Cover Story

Massacre of the innocents

Print edition : January 09, 2015

At a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Pakistani Taliban attack on the Peshawar Army Public School, in Islamabad on December 17. Photo: Anjum Naveed/AP

The mother and relatives of Mohammed Ali Khan, 15, who was killed in the attack on December 16. Photo: ZOHRA BENSEMRA/REUTERS

Pakistan Army soldiers and mediapersons in the blood-splattered auditorium, which was the first target of the militants. Photo: A. MAJEED/AFP

The scene inside a classroom. Photo: A.Majeed/AFP

A shocked student receiving treatment at a hospital. Photo: Aftab Ahmed/AFP

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Army chief General Raheel Sharif with an injured student at the military hospital in Peshawar on December 17. Photo: AFP/ HANDOUT

The bullet-ridden walls of the school. Photo: FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP

Mourners attend the funeral of a student, on December 17. Photo: AP

Maulana Fazlullah, in this undated image provided by the SITE Intel Group, an American private terrorist threat analysis company. Photo: AP

An injured schoolgirl being taken to hospital. Photo: A. Majeed/AFP

The Peshawar school carnage apparently forces a change in the Pakistani establishment’s approach to Islamist militancy. But the Pakistani Taliban threatens to carry out such attacks until its demands are conceded.

THE killing of 162 people, including 132 pupils and several staff members, in a school in Peshawar on December 16 by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is perhaps the most horrific terrorist incident witnessed in Pakistan since independence. Hundreds more are being treated in hospitals. Many of them have life-threatening wounds. In 2007, a suicide attack in the country’s commercial capital, Karachi, claimed 150 lives. In other attacks, the Taliban has hit military installations, including the Army headquarters in Rawalpindi, a naval base in Karachi, an air force base in Kamra, and civilian airports in Karachi and Peshawar.

The international community had hoped that terrorist groups would at least have the sense to spare schools and schoolchildren since the tragedy in the Russian city of Beslan in 2004. In that incident, Chechen terrorists massacred 186 schoolchildren. The Pakistani Taliban, however, has a history of targeting schools, opposed as it is to girls going to school. Candlelight vigils were held all over Pakistan in memory of those killed. Flags flew at half mast and shops and businesses remained closed all over the country as a tribute to the fallen.

Witnesses said that around 10 a.m. on December 16, seven heavily armed men in Pakistan Army uniforms entered the school by jumping over a wall adjoining a graveyard and immediately embarked on a killing spree. Even children as young as three were targeted and killed. According to reports, despite the speedy intervention of commandos from the Army’s elite Special Services Group, the siege could be ended only after eight hours. The terrorists, some of whom spoke Arabic and others Pashto, wore suicide vests, and they blew themselves up after completing their gruesome task in a clinical fashion. Most of the victims were shot in the head at point-blank range. A teacher, according to survivors of the attack, was burnt alive by the attackers. She had tried to intervene on behalf of the children.

The terrorists, according to reports in the Pakistani media, seem to have had prior information about senior students congregating in the main hall of the school to attend a first aid training course. After entering the school premises, they headed straight for the hall. Piles upon piles of bodies of the students were found in the hall, either killed or seriously injured. Intercepts of calls between the terrorists and their handlers showed the killers asking for instructions after killing the children. “We have killed all the children. What do we do now?” asked one of the terrorists. “Wait for the army people, kill them before blowing yourselves up,” he was ordered.

Many of the pupils were children of those serving in the Pakistani military. The Army runs a chain of schools in the country. The majority of the students killed in the attack were in the 14-year age bracket.

Muhammad Khurasani, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, was quick to take responsibility for the heinous act. He said the school and the children were targeted in retaliation for the continued military operations against the TTP in the tribal areas of North Waziristan. He claimed that many women and children had been killed in the Army operations. “Our Shura decided to target these enemies of Islam right in their homes so they can feel the pain of losing their children,” the Taliban spokesman said. The Pakistan Army’s offensive in North Waziristan, code-named Zarb-e-Azb, which was flagged off in June 2014, had succeeded in driving the Taliban out of large swathes of territory. The Army claims to have killed more than 1,800 militants. The operations had, however, resulted in more than a million civilians being made homeless. Many of them found refuge in Pakistani cities such as Peshawar. Others have had to find refuge across the border.

