by Ambra Visentin
The suicide attack in the northwestern district of Bajaur on Sunday 30 July left at least 56 people dead and nearly 200 injured. This is yet another wound for a country that has long lived under the constant threat of terrorism, a nuclear-armed territory where 220 million people live. Terrorism has escalated in Pakistan since the return of the Taliban to power in neighbouring Afghanistan. This year alone, 232 attacks have been recorded, killing 682 people. The Islamic State of Khorasan (ISKP), an affiliate of the Islamic State, claimed responsibility for the attack on the convention of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Jui-F), an Islamist political party that is part of Pakistan’s ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif of the centre-right Pakistan Muslim League.
According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, a website that tracks terrorist attacks across the region, there have been some 16,225 attacks in Pakistan since 2000, resulting in 66,601 deaths. Pakistan, it should be remembered, has had to deal with a variety of enemies and has therefore had to defend itself against terrorism on a number of fronts. We are talking about the late 1990s, when local veterans of the US-backed mujahideen in Afghanistan, who had fought the Soviet Union in the 1980s, turned their unwanted attention on the Pakistani government. Since then, the government’s strategy has been to work with some jihadists while rejecting others. A line that has not changed even after it became an apparent American ally in the global war on terror after 9/11. The jihadist groups operating from its territory were never disarmed, and it backfired.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that individual jihadists often move from one group to another, although there are differences in theological outlook. Most of the attacks in Pakistan over the past two years have been claimed by the Pakistani Taliban, or Tehrek-e-Taleban Pakistan (TTP), with some support from the JUI-F, which has repeatedly tried to mediate between this jihadist umbrella organisation and Islamabad. The branch of the Islamic State active in Afghanistan and Pakistan (Islamic State of Khorasan or Isis-K), which claimed responsibility for the Bajaur attack, although it has had close links with a section of the TTP over time, now considers them, like the Jui-F, to be on the same level as the infidels, because the Taliban (both Pakistani and Afghan) do not follow the model of the caliphate and oppose their presence in the area. They are called takfir, guilty of the ‘greatest impiety’ for deviating from the straight and narrow path.
The TTP has been fighting the government in Islamabad for 15 years, demanding the introduction of Sharia law, the release of key members arrested by the government and the reversal of the merger of its tribal areas with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which is controlled by a central administration with police and army. The Afghan and Pakistani Taliban have thrived in Pashtun-populated areas on both sides of the border that officially divides the two countries and effectively divided the Pashtun community between Afghanistan and the then British Raj in colonial times. Under former Prime Minister Imran Khan, the authorities had reached a ceasefire agreement with the TTP, which was later broken after the TTP accused the military of attacking their men. The government that replaced Khan (who was ousted by a parliamentary vote last year) refused to meet the TTP’s demands, blaming it for terrorist attacks carried out by its various offshoots. Since then, the TTP has resumed attacks across Pakistan. These actions have also led to ongoing tensions between Kabul and Islamabad, which accuses the Afghan Taliban of supporting their Pakistani cousins.
Back to the 30 July attack. “The Islamic State and the Haqqani network (an Afghan Pashtun network but with historical bases in Pakistan) are very active again in Pakistan,” Safdar Sial, an analyst at the Institute for Peace Studies in Islamabad, told the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. This seems to confirm the claim made by Isis-K on Monday 31 July following the attack. Pakistan’s military leaders have been promising a serious counter-terrorism plan targeting all violent extremist groups without distinction for years, but have yet to implement it.
We now face the risks of a hybrid regime, as Fahd Humayun, assistant professor of political science at Tufts University, pointed out in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn: “We currently face a resurgent terrorist threat emanating, quite possibly, from two fronts, and claiming the lives of citizens from Bajaur to Balochistan. While hybridity may give the impression of intense coordination and consultation on CT and national security, it is ultimately untenable. With the establishment distracted by extra-domain affairs such as the economy, or worse still configuring electoral outcomes, national security is likely to get the short end of the stick. The most attractive solution to fixing capacity constraints will be for an overstretched security apparatus to start demanding an even larger share of the resource pie to keep Pakistan and Pakistanis safe. For these reasons, if not more, it is worth paying careful attention to not just the path that is currently being laid internally, but to the external consequences that may follow.
Attacks could increase in the run-up to the elections: this is the main fear expressed in an editorial in the Pakistani daily Dawn, which worries that “terrorist groups will use this to spread fear in an attempt to regain influence”. The elections are likely to be held in the next three months ‘in a context already marked by considerable political turbulence’. Violence that could spread far beyond the tribal areas in the north-west of the country, warns a politician in Peshawar, who speaks of the need to put out “this raging fire” as soon as possible, otherwise – he says – “it will burn everyone, across Pakistan”, reports the Guardian. Despite its ability to mobilise tens of thousands of religious students, JUI-F has never garnered enough support to lead on its own, but it is a key ally in the formation of any coalition. “It is important to consider why the workers of a religiously inclined political party could have been subjected to such bestial violence” the Dawn newspaper wrote in an editorial on Monday. “However ultraconservative the JUI-F’s worldview, the party has chosen to contest power and operate within the parameters set by the Constitution of Pakistan.”
Cover image: Pakistan Army Corps on security alert, ©Sumblistaan on Flickr