Punjab: Rising tempest

By Ambreen Agha

On October 14, 2015, at least seven people, including three contestants of the upcoming Local Government Elections (LGEs), were killed and 13 were injured when a suicide bomber blew himself up at the camp office of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) Member of National Assembly (MNA) Sardar Amjad Khosa in the Taunsa Sharif city of Taunsa tehsil (revenue unit) in Dera Ghazi Khan District, Punjab Province. Jama’at-ul-Ahrar (JuA, Group of the Free), a breakaway faction of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack. JuA ‘spokesman’ Ehsanullah Ehsan, in an email statement, vowed that TTP-JuA attacks would continue until Sharia’h(Islamic) law was fully implemented in Pakistan: “We want to make it clear to the Pakistani rulers that your policies and military operations can’t weaken our determinations, rather our firm determination helps us in achieving and attacking our targets.”

Khosa, who was not present at the camp office at the time of the attack, stated, “As per routine, people were gathered in my hujra [a hall for holding meetings] to discuss their issues, when a powerful blast took place. Many of my close political workers lost their lives in this attack, but it will not make us back down from our battle against terrorism.”  The LGEs are scheduled to take place on December 3, 2015.

On October 15, 2015, Security Forces (SFs), raided a house located in the Jorian village near the Dhamial Base in Rawalpindi District at 2:00am. As the joint raiding team reached the house, terrorists opened fire and hurled hand grenades. In the ensuing exchange of fire and suicide blasts, three terrorists, including two women; and one Police commando, identified as Irshad Ahmed, was killed. The women terrorists were identified as Malika Bibi and Sumaira Bibi. Two children inside the house were also killed when one of the women blew herself up.  One of the injured terrorists was a ‘commander’ of the TTP and was planning a terrorist attack during Muharram (the first month of the Islamic calendar, commemorated as a period of mourning by the Shia community) in the District. Muharram started on October 15, 2015. Police later searched the house and recovered two 9mm pistols, two hand grenades, and one old car reportedly loaded with explosives.

Earlier, on September 13, 2015, at least 10 persons were killed and 59 were injured when a suicide bomber targeted a rickshaw near Vehari Chowk in Multan District. No outfit has claimed responsibility for the attack so far.

On August 15, 2015, in a high profile attack, the Home Minister of the Punjab Province, Colonel Shuja Khanzada (Retd.) and 22 others, including Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Shaukat Shah, were killed, and another 23 persons were injured, in a suicide attack, which took place when between 50-100 people were attending a jirga (tribal council) at Khanzada’s political office in the Shadi Khan Village of Attock District. This attack shares similarities with the latest October 15 bombing, in terms of the target and event.

Punjab has experienced political killings in the past as well. The last high profile political killing was, of course, the assassination of Salman Taseer, the then Governor of the Punjab Province, who was killed in Islamabad Capital Territory, on January 4, 2011, by one of his own body guards, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri. Qadri was reportedly incensed by the Governor’s efforts to amend the controversial blasphemy law [a punitive law against any critic or defamer of the Islamic religion, Prophet Mohammad or the holy Quran], as also his advocacy of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death on November 7, 2010, for alleged blasphemy.  Similarly, former Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, was killed in a targeted attack on March 2, 2011 in Islamabad for his open opposition to the country’s controversial blasphemy laws. Fidayeen-e-Muhammad [Those who Sacrifice their Lives for Prophet Muhammad], a faction of the TTP and al Qaeda-Punjab Chapter, had claimed responsibility for the attack. Pamphlets left by them at the incident site declared, “anyone who criticizes the blasphemy law has no right to live.”

According to partial data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management (ICM), Punjab has already recorded 155 terrorism-linked fatalities in the current year, including 89 civilians, 58 terrorists and eight SF personnel (all data till October 25, 2015). During the corresponding period in 2014, the Province had recorded a total of 101 fatalities, including 65 civilians, 21 terrorists and 15 SF personnel.

