Firdous Khokhar is among the tens of thousands of devotees of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar who have regularly been attending the annual Urs celebrations at the shrine in Sehwan for the past many decades. A resident of Gharib Abad locality in Shahdadkot city of Northern Sindh, Khokhar was at the shrine on Feb 16, 2017 along with her children when militants carried out a suicide attack in the crowded shrine. At least 85 people, including Khokhar’s two sons, were killed and over 300, including her daughter, injured in the suicide attack.
“They chose the crowded place in the shrine where dhamaal (a Sufi ritual) was being performed after evening prayers,” Khokhar recalls.
Although the Islamic State (IS) had claimed responsibility for the attack, law-enforcement agencies in Sindh linked it to a local militant group — Hafeez Brohi-led group. They were of the view that local militant groups were behind similar attacks in recent years in the province’s rural areas, especially its northern region.
While militancy in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, FATA and Karachi continues to attract media coverage, the presence of local militant groups linked with various terror groups, such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) in rural Sindh, has remained underreported. The region is quietly becoming a recruiting ground for terrorists.
Hafiz Brohi’s group came into the limelight after a failed attempt of suicide attack in December 2010 on a Shia gathering on the 10th of Muharram in District Shikarpur’s Napier Abad, at the house of the National People’s Party leader and tribal elder Dr Ibrahim Jatoi. It was the first indication that religious extremism had penetrated rural Sindh and was all set to strike at its secular and liberal roots. Jatoi’s guards managed to spot the panicked bomber and gunned him down immediately.
Law enforcement officials claimed the killed bomber was brother of Hafeez Brohi (also known as Abdul Hafeez Pandrani), a resident of Shikarpur, who heads a militant group operating in the region with help of TTP and LeJ’s Asif Chotoo faction. Sindh Police’s Counter Terrorism Department in its Red Book 2017, which has names, photos and information of the most wanted militants, listed Hafeez Brohi as one of the three terrorists from Northern Sindh.
The Hafeez Brohi group was consistently held responsible for various terror attacks in rural Sindh in the past several years. February 2013 witnessed an attack on Barevli spiritual leader Syed Hussain Shah alias Pir of Qambar (Shah narrowly escaped but his grandson was killed) in Jacobabad and another attack on a shrine in Shikarpur killing spiritual leader Pir Syed Hajjan Shah with his three devotees. In May 2013, Dr Ibrahim Jatoi miraculously survived in a suicide attack in Shikarpur while in July the same year, eight people were killed and fifty others injured in an attack on the Sukkur office of the country’s superior intelligence agency.
Another devastating attack took place on January 30, 2015, on a Shia Imambargah in Shikarpur’s Lakki Dar area during Friday prayers, killing 61 people. In the same year, 28 people were killed in a suicide attack on a Muharram 9 procession in Jacobabad district’s Lashari Mohallah neighbourhood.
Police foiled another suicide attack in the same year on a Shia gathering on Eid day in Shikarpur’s Khanpur area, in which 13 people were injured. Police arrested 18-year-old bomber Usman, a resident of district Swat, who could not detonate his suicide jacket. His interrogation report prepared by law enforcement agencies clearly shows linkage and support among various militant groups. “The TTP leaders, including Maulana Fazlullah, sent the teenager bomber through Balochistan in July 2016 for attacking the Shia Imambargah. Before sending the teenager to Brohi for the suicide attack, the LeJ in Balochistan provided the bomber shelter, training and suicide jacket,” states the report available with TNS.
Law enforcement agencies believe the Hafeez Brohi group was also involved in an attack on the Sufi shrine of Pir Rakhel Shah in Balochistan’s Jhal Magsi in October 2017, killing 20 devotees. Jhal Magsi is next to Sindh’s Qambar Shahdadkot district.
Security analysts believe that while there were ongoing military operations in other parts of the country, northern Sindh — including districts of Kashmore, Jacobabad, Shikarpur, Larkana, Qambar Shahdadkot, Ghotki, Sukkur and Khairpur — that has shared borders with Balochistan and South Punjab emerged as the new breeding ground of militancy. It is here that militant groups, particularly the TTP and LeJ, have become active through their support of the Hafeez Brohi group.
Ayesha Siddiqa, an astute observer of militancy in rural Sindh, believes it has grown unabated. “Extremism grew in areas that already had traction towards religion. Sharing a border with Punjab, there is a frequent flow of militants from South Punjab to northern Sindh. Furthermore, there are families from Punjab that have invested in madrasas in Sindh,” Siddiqa tells TNS.
Analysts also say the influence of feudalism, ruling Pakistan People’s Party’s poor governance, lack of an alternative political force, the mushroom growth of madrasas and tribal clashes are key factors behind the strengthening of religious extremist forces in the region.
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Murad Pandrani, a political analyst, says that religious groups have been trying to fill the vacuum created by the PPP and gaining strength in the region. “Because of unavailability or closure of government schools, local residents in the rural areas are sending their children to the madrasas that have been opened in recent years by religious groups,” Pandrani tells TNS.
Siddiqa also agrees with Pandrani. “One of militancy’s hotbeds is the Kacha area or the jungle that once was the main area for dacoits. I travelled from Bahawalpur to Mohenjodaro and saw expansion of madrasas throughout my journey. There are foreign-funded madrasas, wall chalking etc. that indicate presence of extremism and militancy. The anti-Shia sentiment is also on the rise,” says Siddiqa. “Feudalism has drawn people towards mullah-driven Islam as an alternative. I see the new middle class in Sindh giving attention to extremist values.”