Within a span of just three days, at least 111 persons were killed and 443 were injured in a series of five sectarian terrorist attacks across all the four Provinces of Pakistan – Balochistan, Punjab, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly known as North West Frontier Province).
The sectarian mayhem started on September 1, when at least 43 persons were killed and 239 were injured in two suicide and one grenade attacks on a Shia procession marking Hazrat Ali’s martyrdom, in Lahore, the Provincial Capital of Punjab. The procession was in its last stages and was about to end at Karbala Gamay Shah near Data Darbar, when the terrorists struck.
On the same day, at least seven persons, including a Police constable, sustained injuries when unidentified assailants in a building near Empress Market opened fire near a similar procession in Karachi, the Provincial Capital of Sindh.
On September 2, two civilians were killed and eight others injured when unidentified assailants opened fire on a passenger bus carrying Shia pilgrims in the Pidrak area near Turbat in Balochisatn.
The deadliest of these attacks occurred on September 3, when at least 65 persons were killed, and over 185 were injured, as a suicide bomber blew himself up amidst participants of a rally held to mark the Al-Quds Day (an annual event opposing Israel's control of Jerusalem) in the Mezan Chowk area of Quetta, the Provincial capital of Balochisatn. The Shia rally, organised by the Imamia Students’ Organisation to express solidarity with the Palestinians, started from Islam Imambargah, located on the Prince Road, soon after the Friday prayers. On the same day, another incident of sectarian violence occurred when one person was killed and four were injured in a suicide attack on a worship place of the Ahmedis in the Muslimabad area of Mardan District in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Significantly, while the first four attacks were against the Shias, the last one targeted the Ahmediyas.
Unsurprisingly, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibilities for both the Quetta and Lahore attacks. Claiming the Quetta attack, a spokesman of the LeJ warned that the outfit would "carry out more attacks if Shias continue to take out processions and hold gatherings". The TTP, in a statement sent to BBC after the Lahore attack, declared, "It is the revenge of Maulana Ali Shair Haidree who was martyred by Shia extremists... More attacks on Shias everywhere have been forecast by the TTP." Armed men shot dead Maulana Ali Shair Haidree, chief of the banned Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), along with his associate Imtiaz Phulpoto at Khairpur in the Sindh Province on August 17, 2009.
More worryingly, both these groups have clearly come together, each for its own reasons. While the LeJ wants to execute Shias and other ‘infidels’, the TTP is aiming to extend its intimidatory network wider in the terror engulfed nation. Reports indicate that both the Quetta and Lahore attacks were planned by the LeJ, but executed by the TTP. Significantly, after the Quetta suicide attack on September 3, the ‘chief’ of TTP’s suicide wing, Qari Hussain, claimed that the attacks had been carried out by TTP suicide bombers.
As has happened in the past, the state has bowed before the militant’s threat, with Interior Minister Rehman Malik, on September 2, asking the Shia community not to hold mourning processions in public places in order to avoid more suicide attacks. "How can Police provide security to a gathering of 15,000 people? I request the Shia community to cut short their programmes because they are soft target of terrorists," the Minister urged.
However, Lahore Commissioner of Police Khusro Pervez, on September 1, acknowledged before the media that Police negligence was one of the main reasons behind the explosions and the subsequent violence in Lahore. This is more obvious taking in view of the fact that intelligence agencies had forwarded reports that the TTP, the Jandullah and other banned local militant outfits planned to target foreigners, embassies, Shia clerics and Imambargahs in Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Lahore, Okara and Karachi during the last 10 days of Ramadan (the holy month of fasting for Muslims). [Ramadan began on August 12]. The reports had suggested that the law enforcement agencies, Police and civil society members should coordinate and share information and enhance security on the 21st Day of Ramadan, the day of martyrdom of Hazrat Ali, Juma-tul-Wida (Last Friday of Ramadan), Al Quds Day, busy markets and Eid.
Instead of providing more security following the intelligence reports, the Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) Police, on August 22, left the security of mosques at the disposal of mosque committees, entirely exposing the faithful to the risk of terrorism during Ramadan. Significantly, the Ministry of Interior had sent a specific report to the ICT administration and Federal Police warning of possible terror attacks at some places in Islamabad.