Dera Ghazi Khan, the location of the most recent attack, has, thus far, recorded a total 17 terrorism-related incidents since 2005, resulting in a total of 142 fatalities, including 128 civilians, 13 terrorists and one SF trooper. Most of the fatalities in the District have been the result of suicide attacks. Dera Ghazi Khan has recorded a total of four suicide attacks since 2005. The last suicide attack in the District before the October 14, 2015, incident was in 2011. On April 3, 2011, at least 51 persons were killed and more than 100 were injured when two suicide bombers blew themselves up outside the shrine of Sufi saint Ahmed Sultan, popularly known as Sakhi Sarwar. Ehsanullah Ehsan, the then ‘spokesperson’ of TTP, had claimed responsibility for the attack on the shrine. He had said, “Our men carried out these attacks and we will carry out more in retaliation for Government operations against our people in the northwest.”

Prior to this, on December 15, 2009, a suicide car bomb exploded in a market outside the residence of the then Punjab Chief Minister’s Senior Adviser, Zulfiqar Khosa in Dera Ghazi Khan, killing 33 people and injuring 60. In another attack in the District, on February 5, 2009, a suicide bomber had blown himself up amidst a crowd of Shia worshippers outside Johar Ali Imambargah (A Shia place of commemoration) located in Muslim Town, killing at least 32 and injuring another 48.

Continuing violence in the District as well as in the Province is a result of the increasing presence of terrorist outfits that exploit the spaces created by selective political patronage in the Province. Dera Ghazi Khan, which lies in South Punjab, is home to a network of sophisticated jihadi formations, as are other parts of the Province.  The District is also the location of the country’s largest nuclear facilities, creating extraordinary vulnerabilities to terrorist attack. The other Districts of the Province are also under threat. Significantly, on September 17, 2015, the Police arrested an Afghanistan-trained terrorist, identified as Umer Hayat alias Darvesh, from MPR Colony of Orangi Town in Karachi (Sindh). Darvesh, associated with Tehreek-e-Imarat Islamia, Afghanistan, hailed from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province and was planning to carry out an attack on the Kamra Airbase in Attock District, Punjab. Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Junaid Ahmed Shaikh disclosed that Darvesh was also a suicide bomber who had trained two suicide bombers, Raz Mohammed and Taj Mohammed and that, “The purported suicide bombers had been sent to Punjab to carry out a terror act at the Kamra Airbase.”

The dismal situation is further compounded by the tacit support provided to a variety of terrorist and extremist formations by the Federal and Provincial Governments, making the Province an ideological sanctuary and a recruitment ground for various terrorist groups. Indeed, early on January 1, 2015, Awami National Party (ANP) Central General Secretary Mian Iftikhar Hussain declared Punjab a “training centre for terrorists and their masterminds” and demanded that the Government initiate decisive action against the terrorist leadership and infrastructure in the Province. He stressed, further, that “terrorism could not be eliminated from the country until an operation began against terrorist organisations in Punjab”.

The implicit support of the judiciary is also worrisome. The trial of top Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) ‘commander’ Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, the alleged mastermind of the November 26, 2008, Mumbai (India) terror attacks (also known as 26/11) case, lingers on, with the courts approving every delaying device, including the interminable adjournment of hearings. Significantly, on December 18, 2014, the Islamabad Anti-Terrorism Court Judge Syed Kausar Abbas Zaidi who was hearing the case, granted bail to Lakhvi, noting “evidence against Lakhvi was deficient”.  This led to an uproar, both in India and in the international community. Under intense pressure, Lakhvi was rearrested but was released again on bail on April 9, 2015.

