrested Sadia Jalal, a university teacher and the third wife of a leader of Al Qaeda in Pakistan, accusing her of “facilitating the suspects of the Safoora carnage.” The woman “had been brainwashing students for recruiting them in a terrorist outfit” police said. The involvement of a woman, who is also a university teacher, in a high-profile terrorist attack caused concerns.
On December 18, the counter-terrorism department (CTD) said new arrests had been made. “We have arrested people who had been providing financial support and facilitation to, and brainwashing terrorists since long,” the department’s chief Raja Umar Khattab told reporters in a news conference. Among the detained suspects was Khalid Yousaf Bari, a former employee of Pakistan International Airlines. Bari told interrogators that his wife Naheed Bari had established a religious group – Al Zikra Academy – whose top members include more than 20 well-off women.
Naheed Baji mentored more than one hundred women
The network is accused of collecting donations, brainwashing new members, proliferating jihadist propaganda, and even helping alleged terrorists find suitable spouses. As police expand their probe, intelligence sources say many of the women suspects are mothers, wives, sisters, daughters and daughters-in-laws of male suspects linked to the Safoora terrorist attack.
“They brainwashed women in the name of Islamic education,” Raja Umar Khattab said, “and collected Zakat, alms and donations for financing terrorism.”
Naheed Baji, as she was called by other members of the group, mentored more than one hundred women, Raja Umar Khattab told me. “Many of the group’s active members have been identified,” he said. “Almost every member of about twenty ‘Jihadi families’ carried out one task or another for the terrorist group. These families are strongly tied to each other through intermarriages.”
Naheed collected around Rs 215,000 a month in donations, chiefly from such affluent localities as Baloch Colony, Bahadurabad and PCEHS. Other identified female suspects include Tahmeena, the wife of a male suspect Adil Masood Butt, who has been accused of providing financial help to the group that carried out the Safoora but attack.
The mother and wife of a key terror suspect Saad Aziz are also alleged members of the network.
Although such women have largely been seen as only facilitators in the past, Islamabad-based journalist and militancy expert Hasan Abdullah said in a previous interview that female members of such groups often played part in active warfare. “They range from suicide attackers, to teachers, spies, technical experts, doctors and much more.”
“The San Bernardino shooting has shown that women are equally capable of doing brutal murderous things, under the influence of a warped ideology,” said Reem Wasay, the op-ed editor at Daily Times.
“The family structure of modern Jihadists and the role of their women had largely been hidden from the eyes of law enforcement officials so far,” Raja Umar Khattab said, adding that it took him several years of investigation to expose the network.
“The women preachers first give lectures on the basics of Islam to affluent women, and then use their influence to stress the importance of establishing a Muslim caliphate,” he said. “Those who are receptive are made part of their circle.”
“They are suicide attackers, teachers, spies, technical experts, doctors and more”
“It is alarming that such a large number of women are involved in helping in the planning and financing of terrorism,” one investigator said. “It is equally alarming that highly educated men, including many who studied abroad, are being indoctrinated to carry out such acts.”
Tahmeena’s husband Adil Masood Butt, who the CTD has arrested for financing terrorism, went to Indiana University for a BBA and the New York Fordham University for an MBA. When he came back, he set up the College of Accountancy and Management Science with some friends. “The institute has three campuses, where 2,000 students are enrolled at various levels,” police says. He met Naheed’s husband Khalid Yousaf Bari, and another Safoora attack suspect Sheeba Ahmed, when he was part of Dr Israr Ahmed’s Tanzeem-e-Islami. He left the organization subsequently to join Al Qaeda. He had also been associated with the proscribed Hizbut Tahrir.
“Tanzeem-e-Islami pursues a non-violent agenda, but its advocacy for the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate is sometimes used by groups who turn to violence,” said Muhammad Saqib, a Karachi based journalist covering militancy. At a time when Pakistan is trying to develop counter-narratives against terrorist ideology, he said religious groups will have to strive to protect their teachings from being misused by terrorists.
The writer is a Karachi based journalist