Ikram ul-Majeed Sehgal, who has rehabilitated former terrorists, on the risks of allowing hopelessness to take root. The interview is part of the Risk Response Network’s “What if?” series.

What is your main field of expertise and current research?
I am the Chairman of the Pathfinder Group, which is the largest private security company in Pakistan. Our 18,000 guards provide security for diplomats, banks, commercial properties and multinational organizations and we protect both the American Embassy and the United Nations building which are prime targets for terrorists. I also moonlight as a columnist and a TV commentator.

My field of expertise is counter-terrorism and I have been on the Global Agenda Council for Terrorism since its inception. Pakistan has been Ground Zero for terrorism and we understand both the daily threat of terrorist acts, and the practical steps that can be taken to deal with them.

Given your research, what would you say is the most under-appreciated risk?
The biggest risk I face on a daily basis is the possibility that a guard I have selected and sent out to protect somebody might turn on them. A large amount of my time is spent verifying the antecedents of my guards, and on training and motivating them. Constant vigilance from people on the ground is required. It only takes one gunman to create an international incident.

Could you give us a general idea of the situation in Pakistan?
Firstly, the general situation in Pakistan is far better than it was a few years ago.

Pakistan is faced with two types of terrorism. One is the militancy in the mountains, which is an insurgency against the system. We dealt with this very successfully with the most powerful counter-insurgency in history, between Swat and South Waziristan. However, we now have problems with a different kind of terrorism, fed by the mountain militancy, but spread into the cities. There are a large number of different terror groups with different agendas. The one goal they share is to bring terror into ordinary homes, to harass and intimidate in such a way as to prevent civilized society existing. Most of my time is spent dealing with this kind of terrorism.

What is the main challenge in addressing this issue?
The main challenge in tackling on-the-ground terrorism is the frustration of convincing decision-makers that it is practical experience that makes the difference, not theory offered by analysts. Theory does not save lives. As an army officer 40 years ago, I fought two counter insurgencies. I use that practical experience in a commercial context to recruit guards and to protect people.

Are the economic situation and refugee migration increasing these risks?
I am amazed that people do not understand the difference between counter insurgency and countering terrorism. In Afghanistan today, for example, there is no terrorism. Terror is used as a weapon, but what is going on is, in fact, an insurgency.

In Pakistan, the insurgency has been contained but we still have terrorism. However, we have no real counter-terrorism force. A key question for us is, what is the feed for this terrorism? There are now three million refugees in Pakistan. The young children grow up into adults, and cross the borders to become suicide bombers. They are part of community that has no hope. Until they see some future for themselves they will continue to feed into the terrorist cause. Without real hope, they are easy pickings for the madrassas who offer learning and education, but who use the opportunity to teach their students how to make bombs.

Are we neglecting tomorrow’s terrorists?
We are neglecting tomorrow’s terrorists, but I’m hopeful that the Arab Spring has changed the situation. The Arab Spring has given young people without hope a voice. Their frustration is being given expression, so there are fewer people looking at terrorism as their only option. Now they can say, “we have a democratic voice and we can effect change through democratic means; we don’t have to turn to the gun or the bomb to change society.” I think, in practical terms, such movements have been good. Regime change may not always suit Western sensitivities, but at the end of the day the Arab Spring has reduced some of the built up tensions, let a little bit of the air out of the balloon.

You have dealt personally with insurgents. Can you give us some insight into how you’ve engaged with them?
The Army had about 5–6000 guerilla fighters held in what they call re-education camps. They asked if I would be interested in recruiting 150 of them for security work. I asked, “Are you mad? You are talking about 150 people who are planning to become terrorists?” They suggested we have a look, so we sent our people in with psychologists and we recruited about 80 young men as guards. I am proud to say, two years later, 60 are still doing guard duty with me. I never put them in situations where I think they could be a risk, and they are all doing their jobs perfectly well. They are being paid and sending money home. A trust has grown between us. They talk about how they became insurgents, how they were almost made to wear suicide jackets and blow themselves up. These are the things that you cannot learn sitting in a room, reading theories and papers on terrorism.

So, there are opportunities to be seized?
There are tremendous opportunities, but I must be very frank. I find it frustrating that, while security is one of the greatest global threats – from chemical and biological weapons – I don’t see a huge amount of effort going into dealing with it.

On the positive side, the broad mass of potential recruits is beginning to narrow. This gives people like me, who intercept or monitor, a greater chance of catching the terrorists, because we have a narrower base to focus on. A wider base simply makes it harder to find people: you can lose them in the grass.

Is there anything personal that you would like to add?
Yes. I am 66. There is a democratic movement going on in my country and I look forward to it. The military has very rightly decided that the democratic route is better than the autocratic route, so there is hope for change. People like Imran Khan are helping to translate hope into reality.

I have a daughter who is the only female photo-journalist in Pakistan today. She works on terrorism and crime-related scenes. When I see some of her photographs in the morning papers, I want to wake her and ask, “What the hell were you doing in that area?” But at the same time, I am proud of the fact that she is taking these risks for her country, and for what she believes in, just as I did. When you see your children doing well and standing up for their beliefs, you think, at the end of the day, you’ve accomplished something.

Pictured: The aftermath of a suicide bomb attack in Karachi, Pakistan (Reuters)

Ikram ul-Majeed Sehgal is the Chairman of The Pathfinder Group and a member of the World Economic Forum Risk Response Network.