Further, the Province is both home and host to LeT ‘founder’ and Jama’at-ud-Dawa (JuD) ‘chief’ Hafiz Muhammad Saeed whose frequent incitement to violent jihad against India and the West at public gatherings and rallies has been widely documented, as have been the terrorist activities of the groups he leads. LeT/JuD, nevertheless, continues to be cultivated and supported as an anti-India asset by the Pakistani establishment, with complete freedom of activity in across Pakistan, including the Islamabad Capital Territory. Demonstrating its duplicitous stand on JuD, the Pakistan Government on January 22, 2015, declared that it had ‘banned’ the group, along with several other terrorist organistaions, including the Haqqani Network. However, earlier on January 16, 2015, Pakistan’s Minister for Defence Production told Hindustan Times in an exclusive interview, “We are looking to ban terror organisations but the JuD is a charitable organisation and the Government of Pakistan has no evidence against Hafiz Saeed or the JuD.” Subsequently after several u-turns, Pakistan’s External Affairs Ministry spokesperson stated that there was “no new ban” on JuD. Describing this “as the same cycle of plants and denials, the same smoke and mirrors trick, reassuring gullible ‘believers’ without changing realities.” SAIR noted,

Interestingly, JuD was consistently included in its list of terrorist organisations by the National Assembly since 2005, and this was used as grounds to ‘take control of’ many of the organisation’s madrassas and institutions, especially by the Punjab Government. The actual staff and management remained very much with the same individuals who controlled these institutions before the purported ‘take over’, but there was now a pretext that permitted the Government to directly and generously fund their activities.

This cover was blown in 2009, when the Lahore High Court quashed proceedings against Hafiz Muhammad Saeed on the grounds that JuD was not a banned organisation, since no notification to this effect had been issued by the Ministry of Interior or by the Punjab Government.

Nevertheless, the National Assembly blithely continued to include JuD in its ‘updated list’ of banned organisation in 2012, even as official funding to its many madrassas and institutions flowed on.

All this is a part of Pakistan’s strategy of deception, its careful calibration of policy as a ‘minimal satisfier’, responding reluctantly to meet the least of requirements where international – particularly US – pressure becomes unbearable, while insistently protecting the infrastructure, integrity and continuity of the many ‘sarkari jehadi’ groups it has long cultivated.

A December 20, 2014, Pakistani report indicated that JuD continued to remain “Enlisted under UNSCR 1267” since December 10, 2008. Despite this long and purported ‘ban’ JuD and its leader Saeed – who has a USD 10 million bounty placed on his head by Washington, find no reason to conceal their activities.

Terrorists have targeted important Government installations in the Punjab in the past. On September 6, 2012, three terrorists on a mission to target a nuclear power plant in the Ali Khel area of Bhakkar District, which borders Dera Ghazi Khan, were killed in a premature blast. A day earlier, on September 5, 2012, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Agency had reportedly intercepted a telephone call from the TTP, tapping into a conversation regarding finalisation of the strategy for attacks on nuclear installations in Dera Ghazi Khan. Again, on August 16, 2012, the Minhas Air Force Base at Kamra in Attock District, believed to be one of the centres where Pakistan has stockpiled its nuclear arsenal, was attacked by TTP terrorists. Nine terrorists, including six suicide bombers, dressed in military uniforms and armed with rocket propelled-grenades targeted the base, killing two Pakistan Air Force (PAF) personnel. All nine terrorists were killed in the retaliatory action.

Punjab has long been the centre of sustained radicalization, giving a durable base to radical Islamist and terrorist groupings. The burgeoning extremism that emanates from the power centre of Pakistan has put the country at risk. Regrettably, the principal response from the establishment has been of denial and the claim that the attacks inside Pakistan have roots ‘outside’. Even as Pakistan aggressively expands its weapon-oriented nuclear program, the home grown and nurtured terrorist outfits embark on a ferocious rampage, determined to destroy their own creators. The infrastructure of terrorism built by the civil-military leadership in the name of ‘national security’ has grown beyond containment, demonstrating its capacities by attacking the symbols of democracy and sensitive security installations in and beyond the Province.

Ambreen Agha is a Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management

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South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP)

South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) is the largest website on terrorism and low intensity warfare in South Asia, and creates the database and analytic context for research and analysis of all extremist movements in the region. SATP has been set up to counter the progressive distortions regarding, and the international community’s neglect of, the wide range of terrorist movements within South Asia, and particularly in India. SATP establishes a comprehensive, searchable and continuously updated database on all available information relating to terrorism, low intensity warfare and ethnic/communal/sectarian strife in South Asia.

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