Business school terrorism suspect rattles Pakistan’s commercial elite

Bloomberg

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Demonstrators protest against the killing of the Shiite Ismaili minority, following the Shiite bus slaughter, in Islamabad on May 13, 2015. Photo: AFP Demonstrators protest against the killing of the Shiite Ismaili minority, following the Shiite bus slaughter, in Islamabad on May 13, 2015. Photo: AFP

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The list of prominent alumni at Pakistan’s most prestigious business school includes a president, prime minister, cabinet members, bankers, fund managers and senior executives of the country’s biggest companies.
The latest addition: Saad Aziz, a terrorist suspect accused along with other former university students of involvement in more than 20 attacks, including the deaths of at least 44 minority Shiite Muslims in April. He graduated in 2011 from the Institute of Business Administration, set up in the 1950s with the help of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
“We’ve never had such a case in IBA before, closely or remotely,” Huma Baqai, a spokeswoman for the school who had taught Aziz, said by phone. “I don’t know where or what went wrong, but for the time he was with us, there was no inclination of this kind of behavior.”
Aziz’s apparent turn to extremism after attending an institution venerated by Pakistan’s business elite underscores the challenges facing a nation struggling to stamp out terrorism and take its economy to new heights. The violence has prompted many investors to overlook one of Asia’s best performing stock markets over the past year.
“Whenever we ask our investors to visit Pakistan, they never want to due to the security situation,” said Shamoon Tariq, a fund manager at Tundra Fonder AB in Stockholm who has some $130 million in Pakistani stocks. “Terrorism is definitely a serious concern for investors, whether foreign or local.”
Growth surge
Pakistan’s potential is enormous. It has the fourth-biggest population in Asia, and a third of its roughly 200 million people are under the age of 15. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government expects the economy to grow 5.5 percent in the next 12 months, the fastest pace in nine years.
Still, the drumbeat of bombings, killings and kidnappings makes it hard to blame anyone for keeping their distance. The violence, mostly from Taliban-linked insurgents who want to impose their version of Islamic law, has claimed more than 60,000 lives since 2001, and shows few signs of abating.
Sharif has seen some success fighting militants along the border with Afghanistan in an operation that began a year ago, with bombings falling by half in 2015 compared with the same period a year ago. He’s spending about $1 billion in the next fiscal year on that fight, which is in addition to normal defense spending.
More difficult is the ideological battle raging since at least the 1980s, when the government invoked religion to justify a fight against the occupying Soviet army in neighboring Afghanistan. Aziz’s case shows that it’s far from over.
Bus slaughter
Police accuse Aziz and three others -- including graduates of the University of Karachi and Sir Syed University of Engineering and Technology -- of carrying out attacks for al-Qaeda. They include the Shiite bus slaughter, the murder of human rights activist Sabeen Mahmud and the shooting of Debra Lobo, a U.S. citizen who taught at a medical college in Karachi.
Aziz and the others couldn’t be contacted. They have been detained under an anti-terrorism law since their arrest was made public on May 20, and authorities have as many as 90 days to bring charges. None of the accused has a lawyer yet, according to Rasheed Channa, a spokesman for the chief minister of Sindh province, which encompasses Karachi.
Schools have long been targets for propaganda. One of those involved in killing Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl studied at the London School of Economics before dropping out. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s leader, went to Cairo University. Jihadi John of the Islamic State was said to have attended the University of Westminster in London.
‘Quiet type’
In Pakistan, authorities have focused primarily on stemming extremism in Islamic religious schools known as madrassas. That’s now changing: Aziz’s case is prompting the army to closely probe terrorism networks in top universities, spokesman Major Waheed Akhtar Bukhari said this month.
Aziz came from a well-to-do family in Karachi that owns part of a popular restaurant serving burgers and Mexican food. He didn’t raise any suspicions during his first few years at IBA, playing soccer and hanging out with a group of friends.
“Saad was a quiet type of person but that doesn’t mean he was involved in terrorism,” said Saleem Ahmed, an employee at the Cactus restaurant who saw Aziz a few days prior to his arrest. “I don’t think Saad did what he is accused of.”
High grades
Closer to his graduation, Aziz became more overtly religious. He joined the Iqra Society, a university group that sought to “inculcate Islam in the daily life of its students.” Still, his behavior was “fairly normal,” according to IBA’s Baqai, saying that his grade-point average exceeded 3.0.
“It’s not the institution,” she said, adding that it was more important to look into societal factors that lure young people in terrorism.
The case surprised some alumni of IBA, whose dean is a former central bank governor. Husain Lawai, who graduated from the school in 1967 and is now chief executive officer at Summit Bank Ltd., said the incident shouldn’t affect IBA’s image.
Even so, graduates of the school should help prevent students from “turning to the other way,” Lawai said. “This is very worrisome that this can happen at this level.”

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