The gradual return of normalcy in the country and the relative quiet on the terrorism front was broken on September 2 when two terrorist attacks took place in one day in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
Peshawar and Mardan, the two biggest cities in the province, were hit a few hours apart. The attack in Peshawar district targeted Warsak, sited about 30 kilometres from Peshawar city, early in the morning when four gunmen reportedly wearing suicide vests barged into the Christian Colony and began firing indiscriminately. Subsequently, the busy District Courts in Mardan city was attacked by a lone suicide bomber.
The four attackers in Warsak failed to inflict much damage. One civilian belonging to the Christian community was killed and six security personnel including cops, militiamen and private security guards were injured. But the one in Mardan caused havoc as he hit the crowded courthouse complex on a typically busy working day when judges, lawyers, litigants, vendors and bypassers went about their work. The death toll at Mardan rose to 14 when some of the wounded succumbed to their injuries. The dead included lawyers, litigants and policemen. Of the more than 50 injured, some are still under treatment and fighting for life.
A cop, Junaid Khan, was credited with bravely firing at the suicide bomber and injuring him despite the fact that he too had sustained injuries. His timely action stopped the bomber from reaching the bar room or the courtrooms where an explosion could have caused devastation. A few other cops too took part in the action and sacrificed their life to save so many other lives.
The failure of the Warsak attack raised some questions about the level of training of the attackers and their inability to reach the intended target. There was speculation as to the real target of the militants because Warsak houses security installations that couldn’t be attacked. The Christian Colony wasn’t possibly the sole target of four well-armed attackers. It was a soft target inhabited by unarmed members of the minority Christian community and could have been easily attacked by one or two militants. Officials felt the attackers might have been attempting to enter an adjacent military installation by exploiting weaker security arrangements in the residential area of Christian Colony.
The failure of the militants’ Warsak mission was also seen as evidence of the better preparedness of the security forces and the law-enforcement agencies than the past to foil such major attacks. They responded in time and gunned down the attackers before they could cause any major human and material losses. The Quick Reaction Force indeed was able to react quickly and effectively. It wasn’t surprising then that the Pakistan Army and Frontier Corps soldiers and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Police personnel who foiled the attack were profusely praised by the military and civil authorities, including the Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif and Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan.
That the militant groups were able to send five men on suicide missions to two different locations in a single day showed that they continue to have a steady supply of committed fighters ready to die for their cause. This was a chilling reminder that more such attacks could be in the planning stage. It was also a warning that any place anywhere in Pakistan could be on the militants’ hit-list.
As the events unfolded, it became fairly obvious that the Christians weren’t the main target of the attack at Warsak. If this had been the case, their death toll would have been higher than the one member of the community who lost his life. Also, it is unclear if the target of the suicide bomber in Mardan were lawyers alone as litigants, cops and bystanders too got killed.
The fact that the District Courts were attacked gave rise to the impression that the lawyers were the main target. As lawyers had been certainly the main target in the earlier suicide bombing in Quetta in which almost 60 members of the legal fraternity were killed, the Mardan attack was seen as a continuation of the targeting of the lawyers. It is possible the suicide bomber was heading for the bar room to kill as many lawyers as possible in Mardan. He was unable to reach the bar room due to the timely action against him by Junaid Khan and his fellow cops. The investigators could possibly throw light on this aspect of the District Courts Mardan attack.
The Jamaatul Ahrar faction of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for both the terrorist attacks through its spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan. The group, based in Afghanistan and led by Omar Khalid Khorasani aka Abdul Wali, has claimed almost every recent attack in Pakistan. It hasn’t backed its claims with any credible evidence. This faction, mainly made of militants hailing from Mohmand Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), has the reputation of being hardline and brutal, but this wasn’t previously known that it has the capacity to undertake so many attacks and also strike in faraway places like Quetta and Karachi.
As the military spokesman Lt Gen Asim Bajwa pointed out, the investigation into the Quetta suicide bombing has yet to establish that the Jamaatul Ahrar, the Islamic State (Daesh) or the other groups that claimed responsibility for it were really involved in the attack.
The claims of responsibility made by one or the other militant group shouldn’t be taken as the last word until backed by evidence or established through proper investigations. Certain small and insignificant militant groups such as Jundullah, led by Ahmad Marwat have in the past claimed responsibility for major terrorist attacks in Pakistan and abroad, and grabbed undue attention from the media.
Subsequently though, these claims proved false.
The recent wave of terrorist attacks has again given rise to concern about the ability of the government to overcome the threat posed by the terrorists, particularly those well-entrenched in Afghanistan and operating from their bases in Nangarhar, Kunar and Nuristan provinces. The military operations may have evicted the militants from their strongholds in Waziristan, Tirah and other parts of Fata, but their ability to strike back using safe havens in Afghanistan hasn’t been sufficiently weakened.