Horror visited Peshawar once again on March 4 when a suicide bomber targetted a Shia mosque in the city’s congested Qissa Khawani bazaar neighborhood during Friday prayers. With a high death toll, 63 by the last count, and an even higher number of injured in the terrorist attack, the City of Flowers, as Peshawar is known, has been through such trauma before.
And once again it saw the worst of terror, unleashed seemingly with ease. Once more, we see relatives mourn and families wail. Once more, stories of people searching for the bodies of their loved ones make the rounds. Once more images of bloodied survivors lost forever to a mindless hatred in the headlines, less in Pakistan and more overseas, unfortunately. Once more, the familiar statements of condemnation from the country’s largely incompetent political elite filled the air with more hypocrisy. Once more, the world knows the perpetrators of terror after IS-K took responsibility for the carnage. And once more the state has displayed its inability to hold anyone accountable for the security lapses.
The government of KP and the federal interior minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad have acknowledged that there was “no security alert” from security agencies. The same agencies had distributed pamphlets about several wanted terrorists in Mohmand and Bajaur districts just days earlier, reportedly on the information of their presence in these regions. Were these reports not enough to raise the guard? Deputing two policemen at the gates of mosques may not be enough to stop a terrorist if the security apparatus is not going after the wanted men in their dens. And that seems to have exactly happened in the bloodied Peshawar. According to the available information, two bombers entered the area, shot dead one of the policemen on duty, while the suicide bomber, who was a part of the duo, entered the mosque and detonated his device.
This attack is yet another bloody reminder that Pakistan’s war against militancy is far from over. For every attack, the state is able to thwart – and there is a long list of potential attacks that have been prevented – there is one such terror attack that strikes at the heart of a community.
Militancy in the form of the Tehrik e Taliban or the Islamic State of Khorasan or any of their terrorist allies is obviously a national problem, and while they attack indiscriminately, they bear a particular animosity for the Shia community that has been ruthlessly targeted since the 1980s with hundreds of sectarian attacks on places of worship in the last 15 years. This raises the question of why the government has not done enough to provide security to Imambargahs or Shia mosques, especially on Fridays when militants are most likely to strike.
Many in Pakistan’s security apparatus know the fate of the National Action Plan, worked out after the APS killings in December 2014. Unfortunately, not much has been achieved if terrorists can still kill at will and act without being deterred. The National Action Plan was intended to stop this and it could not because many of the elements of the plan seem to have been ignored and targets missed.
While there have been successes in defeating militant groups in Fata, NAP was meant to be broader than just military operations. We were supposed to root out not just extremist groups but the extremist mindset that has flourished in the country. Pakistan’s security problems have continued for far too long. Now the question arises for how long Pakistanis will pay the price for the state’s failure with their blood?
Some strategy needs to be devised, some incompetent heads in the security establishment need to the role and more transparency needs to be adopted in NAP’s implementation with some parliamentary oversight. While the interior minister, who is yet to visit Peshawar, instantly blamed the external forces, the fact is that these external forces would have needed inside help. Pakistan needs to track down where that help came from, and how the attack was planned. Western media is abuzz that the suicide bomber
“The Islamic State’s regional affiliate, Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K, claimed responsibility for the attack and said it was carried out by an Afghan suicide bomber, whom the militant group identified as Julaibeed al-Kabuli,” reported The New York Times on March 5. “The bomber was an Afghan national who had migrated to Pakistan decades ago and lived in the country along with his family. The officials said the bomber’s parents had informed the police of their son’s disappearance and suspected he had joined ISIS,” the NYT report added. Pakistani investigators told NYT that the bomber trained in Afghanistan and appeared to have returned recently.
ISIS-K continues to operate from neighboring Afghanistan, but after being targeted by the Afghan Taliban, it has dispersed across the country, no longer operates in large groups, and holds no physical territory. But Pakistan has to move fast and press the Taliban, who have condemned the Peshawar attack, to secure areas near Pakistan’s border. Afghan provinces, including Nooristan, Kunar, Nangarhar, etc. are known to have bases for Pakistani Taliban and IS-K terrorists. Taliban have to go beyond their repeated statements of not allowing Afghan soil to be used against any country by going after not just IS-K terrorists but many more operating on the Afghan soil. UN says there are as many as q6 terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan.
In Pakistan, the government has to move forward in a direction that can bring an end to the current wave of terrorism, and which can further destabilize an already shaky country. The war against militancy cannot be fought only on the battlefield. Defensive measures are especially essential to protect a vulnerable population. So far, the state has failed in this very basic of its duties.
What Pakistan needs is a refocus on combining the best of intelligence gathering with all that NAP was meant to do. But that will require more proactive policing by revisiting the security protocols currently in place. Pakistan paid a heavy price to defeat terrorism and it should not allow losing the ground it gained against terrorist violence by offering heavy prices in blood and treasure.