‘University Of Jihad’ gets public funds even as Pakistan fights extremism

Special to WorldTribune.com

Frud Bezhan, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Pakistan’s so-called university of jihad is led by a man who proclaims himself “the father of the Taliban,” and counts some of the world’s most notorious terrorists among its alumni.

It also receives millions of dollars in aid from the government of the restive Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province along the Pakistan-Afghan border, even as Islamabad carries out a national program to tackle extremism.

Religious students attend class at Darul Uloom Haqqania, an Islamic seminary and the alma mater of several Taliban leaders in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, Pakistan. / Reuters

The Darul Uloom Haqqania religious seminary, located in Akora Khattak in northwest Pakistan, is known for preaching a fundamentalist brand of Islam and schooling a generation of fighters for both the Afghan Taliban and the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also known as the Pakistani Taliban.

Around 3,000 young men with beards and white skullcaps study at Haqqania’s sprawling campus — located about 50 kilometers east of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s capital, Peshawar, and 90 kilometers west of the national capital, Islamabad — making it one of the largest Islamic teaching centers in the world.

As could be expected from an Islamic institution of learning, students memorize the Koran and study Islamic law and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. But the seminary’s teachings rooted in the Sunni Deobandi movement, which developed in India in the late 19th century in opposition to British colonialism, encourages its adherents to conduct violent jihad, earning the seminary a sordid reputation.

“Faculty, students, and alumni of the seminary are intimately linked to several militant groups,” said Michael Semple, an expert on Afghanistan and Pakistan at Queen’s University, Belfast.

“The Afghan Taliban perhaps have the best-developed links, and they systematically recruit young graduates,” he added. “This is not even a particularly secret activity. The recruitment works rather like the way blue-chip companies would approach a graduate recruitment fair.”

History Of Violence

Among the seminary’s more infamous graduates are the Afghan Taliban’s longtime leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, who died in 2015 in Pakistan, and Jalaluddin Haqqani, the leader of the Pakistan-based Haqqani network that is allied with the Afghan Taliban.

Asim Umar, the head of Al-Qaeda’s South Asia wing, is also believed to have studied at Darul Uloom Haqqania. Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper also reported that the two suspects in the 2007 assassination of Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto attended the seminary. Haqqania rejected the claims.

The head of the seminary, Sami-ul Haq, who this week fell short in his bid to be elected to Pakistan’s Senate, does not shy from Darul Uloom Haqqania’s links to the Afghan Taliban. The 80-year-old cleric proudly embraces the title “Father of the Taliban” and said in an interview in 2009 that his students should fight against U.S. forces in Afghanistan. He has been quoted as describing Mullah Omar as an “angel” and one of his star pupils.

The seminary — which was founded by Haq’s father in 1947, the same year Pakistan gained its independence from the British Raj — has published a two-volume collection of documents boasting of its role in the “Afghan jihad.” During the Afghan-Soviet War from 1979-80 the seminary received millions in funding and provided thousands of fighters to the war effort. It was during that time that the seminary became fertile recruiting ground for Islamist groups.

“Many students of this madrasah [religious school] have fought in Afghanistan and in Pakistan and joined the ranks of both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban,” says Pakistani journalist and Taliban expert Rahimullah Yusufzai. “Not all the students go and fight, but the more radical join these militant groups and become even top leaders of these groups.”

Yusufzai said that, while Darul Uloom Haqqania is not a terrorist training camp, its alumni provide a powerful precedent for current students to follow. He says the seminary also promotes a narrative that resonates among many in Pakistan — that Islam is under attack from the West.

Millions In Public Funds

For years, Pakistan has promised to clamp down on religious schools that preach violence and have been recruiting grounds for domestic and foreign Islamist militant groups.

Yet radical seminaries like Darul Uloom Haqqania continue to operate freely and even receive government funds.

In February, the provincial government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province gave the seminary $2.5 million in a push to “mainstream” the controversial institution. Opposition politician Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf (PTI) also gave $2.7 million in public funds to Darul Uloom Haqqania in 2017.

Analysts say the funds have been used to expand and renovate the seminary’s vast campus, not to modernize or diversify its teachings.

Pakistani politicians have attacked the decision by the conservative PTI, which has close ties to hard-line Islamic political parties and figures.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party, said it was a “shame,” while Syed Alam Mehsud, president of nationalist party Wolesi Tehrik, said the move “proved” that the government was “supporting extremist elements.”

A ‘Tall Order’

Pakistan launched a National Action Plan to tackle extremism shortly after a December 2014 assault on an army-run school in which Pakistani Taliban militants killed more than 150 people, most of them children. It included a plan to register all religious schools and reform their curriculum by introducing modern and secular subjects.

“Bringing reforms seems to be a tall order,” says Yusufzai. “These schools and their ideology have become entrenched over a long period and now there are millions of students who have graduated from them. I think the focus of attention that is required from the authorities is lacking.”

Semple said the seminaries and their leaders have become increasingly powerful in society and politics in Pakistan.

He said that would explain the PTI’s decision to fund Darul Uloom Haqqania and its leader Haq, the leader of the Jamiat Ulema-e Islam political party, which will participate in general elections this year.

“The seminary and its head, Sami-ul Haq, have a vast network of alumni across the country,” he said. “It’s important to appreciate that Sami-ul Haq and his network’s political influence were probably key in the PTI’s decision.”