Terror dots on the globe

Print edition : February 19, 2016

The funeral procession of a victim of the terrorist attack in Bacha Khan University in Charsadda on January 20. Photo: A Majeed/AFP

Students accompany a rescue worker after the attack in the university. Photo: Fayaz Aziz/REUTERS

The deadly terrorist attack on the Bacha Khan University campus in Pakistan’s Peshawar closely follows three others in the same fortnight, in Istanbul, Jakarta and Ouagadougou.

On THE cold, foggy morning of January 20, four gunmen entered the lightly guarded campus of Bacha Khan University in Charsadda near Peshawar in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan and killed 30 people, most of them students. The siege, which lasted more than six hours, ended after the killing of the four terrorists involved in the attack. Two lecturers of the university, who used firearms in defence, were instrumental in saving the lives of many students. One of them, a chemistry lecturer, lost his life defending the students.

The terror strike came just weeks after the Pathankot attack in India’s Punjab. The same fortnight witnessed major terror attacks in Istanbul (Turkey), Jakarta (Indonesia) and Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso). The terrorists who attacked the Bacha Khan University campus belonged to a faction of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or the Pakistani Taliban.

The university is named after Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi, popularly known as “Frontier Gandhi” in India and “Bacha Khan” among his Pashtun compatriots. In fact, the terror attack on the university coincided with his 28th death anniversary. Bacha Khan was a strong votary of non-violence and spent a considerable part of his life in British and Pakistani jails for his active role in the freedom struggle and later on for his espousal of autonomy for the Pashtun areas in Pakistan. Bacha Khan University was established in 2012 when the left-of-centre Awami National Party was in power in the province. The party is led today by one of Ghaffar Khan’s grandsons. Extremist groups have targeted thousands of Awami Party members in the past two decades for espousing secularism.

This was the second major attack on an educational institution by the Pakistani Taliban. In an attack launched by it on a school run by the Pakistani military in Peshawar in December 2014, 145 people were killed, most of them schoolchildren (“Massacre of the innocents”, Frontline, January 9, 2015). After that traumatic event, the Pakistan Army declared an all-out war against terrorism, pledging to root out the scourge by the end of 2016. Terror attacks were fewer in 2015 than in the preceding years, after the Pakistan Army intensified its counter-insurgency efforts. Hundreds of militants were killed and more than 300 militants were hanged in the past year. The latest attack, however, shows that the battle against terrorism is far from being won.

The Pakistan Army has claimed that the attack was planned and coordinated from across the border in Afghanistan. Army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif called Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the Commander of the United States forces in Afghanistan for help in arresting the perpetrators of the attack. TTP leaders, including its nominal chief, Mullah Mansoor, are known to have fled to sanctuaries in Afghanistan.

Educational institutions targeted

Umar Mansoor, a TTP commander, was quick to claim responsibility for the attack on Bacha Khan University. The TTP had claimed responsibility for a suicide attack a day earlier on a police post in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in which 11 people were killed. But soon after the attack on the university, TTP spokesman Muhammad Khurasani issued a statement denying his group’s involvement in the attack, calling it an “un-Islamic act”. The statement condemned the attack on “a non-military educational institution”. The TTP has said that it will bring the perpetrator of the attack before a Sharia court for trial.

The TTP, however, had blamed the Peshawar school massacre on Umar Mansoor. In the past it specialised in attacks on educational institutions, especially schools for female students. It ordered the attack in 2012 on the schoolgirl activist Malala Yousafzai, who was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Many observers of the region have concluded that the TTP is no longer a unified force, with individual commanders now striking out on their own. Adding to the terrorist threat in Pakistan is the growing presence of the Islamic State (I.S.) in the country. The group has already struck root in Afghanistan and is battling for turf with the Afghan Taliban. The power and the reach of the TTP in Pakistan has been considerably reduced after the Pakistani military launched an all-out offensive on TTP leaders’ hideouts in the tribal areas and in cities like Karachi following the Peshawar school attack. Most of the radical “madrasas” have been closed down. After the Bacha Khan University massacre, Gen. Sharif reiterated the army’s commitment “to wipe out the menace of terrorism from our homeland”.

But some radical preachers such as the head cleric of the Lal Masjid in Islamabad, Abdul Aziz, are still being allowed to continue with their activities. Immediately after the attack on the university, some Pakistani commentators and politicians even blamed Indian intelligence agencies for it, citing the speech by the Indian Defence Minister calling for unspecified action against Pakistan to avenge the Pathankot terror attack.

Around the globe

In other high-profile terror attacks around the globe in the first half of January, the I.S. has claimed responsibility for the ones in Istanbul and Jakarta. The attack on a luxury hotel in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, was by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The Istanbul attack was carried out by a lone suicide bomber, who turned out to be a Syrian I.S. recruit born in Saudi Arabia. The targets were foreign tourists.

Tourism contributes a substantial chunk of revenue to the Turkish government. Among the 10 people killed in the attack in the second week of January were nine German nationals. The attack took place near one of the most famous tourist sites of the city.

The I.S. seems to have taken a conscious decision to take on the Turkish government, with which it was previously on friendly terms. The Turkish government had previously looked the other way as fighters along with arms and money were allowed to slip into Syria, mainly for the benefit of terrorist groups such as the I.S. and the Al Nusra Front.

After the bombing in Paris in November 2015, Turkey has been under tremendous pressure from its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to stop aid from reaching groups that the West has classified as terrorist. It has started arresting and repatriating individuals, including some from India, intent on crossing into Syria to join the I.S. Turkey has received more than $3 billion in aid from the European Union to cooperate. Previously, the I.S. only targeted groups in Turkey that it considered its enemies. The terror attack in Ankara that killed more than a hundred people in October last year was targeted against a peace rally that was dominated by Kurds. In July 2015, I.S. suicide bombers killed 30 Turkish Kurds on their way to rebuild the city of Kobani in Syria.

Another I.S. attack that rattled the international community was in Jakarta in the second week of January. The suicide attack in a busy commercial area of the Indonesian capital claimed the lives of seven people, including five attackers. Though the casualties were limited, the attack has shaken the governments in the region. Indonesia is the country with the largest Muslim population in the world and one where extremist groups have been active for a long time. The Bali bombings in 2002 killed more than 200 people, many of them foreign tourists.

Besides, those fighting in Syria include Indonesian extremists. Earlier, they saw action in Afghanistan and in the Philippines. Neighbouring countries are worried about the I.S. drive to recruit Malay speakers in the region. Thailand is faced with a Malay insurgency in its southern provinces. The city state of Singapore recently arrested 27 Bangladeshi workers suspected to be sympathisers of radical groups such as the I.S. and Al Qaeda. They were accused of planning to carry out terrorist attacks outside Singapore. As many as 26 of them were deported from Singapore. Twelve of the 26 were arrested on “terror charges” on arrival in Dhaka.

The attack in Ouagadougou was the first by the AQIM in the poor, landlocked West African country. Terrorists, after laying siege to a luxury hotel, killed 22 people, many of them foreigners. The country’s security forces, helped by the French special forces, rescued 130 people from the hotel, killing three of the terrorists. France has a military base in Burkina Faso. The AQIM’s statement said that the attack was an act of “revenge against France and the non-believing West”. The group targeted the Radisson Blu hotel in the Malian capital, Bamako, late last year, killing many foreigners. Violent jehadism seems to be now entrenching itself in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

Iraq and Egypt also witnessed serious terrorist violence as the New Year began. A shopping mall and cafe in a town near Baghdad came under attack by suicide bombers. Some 45 people were killed in the second week of January in other terror attacks in the Iraqi capital. In Egypt, a group affiliated with the I.S. has claimed responsibility for a bomb blast in the El Haram neighbourhood of Cairo. At least 10 people, many of them security personnel, were killed in the explosion.

The threat posed by extremist groups is being taken much more seriously by governments around the world. In India, the government carried out a massive security sweep as the country prepared to celebrate Republic Day. The government arrested 14 alleged I.S. sympathisers from six cities. With the French President Francois Hollande being the chief guest for India’s Republic Day celebrations, the Indian government obviously was not taking any chances.

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