CRSS senior research fellow Mohammad Nafees dissects herewith the trajectory of violence and terror in Pakistan
In last four years (2013-16), nearly 121 suicide attacks took place in the country that left 1464 persons dead and 3093 injured. Of them, only one was directed against a religious party, JUIF, in Quetta while the rest of them were against all those people that fell out of the boundary line of the militants’ ideology. The eight suicide attacks of this year, all occurred in February, also reflected not only a continuation of a similar trend but the ability of the perpetrators to keep changing strategies of their operations. So, what actually is the strategy of the militants and who they are really after? Instead of being assumptive, let’s take a round of all suicide attacks that occurred in the country during last four years to understand the strategy and policy of the perpetrators of these attacks.
After a record decline in violence in the country during 2016, a sudden upsurge in violence reared up its ugly head once again this month and within three days (13 – 16 February) 108 persons were martyred in six suicide attacks in the country. The first suicide attack that shook the nation was in Lahore that targeted top level police officials. Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a splinter group of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, was quick to claim its responsibility. Two days later, another deadliest suicide blast occurred at Lal Shahbaz Qalander’s shrine in Sehwan Sharif leaving 88 devotees dead and 150 injured. Da’ish or Islamic State, whose presence in the country was always denied, claimed responsibility for this attack. Five days later, on 22 February 2013, three suicide bombers attacked Tehsil court in Charsadda and left seven persons dead before getting eliminated by the security forces.
The attack at Sehwan was well thought-out and carefully planned attack while the Lahore attack appears to be totally opposite of it. The rapidity with which the Lahore attack was planned and executed is a testament of a well-knit organization that has its militants spread out to all places ready to die as and when they are asked for. Last year, Lahore was witness to a suicide attack in Iqbal Park whose responsibility was also claimed by Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JA). Nearly one year after that incident, two militants, Shahidullah and Khanzeb, involved in the attack were arrested from Jaranwala in Punjab but within a day after their arrests they were killed along with their accomplices in an encounter in Sheikhupura on 7th January 2017. These two militants, before their elimination, had shared with the police most of the details of the suicide bomber, his stay in Lahore and transportation to Iqbal Park. Last year, it nearly took three to four days in execution of the suicide attack in Iqbal Park. This year, despite the ongoing operation and lofty claims of the government of having curbed the militancy in the country, the militants could manage to carry out a suicide attack presumably within a short notice of one day if we don’t suspect the protesting chemists and drug dealers as their accomplices.
Was it a coincidence that the suicide plan and the protest of the chemists occurred the same day? Discarding all rumors and suspicions, it’s better to focus on the strategy of the militants who seem to have now become more proactive and pragmatic. Instead of staging two separate attacks as has been the case in most of the suicide attacks that occurred last year, they decided to carry out one fatal attack at a place where the crowd of protestors and police force was easily accessible and any occurrence of violence was least expected. In contrast, only one suicide bomber was sent to Sehwan Sharif to cause massive damage keeping in view the least security coverage and large crowd at the place. A common feature of the recent suicide attacks was: one suicide bomber at crowded and unprotected places and more than one at places where security was tight.
Besides adopting new tactics of attacks, JA also defined its policy in a video released by them only two days before the Lahore attack. It defined parliamentarians, civil and military institutions, secular political parties and individuals, judiciary, blasphemers, peace committee members and suspected media persons as their targets. It was, in fact, a policy guide outlining their foes and friends.
Out of 121 suicide attacks in last four years only 12 were claimed by Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JA) alone. This number goes up to 14 if the suicide attacks claimed by JA along with others are included in it. JA came to limelight on 3rd November 2014 when it was first quoted by the press as a splinter group of TTP making claim for the suicide attack at the Wagah border that left 60 persons dead. Jundullah, an affiliate of al-Qaeda, and TTP’s Mehsud group had also claimed for this attack. To prove their claim as authentic, JA released the photograph of the suicide bomber who had exploded at Wagah.