United in the hour of grief

The international community has united behind Pakistan in its hour of grief. Statements of support and sympathy have poured in from all over the world. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on December 16. He condemned the targeting of innocent children as an act of cowardice. On December 17, the Indian Parliament observed a minute’s silence and passed a resolution condemning the “barbaric terrorist attacks” perpetrated in Peshawar and called on the international community to “fight against all acts of terrorism in all its forms and manifestations”. India’s National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, went to the Pakistan High Commission to sign the condolence book. The Pakistan High Commissioner, Abdul Basit, said he was touched by the condolence messages he had been receiving from all over India. But there has evidently been no rethink in the Indian government about restarting the dialogue process with Pakistan. The Indian government unilaterally called off Foreign Secretary talks in 2014.

United States President Barack Obama condemned the targeting of students and teachers as “a heinous act”. The terrorists, Obama said, had once again showed “their depravity”. Many in Pakistan blame the U.S. drone attacks in the tribal areas of Pakistan, which have killed hundreds of civilians, including children, for giving a fillip to terrorism in the region. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the December 16 attack “as an act of horror and rank cowardice to attack children when they learn”.

Globally, the latest act of barbarity by the Pakistani Taliban has generated more international condemnation against the group than the attack on the Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai did. Malala was targeted by the Taliban in 2012 for espousing the cause of education for girls. The Taliban, like the Boko Haram in Nigeria, has specialised in attacking schools and targeting girl students. Malala, in a statement immediately after the Peshawar incident, said she was “heartbroken by this senseless and cold-blooded act of terror. I, along with millions of others around the world, mourn these children, my brothers and sisters—but we will never be defeated.”

Nawaz Sharif rushed to Peshawar after hearing the news about the terror attack. He pledged to continue the fight against the Taliban. The Pakistan government’s stance on the Taliban and other extremists groups could now become more resolute.

Many opposition leaders such as Imran Khan had until now refused to explicitly condemn the Taliban. After the Peshawar incident, Imran Khan came out openly against the Taliban. Although he did not mention the organisation by name, he said the group “should fight men, not children”. He, however, wanted the government to try mediation instead of launching a fight against the Taliban. In the wake of the terror attack, Imran Khan suspended his countrywide protests for the resignations of the Nawaz Sharif government. His party, the Pakistan Tehreek-I-Insaaf (PTI), has agreed to participate in the all-party talks to formulate a national consensus on combating the local Taliban. Imran Khan said he had set aside his political differences with the Prime Minister for the time being as the issue of terrorism was more important.

‘Plan of action’

Speaking after the all-party meeting, Nawaz Sharif said the country’s leadership was now even more united in the goal of wiping out the Taliban from its territory. “The fight will continue until all terrorists are defeated. At no stage will there be any discrimination between the good Taliban and the bad Taliban and all will be dealt equally with an iron hand,” Nawaz Sharif said. The Prime Minister said the political leaders who attended the meeting agreed to prepare a “plan of action” within seven days. Military and intelligence officials will be consulted while formulating the plan. The Pakistan government also announced that it was lifting its moratorium on executions in the country.

It is reported that Pakistan has provided Afghanistan with actionable intelligence about the whereabouts of the perpetrators of the Peshawar attacks. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was among the first leaders to condemn the attack. He drew comparisons with similar attacks carried out by the Afghan Taliban against schools in his country, including a recent attack on a French-run school in the capital, Kabul. Ghani’s office issued a statement saying that the two countries had agreed on increased mutual cooperation in fighting extremism.

According to a statement released by the Pakistan military, the Afghan President assured the Army chief, General Raheel Sharif, that Afghan territory would not be allowed to be used by terrorists. Relations between Kabul and Islamabad have improved since the departure of Hamid Karzai from the presidential palace. Until recently, both sides used to accuse each other of facilitating the movement of militant groups across their porous borders to indulge in terrorist acts. General Raheel Sharif also got an assurance from the U.S. that it would continue targeting Pakistani Taliban sanctuaries in Afghanistan.

Islamabad claims that it has evidence that Maulana Fazlullah, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, operates from the Afghan provinces of Nuristan and Kunar. The Pakistani Taliban claims that the commander responsible for ordering the Peshawar attack is one Omar Mansoor, who operates in Peshawar and Darra Adam Khel. General Raheel Sharif, during his visit to Kabul, reaffirmed Islamabad’s total support to the unity government in Kabul, including “joint efforts against terrorists”.

The Pakistani Taliban remains unfazed despite international opprobrium. It has issued a statement saying that until its demands for a halt to Army operations are met, it will continue to target schools run by the military or the government all over the country.

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