The fight against terrorism is yet to be won
By Feisal Naqvi
Lahore is no stranger to tragedy. Since 2004, there have been more than 30 major terrorist attacks in Pakistan’s second-largest city, which harbors its largest Christian population. But Sunday’s suicide blast which killed more than 70 people and injured 300 still came as a shock to many.
The blast happened early in the evening at Gulshan e Iqbal Park, one of the city’s largest parks and one of the few accessible to minorities and lower middle class residents. Given that it was Easter Sunday, the park was filled with Christians celebrating as well as other residents enjoying the weekend.
Christians in Pakistan have repeatedly been the target of atrocities. In March 2013, more than 100 houses in a Christian community were burned by a Muslim mob angered by allegedly blasphemous statements by a Christian. In September 2013, 75 Christians were killed in a bomb attack on the All Saints Church in Peshawar. And in March 2015, 15 Christians were killed in bomb blasts in Lahore.
The Easter Sunday blast was one of the most tragic to hit Pakistan’s Christian community to date. The casualties included a particularly high number of women and children because the bomber had targeted an area of the park next to a fairground entrance. The blast was made more lethal by the ball bearings encasing the explosives which ripped through the crowd like shrapnel. The bodies of those nearest to the bomber were shredded by the force of the explosion. A family of seven was reportedly among the victims.
Sunday’s bombing came in as a shock as the frequency of such attacks had considerably decreased since Pakistan upped its military operations against terrorism. The country’s national resolve and commitment to fend off terrorism following the attack in Peshawar on the Army Public School (APS) in December 2014 (and the killing of 143 children and adults) came in tow with the military targeting of terrorist hideouts in North Waziristan. No longer, it seemed, would Pakistanis be tortured by the paradox of an ostensibly Islamic state coming under attack from radicals proclaiming their fidelity to Islam.
In recent days, those claiming to see a new dawn of tolerance and equality in Pakistan had much to celebrate. For the first time in living memory, the prime minister of Pakistan attended Diwali celebrations and called upon the country’s Muslims to accept minorities as citizens with equal rights. He also hosted Oscar winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy before her historic second win for a documentary on honor killings and declared that there was no room for such crimes in Islam and that Pakistan’s laws would be amended to prohibit them. And perhaps most importantly, the killer of former Governor Salmaan Taseer was hanged after the Supreme Court rejected his appeal.
The attack at the Gulshan e Iqbal Park thus came as a rude reality check for those arguing that Pakistan had passed its watershed moment in the war against terror. At the same time, Sunday’s blast was in fact evidence that terrorists are being forced to attack soft targets because of the success of the military operation against them, according to Ejaz Haider, an expert on national security issues. “They know they are not winning… and they are getting desperate now,” he says.
“The police don’t get the funding they deserve and they don’t get the attention they deserve. But our police and other officials have done a brilliant job in preventing attacks even though they are being forced to operate on a shoestring,” he points.
The terror attacks are not likely to stop any time soon, speculates Haider, adding that “it’s not possible at this stage to prevent all attacks.”
The Lahore blast came at the end of a gruesome week for the world.
On March 22, three Daesh militants combined to kill 34 civilians at the Brussels Airport and the Maelbeek metro station. While the death toll was considerably lower than the 130 killed in Paris last November, the attack triggered a wave of fear across Europe with journalists and commentators asking whether any European city was safe. On March 24, three Daesh suicide bombers struck in the Yemeni city of Aden, killing 26. And on March 25, 30 people were killed and 95 injured when a suicide bomber blew himself up at a football stadium near Baghdad.
The events in Brussels and elsewhere drew attention from Pakistani commentators such as Cyril Almeida, even before the blast in Lahore. Almeida argues that the attacks in Belgium pointed towards the rise of a “fourth wave” of decentralized attacks by Muslim militants, “a pick-and-mix buffet that lone wolves and small, spontaneously organized groups can select from.”
Almeida’s vision of decentralized attacks appears to be validated by Jamaat ul Ahrar’s claim of responsibility for the blast. A splinter group of the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan, Jamaat ul Ahrar has become notorious for being one of the few local terrorist groups to pledge allegiance to Daesh rather than to Mullah Omar and the Afghan Taliban.
But does this reign of terror from Brussels to Lahore mean that the leading cause of Muslim terrorism across the world is now Daesh?
Haider, for one, strongly disagrees. “There is no one source of terror,” he says. “Islamic terrorism today is like communism immediately after World War II. The Americans used to see communists behind every local political movement. And today they see a global Islamic conspiracy behind every terrorist attack. But each country has its own problems and its own reasons for facing Islamic terrorism.”
Mosharraf Zaidi, another commentator and former advisor to Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, sees the country as perched yet again on the edge of a precipice. “Pakistan has done remarkably well to develop the operational wherewithal to fight terrorists,” he said.
“But Pakistan still has to confront the broader intolerance that exists in our society and which serves as the oxygen for violent extremists and their narratives.”
Those inclined to see hope found more support for their views on the day following the attack.
The head of the army’s public relations, Major General Asim Bajwa, tweeted on Monday that the army and paramilitary forces had carried out five operations in various cities of Pakistan, in which a number of “suspect terrorists and facilitators” had been arrested and a “huge cache of arms and ammunition recovered.”
Such operations by the army are not, in themselves, new. Ever since the Peshawar APS attack, the army has spearheaded the way, not just in remote areas of Waziristan, but also in cities like Karachi. But to date, it has not publicly carried out any counter-terrorism operations in Punjab, the agricultural heartland of Pakistan which accounts for more than 50 percent of the country’s population. That phase of the war on terror is now over. Punjab is as much in play now as North Waziristan.
The expansion of military and paramilitary operations into Punjab though causes many to raise an eyebrow. Pakistan has a long history of a powerful military and a very short history of democracy. Almeida, for one, questioned whether the struggle against terrorism can in fact be fought in the fragmented way that the Pakistani state has adopted to date.
He acknowledged that the “civilian and political leadership simply isn’t as invested in the fight as the military.”
But at the same time, he questioned whether the civilians are “leading from behind” because they do not share the military’s new enthusiasm for combating extremism, or whether the military’s aggressive approach does not leave them with any other option.The night of the Lahore blast, the streets of Islamabad had been paralyzed by a mob of religious activists rioting in the name of Mumtaz Qadri, the executed killer of Taseer.
They had overwhelmed the scanty police forces deployed to withstand them and rampaged through the heart of Pakistan’s capital, burning fire engines and public transport facilities.
Indeed, for a moment, parliament itself seemed in danger of being set alight but that danger receded when the military was called in to protect sensitive government buildings.
The next day, most of the mob had left but a hard core group of 2,000 still remained encamped outside Parliament, vowing not to leave till their demands for the imposition of Sharia were met. As portents go, their continued presence did not seem particularly favorable.