How to Tackle Pakistan’s Rapidly Growing Terrorist Threat
The 16 December 2014 attack on the Army Public School and Degree College in Peshawar changed the face of Pakistani counterterrorism efforts and prompted unprecedented collaboration between civil and military officials. The horrendous attack left 145 people dead—132 of whom were children—and over 100 people injured. From this tragic event emerged a new National Action Plan, featuring revived pledges of concerted action against a host of militant groups in Pakistan. The new plan also engendered a controversial amendment to the Pakistani constitution instituting new military courts for terrorist suspects and prohibiting terrorist financing. Though these measures appear to align with popular demands to avenge those who were lost on 16 December, it is not clear whether this aggressive approach to extremism will be effective or sustainable.
What is clear is that this more aggressive approach is but the latest shift in the broader evolution of Pakistani views on extremist violence. Indeed, Pakistani views fluctuated greatly in the months preceding the attack. This evolution was most clearly reflected in Pakistani media, which captured existing and emerging narratives: the deeply-held beliefs, core grievances, and strategic objectives held by various Pakistani communities and the media elites who articulate them.
Monitor 360 leveraged its proprietary Narrative Analytics™ tools to systematically uncover and interpret narratives, and reveal how to most effectively wield them. By analyzing a data set of 47 English-language Pakistani media sources between August 2013 and January 2015, Monitor 360 was able to surface a series of interrelated, and sometimes conflicting, Pakistani narratives. (We recognize that in Pakistan, as in many other countries, a similar assessment of vernacular media likely would reveal a very different set of narratives.) These narratives reflect synthesized content from traditional media sources, blog posts, and forums. While some offered explanatory insights on the causes of extremist violence, others provided prescriptive ideas for how to best stem the threat of terrorism in Pakistan.
Why does Pakistan face a rapidly growing terrorist threat?
Many Pakistani media analysts point to the usual suspects in explaining the surge in terrorist threats in Pakistan: meddling foreign intelligence services, Pakistan’s inability to control its militant proxies, and a general rise in religious extremism. Yet, narratives about the detrimental impact of proxies and foreign intelligence services barely registered in the Pakistani media discourse. And despite the perceived popularity of Islamist narratives, Pakistan’s English language media did not widely amplify narratives about religion either. Instead, narratives articulated in Pakistani media actually appeared to trend in the direction of greater secularism. Indeed, a growing number of Pakistanis viewed secular reform as a way of stemming the threat of terrorism by reducing overall susceptibility to radicalization and recruitment.
Pakistani frustrations with the Punjabi-dominated ruling elite and its mismanagement of interethnic relations dominated the media landscape; it was consistently portrayed as the primary cause for Pakistan’s growing violent extremism. Ethnic resentment and mistrust of the government was further fueled by the perception that the Punjabi-dominated Pakistani government and military are concerned about terrorism only when it occurs in Punjab. That many of these narratives highlighted internal drivers of extremist violence may reflect the media elite’s desire to hold the Pakistani government accountable and demand domestic solutions to domestic security challenges. This trend is reinforced by the evolution in narratives about Pakistan’s victimhood. For instance, a narrative blaming the War in Afghanistan for Pakistan’s security problems appears to be giving way to a perception that U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan presents an opportunity for Pakistan to fill the void left in the region.
What is the best way for Pakistan to tackle violent extremism?
Just as narratives around internal causes of violent extremism in Pakistan occupied the media landscape, so too did narratives expressing differing views of internal solutions to curb the violent extremist threat. Chief among these were calls for wide-ranging institutional reforms, with elites specifically citing education, law, governance, and socio-economic policies as those being most in need. Recognizing the vulnerability of their youth to radicalization, an increasing number of Pakistani elites posited that institutional reforms would have a more sustained impact on domestic security than would a crackdown on militants.
Although support for institutional reform is growing, Pakistani advocates of military crackdowns have not disappeared. In fact, the Pakistani narrative articulating a desire for military crackdowns has fluctuated most significantly in the media landscape, often in response to external events. Following the joint IMU-TTP June 2014 attack on the Karachi airport, for example, elite discourse shifted sharply in favor of military operations against militants. (See the graphic illustration below depicting changes in narrative article volume over time.) Such shifts exemplify the dynamism of the debate. New and emerging narratives can greatly impact the landscape as well. For example, though support for military crackdowns has persisted, a number of Pakistani elites view recent counterterrorism policies as exacerbating domestic conflict and instability by subverting democratic processes and impinging on civil liberties. As Mohammad Taqi wrote on 1 January 2015 in the Daily Times, “Terrorism cannot be fought without the armed forces but they cannot become the judge, jury and executioner… Extraordinary circumstances require extraordinary statesmanship, not political and judicial shortcuts. Politicians should resist the temptation and pressure to just add [the] military to all anti-terrorism solutions.”
A deep understanding of Pakistani narratives on extremist violence, their origins, and changes in their prominence over time can help inform policymaking in Pakistan and in other concerned countries and increase the likelihood that Pakistan’s strategies align with the priorities of its people. But the diverse, fluid nature of the Pakistani narrative landscape also underscores the challenges of crafting an effective and sustainable counterterrorism policy. Pakistan’s ability to navigate these complex challenges will help determine whether it can contain this growing terrorist threat.
Monitor 360 is a leading provider of sociocultural and geostrategic analysis for government and corporate clients. Monitor 360 has produced over 40 Master Narrative Reports for the U.S. policy community to inform counterterrorism and messaging strategies for key foreign audiences.