It was, consequently, the abject and inexplicable failure of authorities in Pakistan to provide even minimal security to Shia mosques and processions that has dramatically pushed up fatalities in sectarian violence. According to the South Asian Terrorism Portal (SATP) database, 190 persons were killed in 2009, and another 398 were injured in 106 incidents of sectarian violence. The first eight months of 2010 have already witnessed a total of 429 killed and 1,049 injured in just 42 incidents, further demonstrating the increasing lethality of attacks this year. Since 1989, Pakistan has witnessed at least 2,523 incidents of sectarian violence in which 3,395 persons lost their lives, while another 7,282 persons sustained injuries (this data is based on open source monitoring, and can be expected to under-estimate actual casualties).
Some of the major (involving three or more than three killings) sectarian attacks in 2010 include:
July 1: At least 40 persons were killed and 175 were injured, when three suicide attackers blew themselves up inside the shrine of Lahore’s patron saint Syed Ali Hajwairi popularly known as Data Gunj Bakhsh.
May 28: At least 95 worshippers were killed and 92 injured as seven assailants, including three suicide bombers, attacked an Ahmadiya place of worship in Model Town and Garhi Shahu areas of Lahore in Punjab.
April 19: At least 26 people, including a child and Police officials, were killed, and 49 were injured, in twin bombings hours apart at a school and a crowded market in Peshawar, the provincial capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). Police suspect the bombers mainly targeted Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Gulfat Hussain because he belonged to the Shia sect. The DSP was among the dead.
April 17: Two burqa (veil)-clad suicide bombers targeted a crowd of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), mostly Shias, waiting to get themselves registered and receive relief goods at the Kacha Pakka IDP camp on the outskirts of Kohat in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, killing at least 44 persons and injuring more than 70.
The sectarian strife has afflicted Pakistan virtually from the moment of its birth, but has escalated continuously since 1979, with the former President General Zia ul-Haq’s ‘Islamicisation’ of Pakistani politics. Shias resisted this process as a ‘Sunnification’ of Pakistan, since most of the laws and regulations introduced were based on Sunni Fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence). Notably, in July 1980, 25,000 Shias gathered in Islamabad to protest the Islamicisation laws. However, the more the Shias protested, the more were they targeted, and the strife widened. Under Zia, sectarianism in Pakistan, especially in Karachi and South Punjab, became quite violent. The violence worsened after September 11, 2001, and the expulsion of the Taliban from Afghanistan, leading then President Pervez Musharraf to ban some 104 terrorist and religio-extremist groups, including the LeJ and SSP.
The LeJ and the SSP remain the principal organisations responsible for the rise of sectarian strife in the country. Though both these outfits maintain that they are not organisationally linked, they share the same origins, sectarian belief system and worldview. Their charter of demands includes turning Pakistan into a Sunni State, and both draw their cadres from the same madrassas (seminaries) and social milieu.
Despite being under relentless pressure from these groups, and with the TTP joining hands with them, the Government has chosen to remain unresponsive; indeed, the abrupt withdrawal of security to Shia institutions prior to the latest wave of bombings, despite specific intelligence warnings suggest, possibly collusive.
Reports indicate that Pakistani courts are yet to convict a single person in any of the country’s major terrorist attacks in the past three years. Instead, the Government is contemplating the release of as many as 390 suspects, detained on charges of having links with banned militant groups like SSP, LeJ and others. Officials of the Home Department, Punjab Police and Prisons Department confirmed the "gradual release" of detainees over the coming days, as not a single case had been registered against any one of them. This, despite the fact that an intelligence agency report to the Federal Government reveals that an escalation of sectarian violence could not be ruled out after release of these suspects in large numbers.
In the earlier years, sectarian violence had escalated through the month of Ramadan. However, with the devastating flood engulfing almost a fifth of the country, resulting in more than 1,645 deaths and affecting the lives of over three million people, the early days of Ramadan had remained quite peaceful. With the waters receding, however, the extremists, ‘aided’ by an ineffective and callous Government, are on the rampage again, belying any hopes of a peaceful Ramadan and demonstrating the deep roots that sectarian hatred and violence has established in Pakistan.
By arrangement with Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi