Pakistan

Terror in Lahore

Print edition : April 29, 2016

At the site of the bomb blast in Lahore on March 27. Photo: ARIF ALI/AFP

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif with a victim of the blast during his visit to a local hospital in Lahore on March 28. Photo: AP

Despite stringent emergency laws, Tehreek-e-Taliban militants launch a big terror attack in Pakistan, killing 70 people on Easter Sunday.

The slaughter of more than 70 people on Easter Sunday in the Gulshan-e-Iqbal children’s park in Lahore, Punjab province, has once again brought to the fore the serious threat posed by terrorist outfits to the security of the Pakistani state. The attack, carried out by a suicide bomber, was ostensibly targeted against the minority Christians who were celebrating Easter. But more non-Christians were killed in the attack; a large number of them were children. A splinter group of the Pakistani Taliban, the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP), claimed responsibility for the attack, with its spokesman claiming that “Christians in Lahore celebrating Easter were the targets”. The attack, he said, was also a message to the government of Pakistan that similar attacks would continue until the government acceded to the demand of introducing strict Sharia laws in the country. The last big terror attack carried out by the TTP on Pakistani soil was on a secondary school in Peshawar in December 2014. That attack resulted in the death of more than 133 schoolchildren.

Following the Peshawar attack, the Pakistan government lifted the moratorium on executions, which had been in place since 2008. Last year, Pakistan carried out the largest number of executions in the world, although only a few of the cases involved terrorist acts. Under the “emergency laws” passed by the civilian government after the Peshawar attack, with support from all the major opposition parties, the Army was given powers to try terrorism suspects in special military courts, bypassing the civilian judicial system. The Army launched massive combing operations in big cities such as Karachi using the “extraordinary powers” conferred on it to arrest or eliminate terrorists and militants who were waging war against the state. By the end of 2015, the military had arrested more than 95,000 people, of whom only around 2,000 are said to be “hard-core” militant suspects.

The Army also launched a big military operation in the autonomous North Waziristan region, which led to a huge rise in the number of internal refugees apart from the deaths of hundreds of militant fighters. As a result, there has been an increase in terrorist blowback within the country. The Army, at the same time, was used by the security establishment to crush democratic dissent and trade union rights. An anti-privatisation strike by Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) employees in Karachi was suppressed by involving the military. Cadres of major opposition parties, such as the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), have been detained arbitrarily in Sindh province. Balochistan, which is experiencing a separatist insurgency, has long been subjected to anti-terrorism operations by the military.

There is no doubt that Pakistan is among the countries worst affected by terrorism. It has been estimated that in the past four years, more than 1,700 people have been killed in more than 170 incidents of terrorist-related violence. In a bid to further widen the sectarian divide, the Shia community has been specifically targeted. Christians, too, have been singled out, with churches and schools being the primary targets. Pakistanis have also been killed in missile attacks launched by the United States’ drones. These attacks intensified after Barack Obama became President in 2008. Many of the drones used in the attacks are based inside Pakistan. A recent report in the U.S. media, based on official documents, revealed that nearly 90 per cent of those killed in drone attacks were civilians. Drone attacks targeting Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in 2006 when he was reportedly hiding in Damadola, a Pakistani village, resulted in the death of 76 children and 27 adults. Al-Zawahiri was unscathed. Similar strikes in Pakistan have killed hundreds of civilians. U.S. drone attacks have instigated many terror attacks in Pakistan and other countries.

The Lahore terror attack has happened at a time when religious fundamentalists are flexing their muscles on the streets of Pakistan. In Islamabad, thousands of protesters rampaged through the high-security “red zone” destroying vehicles and surrounding the parliament building to commemorate the death of Momtaz Qadri. Qadri was convicted and hanged for the killing of the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, in 2011. Qadri, a personal bodyguard of the Governor, had objected to Taseer’s progressive views on the “anti-blasphemy law”. The authorities were able to disperse the protesters only after prolonged negotiations with their leaders. The Army had to be called in to persuade the protesters to leave.

Among the demands put forth by the clerics leading the protests was the immediate implementation of Sharia law and the expulsion of all those professing the Ahmadiya faith. The protesters, who mainly belonged to the “Barelvi” school of Islam, wanted the immediate hanging of the Christian woman, Asia Bibi, accused of apostasy, whom Taseer had tried to defend. A Pakistani court had sentenced her to death for the alleged crime of blasphemy. In recent days, conservative Pakistani clerics have another “cause celebre”; they are vociferously protesting against a new law, called the “Protection against Violence against Women” Act, passed by the Punjab government. The law prohibits husbands from beating their wives. Stringent punishment, including prison terms and the wearing of security bracelets, awaits those who violate the law. Religious parties and their allies in the parliament have opposed the law, calling it unIslamic. They have threatened to launch agitations all over the country if the Punjab government does not repeal the law at the earliest. It is, therefore, obvious that terrorism is flourishing in a climate that fosters it, encouraged directly or indirectly by internal as well as external forces.

With the latest terror attack, sections of the Pakistani Taliban, which seem to be moving closer to the Daesh (Islamic State), have sent a strong signal that they are now very much active in the Punjab province, the political stronghold of the Sharifs and the ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N). Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif cancelled his participation in the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) in Washington in the last week of March at the eleventh hour following the developments in his hometown. There were reports that Nawaz Sharif would be meeting his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, on the sidelines of the summit. Announcing the cancellation of the visit, Nawaz Sharif said that he was determined to eliminate “the extremist mindset” from the nation and take the war “to the doorstep of terrorist outfits”.

Counterterrorism

The State Department said that the U.S. would work with Pakistan “to root out the scourge of terrorism”. The Pakistan military did not waste much time in launching its counterterrorism operations in Punjab province after the attack on the children’s park. The ruling party led by the Sharif brothers, according to reports, would have preferred a more nuanced “carrot-and-stick” approach while dealing with the militant and terror groups in the Punjab. Apparently, if reports from Pakistan are to be believed, both Nawaz Sharif and the Punjab Chief Minister, Shahbaz Sharif, were not consulted when the Army chief, General Raheel Sharif, ordered regular Army units and paramilitary Rangers to begin anti-terror operations in the province. It was the military spokesman who announced the beginning of the operations, not the civilian government. In the first 48 hours of the operation, the Army said that it had arrested 5,200 people on suspicion of being either militants or “terrorist sympathisers”.

In the last week of March, the Pakistani authorities dramatically announced the arrest of “an Indian spy”. Kulbushan Jadhav, a senior “retired” officer of the Indian Navy, was shown on Pakistan’s media, “confessing” to subversive activities in Balochistan. Pakistan Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid and military spokesman Lt Gen. Asim Saleem Bajwa accused India of sponsoring and orchestrating terrorism and separatism. From available indications, New Delhi is caught in a delicate situation. It is sticking to its stand that Jadhav was a legitimate businessman who took premature retirement from the Navy.

The timing of the video release featuring the “Indian spy” caught on Pakistani soil coincided with the visit of a five-member Pakistani investigation team to Pathankot in the Indian State of Punjab, which was the site of a terror attack in January. India blames the attack on the Pathankot Indian Air Force base on terrorists from Pakistan. This is the first time that India has allowed an investigation team from Pakistan to visit the country. The Pakistani authorities have arrested many Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) activists in connection with the terror attack in Pathankot.

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