A new wave of terrorism has hit Pakistan as attacks have recently taken place in three provinces including Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.
Punjab’s capital, Lahore, suffered the latest terrorist strike on May 8. The suicide bombing took place outside the Data Darbar, the popular shrine of 11th century Sufi saint Syed Ali bin Osman Ali Hajvairy, where a vehicle of the Elite Police was the apparent target. Ten people including four policemen and a security guard were martyred and 25 others were injured.
The police said the suicide bomber was a teenager aged 15 to 17. Wearing shalwar-kameez and a coat, he walked out of a fruit shop, crossed the road and headed for the police vehicle parked at the entrance of Data Darbar’s Gate Number 2 meant for women visitors. As is visible from the video footage obtained from CCTV cameras, a ball of fire could be seen immediately after the bomber detonated seven kilos of explosives he was carrying.
This was the second terrorist attack at the Data Darbar. On July 1, 2010, a suicide bombing had caused the death of more than 50 persons and injured around 200. This was one of the most devastating attacks against any shrine in Pakistan even though several have been targetted over the years.
Hizbul Ahrar, a splinter faction of the Jamaatul Ahrar, which in turn broke away from the mainstream Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in August 2014, claimed responsibility for the recent attack at the Data Darbar. Its spokesman, Aziz Yousafzai, insisted the attacker ensured that civilians weren’t harmed as his target was the police. He was wrong as civilians including a child were among the dead.
On November 11, 2017, Mukarram Khan aka Omar Khorasani had announced that he and his men were forming their own group, Hizbul Ahrar, after breaking away from the Jamaatul Ahrar, which was being led by Abdul Wali aka Omar Khalid Khorasani. Ironically, Omar Khorasani argued that the un-Islamic actions by the Omar Khalid Khorasani-led Jamaatul Ahrar such as attacks against the minority Christian community, as well as extortions and kidnappings for ransom had prompted them to break away and launch their own group which focused on attacking only the army and the police.
Lahore seems to be the favourite target of both these terrorist outfits. Apart from several terrorist strikes in Lahore claimed by Jamaatul Ahrar before the split, the attack at Wagah during the ceremonial daily closing of the border with India on November 2, 2014 that took the lives of 61 persons and caused injuries to another 200, was also claimed by them.
Both the militant factions are based in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province after being evicted from Mohmand tribal district as a result of a major military operation by Pakistan’s security forces in late 2009. The splintering of the TTP primarily due to personality clashes began after the assassination of its head Hakimullah Mehsud in a US drone strike in North Waziristan on November 1, 2013 and the disputed selection of Maulana Fazlullah as his successor. The Hizbul Ahrar appears to be the stronger of the two factions as it has claimed most of the attacks since the split. The Jamaatul Ahrar has become weak after losing some of its known members, including former spokesmen Ehsanullah Ehsan and Asad Mansoor, who surrendered to Pakistan’s security forces in April 2017 and January 2018, respectively. The whereabouts and fate of its head Omar Khalid Khorasani has also remained a matter of conjecture in recent years.
The other major recent terrorist attacks include the one in Quetta on April 13 in which members of the Hazara community were targetted once again. Nine Hazaras were among the 20 who were martyred, the others including a Frontier Corps soldier and civilians. Both the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Islamic State, or Daesh, claimed responsibility for the attack, making it clear their target was the Hazara Shia community members.
Balochistan also suffered other terrorist strikes, including the one claimed by Baloch separatists on the Makran Coastal Highway in which 14 passengers belonging to the Pakistan Navy, Pakistan Air Force and Pakistan Coast Guards were offloaded from buses and shot dead on April 18. Other attacks took place in Loralai, Chaman and Quetta.
In Peshawar, a 17-hour long operation on April 16 finally led to the killing of five alleged terrorists and capture of one more when the police and army soldiers raided a house in the upscale Hayatabad locality where they were holed up. A soldier and policeman were martyred in the action.
Incidents of target killings also happened in recent months in Dera Ismail Khan, Swat and other parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
A major cause of concern was the deteriorating security situation in North Waziristan, which like other six tribal agencies became a district when Fata was merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in May 2018. The militants used improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to target military convoys and target-killed pro-government tribal elders and commoners. The soldiers and civilians fencing the Durand Line border in North Waziristan, as well as in Bajaur, also encountered frequent attacks by Pakistani militants based in neighbouring Afghanistan.
North Waziristan and certain other tribal districts serve as a gateway to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and rest of Pakistan and provide a conduit to militants planning terrorist strikes not only in Peshawar, but also in Lahore and beyond.
Security officials believe the recent rise in terrorist attacks is the backlash against the military operation being carried out to clear the Alwara Mandi site on the border with Afghanistan. Alwara Mandi was the only area not cleared by the military during the massive Zarb-e-Azb military operation launched in June 2014. However, security officials used to claim that their troops were occupying the mountain peaks overlooking Alwara Mandi and were capable of blocking the militants’ movement. Still Alwara Mandi provided an opening to the militants to cross the border to carry out terrorist attacks in Dattakhel, Mir Ali and even Miranshah. The decision to clear Alwara Mandi was taken to primarily seal the border and resettle the internally displaced persons lodged at the relief camp in Bakkakhel near Bannu.
Military officials claimed major losses have been inflicted in Alwara Mandi on the North Waziristan militant group led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur and this would lead to improvement in the security situation. However, they are concerned that the reduction of roadside checkpoints has facilitated the militants as they now enjoy unchecked movement. They pointed out that the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) factor has provided more freedom of action to militants in the wake of the PTM’s accusations against the security forces, particularly in the aftermath of the Khaisoor incident in which the soldiers were accused of violating the sanctity of chaddar and chardiwari.
The government officials are hoping that the introduction of police and judicial system in the merged tribal districts now underway would also help improve the security situation. The militants are aware of all this and this is the reason they have been warning the police to leave the tribal districts or face the consequences.