There were no big acts of terrorism during the election campaign before the terrorists struck on July 10 in Peshawar targeting an Awami National Party (ANP) corner meeting where Haroon Bashir Bilour was the main speaker.
And mercifully there have been no big terrorist attacks after the July 13 suicide bombing that targeted the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) election rally in Balochistan’s Mastung district where the party candidate Nawabzada Siraj Raisani was the star speaker.
However, the three major acts of terrorism from July 10-13, including the one in Bannu that targeted Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) candidate Akram Khan Durrani, shocked the nation and highlighted the security concerns in the run-up to the polling day on July 25.
Akram Durrani, who served as chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) from 2002-2008 when the MMA was in power, survived the attack on July 13, but Haroon Bilour and Siraj Raisani weren’t so lucky. They were hailed as martyrs and heroes by not only the government, but also by politicians and the public across the political divide.
The death of Haroon Bilour was particularly painful as his father, Bashir Ahmad Bilour, too was martyred in a terrorist attack in his hometown Peshawar in December 2012 when he was a senior minister in the ANP-PPP coalition government in KP. Both lost their lives in suicide bombings in which more than 30 civilians, mostly ANP workers and supporters, were martyred. The Bilours, a prominent family of Peshawar, have been a major target of the terrorists as they have never hesitated to challenge the militants. Besides, the militants are in no mood to forgive the ANP even after claiming responsibility for scores of attacks all these years against the party.
The suicide bombing at Darengarh in Mastung district on July 13 was horrendous as it took 149 lives, including nine minors, and caused injuries to another 186. It was one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in Pakistan and those killed were almost all civilians, simple Baloch villagers who had come to meet and hear the BAP candidate for the Balochistan Assembly constituency, PB-35, Siraj Raisani. It was almost equal in scale and number of casualties to the 2007 attack in Karsaz, Karachi when Benazir Bhutto’s homecoming convoy was attacked, martyring 160 persons. Other major terrorist strikes include the one on the Army Public School, Peshawar in December 2014 which 147 persons, including 132 schoolchildren, were martyred, and the Meena Bazar, Peshawar and Shah Hassankhel, Lakki Marwat bombings earlier that claimed the lives of over 120 persons each.
As Siraj Raisani had challenged his elder brother Nawab Aslam Raisani, the former chief minister contesting as an independent candidate, in the PB-35 constituency, the election had become charged and the atmosphere tense. Siraj Raisani had emerged as a leading pro-Pakistan Baloch politician and some of his video messages declaring his love for Pakistan’s armed forces and challenging India had gone viral. It wasn’t surprising then that Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa described him as a “soldier of Pakistan” and said Siraj Raisani was a brave patriot with utmost commitment to the country.
The BAP with which Siraj Raisani was associated was cobbled together before the election by pro-federation politicians and tribal elders, many among them turncoats, to compete with older and established political parties. It was seen as a pro-establishment party set up to try and form a coalition government after the polls by keeping the nationalist parties out of power.
The warning signs of a new wave of terror during the 2018 election campaign were evident, but weren’t widely noticed or given importance because nobody was killed. There had been two acts of terrorism directed at election candidates, one in KP and the other in the erstwhile Fata known as tribal districts after the merger with KP. An election meeting of Malik Aurangzeb Khan, contesting for the lone National Assembly seat from the North Waziristan tribal district on the PTI ticket, was attacked with hand-grenades in Razmak. Several participants were injured but Malik Aurangzeb remained unhurt. It prompted the authorities and the candidates and electorate in North Waziristan, recovering after years of militancy and the June 2014 military operation Zarb-e-Azb, to become cautious and upgrade the security.
Another terrorist attack took place around the same time in Bannu when the convoy of MMA candidate for a provincial assembly seat, Malik Shireen, was targeted with a roadside bomb causing injuries to several people. Malik Shireen survived the attack and promptly blamed his rival PTI candidate Mohammad Shah of involvement in the bombing. This attack took place before Akram Durrani’s convoy in Bannu was targeted by exploding a motorcycle stuffed with explosives and parked on the roadside. As Bannu is located adjacent to North Waziristan, it seemed that militants operating in the tribal district and based across the border in Afghanistan were behind the attacks.
The focus of the terrorist attacks until now has been KP and Balochistan, both bordering Afghanistan where the fleeing Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)-linked militants and Baloch separatists have found refuge. The two under-developed provinces have been in the frontline in Pakistan’s war against terrorism. The militants won’t hesitate to strike in Punjab, Sindh and even Islamabad, but organising attacks there is relatively difficult than in KP and Balochistan due to the logistics and long distance from their bases in Afghanistan.
It was clear the militants had timed the attacks with the election campaign when the politicians contesting the polls are exposed and vulnerable, and the public meetings become an easy target. The TTP had just lost its head, Maulana Fazlullah, in a US drone strike in Afghanistan and his loyalists were seeking revenge. The new TTP leader Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud had to establish his leadership and show his strength and launching attacks in Pakistan would have served the purpose. As the militants suspected that Islamabad may have provided intelligence to the US about the location of Fazlullah and his top military commander, Omar Rahman aka Fateh, who was killed in a subsequent drone strike in Afghanistan’s Kunar province, they had reasons to take revenge through terrorists strikes in Pakistan.
Read also: Darengarh massacre
The claim of responsibility for the three major attacks in July was made by three different groups. The Peshawar suicide bombing that took the life of Haroon Bilour and 21 other persons was claimed by the TTP, while the Islamic State, or Daesh, asserted responsibility for the Mastung bombing. The little known Ittehadul Mujahideen claimed responsibility for the failed attempt on the life of Akram Durrani in Bannu, which nevertheless martyred five persons.
It isn’t always easy to figure out as to which group was in reality involved in the attacks as claims of responsibility are sometimes made to cause confusion and sidetrack the attention of investigators and intelligence agencies. What is important is the fact that all these militant groups despite their differences have a common objective to harm and weaken Pakistan.