The first suicide attack that JA claimed all alone was on 10 January 2015 when an Imam bargah in Rawalpindi was targeted leaving 8 persons dead. From that day on, the number of suicide attacks claimed by JA continued going up. From four attacks claimed in 2015, the number went up to 12 by the end of 2016 that left 197 persons dead and 556 injured in two years. The provinces of the Punjab and KP suffered eight attacks (4 in each province) while in FATA they claimed for two suicide attacks. In Sindh too, they claimed for two attacks but one of them remained unsuccessful as one of the suicide bombers was arrested in Shikarpur. In Balochistan, they were one of the claimants of a suicide attack that was carried out in Civil Hospital, Quetta.
The 12 suicide attacks claimed by JA alone mainly targeted the people who belonged to Peace Committees (36), Christian community (28), visitors and police guards at court premises (29), NADRA office visitors (26), PMLN activists (8), and one ANP activist. These victims appear to have two prominent identities; while a majority of them had some kind of association with security forces, judiciary, religious places and political parties, none of them belonged to any religious party or religious organization. One exception was the Christian community that became target of a suicide attack at Iqbal Park in Lahore. Admitting the responsibility for this attack, the spokesman of the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar said, “The members of the Christian community who were celebrating Easter today were our prime target.” More than 70 persons were reported as martyred from this attack and 28 of them were supposed to be Christians. If these numbers are correct, the highest victims were Muslims because of their bad luck that they happened to be at a wrong place at a wrong time. According to reports, the basic target of the attack was the Easter congregation at a Church on Raza Block in Allama Iqbal Town of Lahore. The tightened security at the church compelled the suicide bomber to opt for the next plan. Although the video released by JA recently offers complete protection to non-Muslims, the Iqbal Park incident was an obvious deviation from their own policy.
Legal fraternity was never as frequently targeted by suicide bombers as they were after the emergence of JA in the violence-ridden arena of Pakistan’s polity. Its reason can be traced in one of JA’s claims for a suicide attack at civil court in Charsadda on 8 March 2016. JA called it a revenge for hanging of Mumtaz Qadri, the killer of former Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer. Despite the fact that the members of the Islamabad Bar Association called this hanging a judicial murder and observed a Black Day, the lawyers and court premises couldn’t remain safe soon after the execution of Mumtaz Qadri on 29 February 2016. Within six months after this execution, more than 100 persons lost their lives to suicide attacks that had targeted lawyers and court premises. The most deadly attack that the lawyers’ community faced was on 9th August 2016, when nearly 52 lawyers along with twenty other people were martyred in a suicide attack at Civil Hospital of Quetta. JA, TTP and Da’ish were the three militant outfits that claimed responsibility for this attack.
In its video of 10 February 2017, JA had announced the launch of “Operation Ghazi” in the honour of Maulvi Ghazi Abdul Rasheed who was killed in July 2007 by Pakistan Army inside Lal Masjid, Islamabad. The Lal Masjid immediately distanced itself from this statement of JA and even declared that Ahrar has no relations with Islam and Pakistan and is “carrying out terrorist activities in Pakistan at the behest of the Indian agency RAW.”
The interesting point to note is that Mumtaz Qadri was also called “Ghazi” by his supporters and since JA has claimed to have been on vengeance mission against the hanging of “Ghazi Mumtaz Qadri” they have got more than one Ghazi to associate their operation with. Would the supporters of Mumtaz Qadri’s mission find JA a true spokesman of their holistic mission or they would also keep a distance from them as they are now being labelled as RAW agents? How successful would JA be to continue their mission while an all-out military operation against them has been launched and the government also appears to be fully determined to take care of violence once for all? Only the culmination of the ongoing military operation and the future policy of the government towards militancy will make it clear.
(The author is Freelance journalist and Senior Research Fellow of Center for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad)