In last four years (2013-16), nearly 121 suicide attacks took place in the country killing 1464 persons and injuring 3093. Of these attacks, only one was directed against a religious party, JUI-F, in Quetta while the rest were primarily against those in opposition to the militants’ ideology.
The eight suicide attacks of this year, all occurring in February, also reflected not only a continuation of a similar trend but the ability of 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 the suicide attacks that occurred in the country during the 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, there was a sudden upsurge and within three days (13 – 16 February) 108 persons were killed in six suicide attacks in the country. The first suicide attack that shook the nation was in Lahore 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 deadly 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 February 22, 2013, 3 suicide bombers attacked Tehsil court in Charsadda, killing 7 people before getting eliminated by the security forces.
The attack at Sehwan was a carefully planned attack while the Lahore attack appears to be totally opposite of it. The Lahore attack, on the other hand, seemed to be planned rather rapidly and its execution shows a well-knit organisation that has its militants spread out ready to die as and when asked. Last year, Lahore was witness to a suicide attack in Iqbal Park whose responsibility was also claimed by Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA).
Nearly one year after that incident, two militants involved in the attack, Shahidullah and Khanzeb, were arrested from Jaranwala in Punjab but within a day of the arrest they were killed along with their accomplices in an encounter in Sheikhupura on January 7, 2017. The two had shared with the police most of the details of the suicide bomber, his stay in Lahore and transportation to Iqbal Park before they were eliminated.
According to their account, last year, it nearly took 3 to 4 days in execution of the suicide attack in Iqbal Park. This year, despite the ongoing operation and lofty claims by the government, 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? Rumours and suspicions aside, what is notable is that militants seem to have become more proactive and pragmatic. Instead of staging separate attacks for both, as has been the case last year, they decided to carry out one fatal attack at a place where a crowd of protestors and police force was easily accessible and any terrorist attack was least expected.
In Sehwan Sharif, only one suicide bomber was sent to cause massive damage keeping in view the least security coverage and large crowd at the place. A feature both attacks had in common: one suicide bomber at crowded and unprotected places and more than one at places where security was tight.
Besides adopting new tactics of attacks, JuA also defined its policy in a video they released two days before the Lahore attack. It pointed out 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 guideline about their foes and friends.
Out of the 121 suicide attacks in last 4 years, only 12 were claimed by JuA alone — the number goes up to 14 if suicide attacks by other organsiations are also included. The organisation came into the limelight on November3, 2014 when it was first quoted by the press as a splinter group of TTP claiming responsibility for the Wagah border attack which killed left 60. Jundullah, an affiliate of al-Qaeda, and TTP’s Mehsud group had also laid claims on this attack in particular. So, to prove the veracity of their claim, JuA later released a photograph of the suicide bomber who had carried out the Wagah attack.
The first suicide attack that JuA claimed solely was the one on an imambargah in Rawalpindi in January 10, 2015 which killed 8 people.
From that day on, the number of suicide attacks claimed by JuA continued to rise. From 4 attacks claimed in 2015, the number went up to 12 by the end of 2016 causing massive casualties — killing 197 people and injuring 556. Punjab and KP suffered 8 attacks (4 in each province) while in Fata they claimed two suicide attacks. In Sindh too, they claimed 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 JuA 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), PML-N 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 organisation. 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 number of victims was Muslims.
Legal fraternity was never as frequently targeted by suicide bombers as they were after the emergence of JuA in the violence-ridden arena of Pakistan’s polity. Its reason can be traced in one of JuA’s claims for a suicide attack at civil court in Charsadda on March 8, 2016. JuA called it a revenge for hanging of Mumtaz Qadri, the killer of former Governor of Punjab, Salmaan 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. JuA, TTP and Da’ish were the three militant outfits that claimed responsibility for this attack.
In its video of 10 February 2017, JuA 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 JuA 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.”