Pakistan's Sindh provincial counterterrorism authorities have initiated a new program aimed at identifying students who might be inclined toward radicalization and militancy.
Speaking to VOA's Extremism Watch team, Sanaullah Abbasi, chief of Sindh's counterterrorism department, expressed concerns about an emerging trend where educated youth resort to militancy and extremism, and he vowed to tackle it.
"Youth gravitating toward radicalization is Pakistan's continued challenge, and we're determined to overcome it," Abbasi said.
"We have had meetings with several universities in Sindh to devise a program on how to identify students on the basis of their changing thinking and behavior patterns eventually leading them toward militancy," Abbasi added.
The new initiative to head off suspected youth, including university students, was revealed a week after a few tech-savvy students-turned-terrorists were arrested in connection with an assassination attempt on a prominent local political leader in Karachi.
Inspired by al-Qaida
The suspects, all highly educated, are part of Ansar-al-Sharia, a new al-Qaida-inspired militant group that recently emerged in Pakistan's southern port city of Karachi, the capital of Sindh province.
The new group claims to act as a platform for militants who have grown disaffected with the Islamic State militant group (IS) in the country.
All of the suspects, currently under investigation, have backgrounds in applied physics, engineering and botanical studies, which has puzzled authorities. Traditionally, radicalization has often been linked to religious seminaries operating in different parts of the country.
Abbasi said radicalization is no longer limited to those seminaries, called madrasas, or to poverty only. He said it has been gradually entering some of the elite academic institutions of the country as well.
"The civil society, social media, journalists, media and academia — together as a society — can challenge this hard-stance narrative where youth is not hesitating to take things into their own hands," Abbasi said.
Abbasi said the actual identification and prevention begins through family and close friends, and he urged their cooperation.
"If a student is showing signs of changing behavior patterns, meeting strange people, has a visible change in daily routine, and is asking complicated and vague questions about religion, it should not go unnoticed," he said.
Some analysts charge that education alone cannot prevent the spread of radicalization among youth.
Currently, of the 500 militants held in Sindh's different provincial prisons, 64 suspects have graduate degrees and 70 have undergraduate degrees in different fields, according to local Pakistani media.
"Mostly students enrolled in hard sciences, engineering, medicine, business and IT [information technology] usually have a tilt toward radicalization. They just don't know how to handle the social conflict as it's not part of their field, and these students strive for perfection," Hasan Askari, a Pakistan-based political and security analyst, told VOA.
Askari noted that while radicalized youth make up a very small percentage of the student population in the country, they still pose a societal threat with which to be reckoned.
"The ratio of the students getting radicalized is really low — it wouldn't be even 1 percent of the total university students — but it is still alarming. The state will have to take firm action to stop its youth from getting inspired by terrorists' ideology," Askari said.
Referring to the recent arrests of Ansar-al-Sharia members in Sindh, Askari warned that unless government and society take measures against the new trend among the youth, the problem most likely will grow.
"This recent incident in Karachi shows how IS or al-Qaida's ideology has support among youngsters," Askari said.