Behind an atrocity like the Quetta bombing lies an intricate web of militancy, power plays and blame games. Owen Bennett-Jones explains
Even though previous attacks in Pakistan have been more deadly, the August 7 suicide bomb that killed at least 70 people in Quetta struck a nerve. The scale of the attack, and the fact it took place at a hospital, caused widespread shock throughout the country. Many of the victims were lawyers who had gathered at the Civil Hospital to protest at the shooting a few hours earlier of Bilal Anwar Kansi, the President of the Balochistan Bar Association.
The first group to claim responsibility for both the shooting and the bombing was Jamaat ul Ahrar (Assembly of the Free), a faction of the Pakistani Taliban which has previously claimed the 2014 Wagah border bombing and the 2016 explosion in a park in Lahore that killed over 70 people, including some Christians celebrating Easter. Since the Quetta attack was aimed at a specific group – lawyers – gathered in a public place in which random civilians were also present, it was consistent with Jamaat ul Ahrar’s established targeting policies.
Many Pakistani lawyers have expressed support for violent jihadists such as Mumtaz Qadri, the police bodyguard who assassinated Punjab governor Salman Taseer. But that was not enough to protect them. Many jihadis view the legal profession as aiding and abetting Pakistan’s religiously improper and dysfunctional judicial system that, they believe, should be replaced by clerics interpreting sharia. Jamaat ul Ahrar said its attacks would continue ‘until the imposition of the Islamic system in the country’.
Jamaat ul Ahrar broke away from the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) following the 2013 killing of TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud and his replacement by Maulana Fazlullah from Swat. In 2015, after Fazlullah’s death in a drone strike, Jamaat ul Ahrar rejoined the TTP. The US State Department declared Jamaat ul Ahrar to be a Specially Designated Terrorist Organisation on August 5– just days before the Quetta attack. The Pakistani Foreign Office spokesperson, Nafeez Zakaria, welcomed the US decision, arguing that it had: ‘long pleaded concrete action against the TTP and their like who operate in Afghanistan’. Jamaat ul Ahrar condemned the US designation, arguing that it ‘strongly rejected’ both al-Qaeda and Islamic State, and insisting that it has no global presence. In a press statement the organisation said that it was fighting only in Pakistan.
There is some doubt, however, as to whether Jamaat ul Ahrar did in fact carry out the Quetta attack. An Islamic State (IS) spokesman also claimed responsibility. Even though IS lacks an infrastructure of supportive mosques and madrassas in either Pakistan or Afghanistan, various jihadi commanders have tried to gain prominence by becoming the group’s representative in South Asia.
Despite the conflicting press statements, distinctions between the various violent jihadi groups are becoming less important on the ground. In eastern Afghanistan, for example, commanders from Islamic State, the Haqqani network, the Afghan Taliban and various elements of the Pakistani Taliban not only frequently meet but also co-operate on logistical issues. It is quite possible that more than one group was involved in the Quetta attack.
To further complicate matters, some Pakistani security officials have suggested that a splinter group of the Baloch nationalist Mengal tribe joined forces with IS to carry out the attack. Such claims, however, are almost certainly an attempt by elements of the Pakistani establishment to paint its Baloch nationalist opponents as disloyal, foreign-inspired, violent jihadis. In reality Baloch nationalists, unless they are securing fees for specific services, have tended to steer clear of violent jihadi groups with whom they have next to no common ideological ground.
Ever since Pakistan’s creation, Baloch separatists have been fighting for independence. The latest wave of their insurgency has been going on for a decade, and the army’s efforts to suppress it have resulted in thousands of deaths.
While some Pakistani officials have been trying to establish a link between Baloch nationalism and IS, others in the establishment have been keener to claim that there has been Indian funding of the Baloch separatists. In March the Pakistan authorities arrested a man in Balochistan who they said was a serving Indian Naval officer deputed to the Indian Research and Analysis Wing. Pakistani officials claimed that one of Bhushan Yadav’s tasks was to disrupt the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. India’s Ministry of External Affairs denied the claims, describing Yadav as a prematurely retired navy officer who had no links with the Indian government. Privately, some Baloch insurgent leaders admit that they do have links with India, which they describe as a regional power that they can legitimately approach for support. India strongly denies such claims.
However, in his 2016 Indian Independence Day speech Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke of both Kashmir and Balochistan. Apparently referring to supportive social media messages from Baloch activists, the Indian Prime Minister said: ‘I want to heartily thank the people of Balochistan, the people of Gilgit, the people of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir for having an expression of thankfulness.’ Pakistani officials have interpreted the remarks as a sign of increasingly open Indian involvement in Balochistan.
Pakistan’s political and military leaders both reacted to the Quetta attack by going to the city and issuing statements emphasising their leadership roles. Speaking in Quetta shortly after the bombing, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called for the security forces to ‘decimate’ those who had carried out the attack. The Chief of Army Staff, Raheel Sharif, met security officials in the city, after which a military spokesman insisted those responsible would be brought to justice.
The two Sharifs are currently locked in a tussle over whether or not the army chief will receive an extension when his term expires in November. Although Raheel Sharif has said publicly that he does not want to stay on, many of those close to him are arguing that the general is so popular that the army could benefit from his remaining in office, and that his departure would risk the loss of strategic gains made since the operation in North Waziristan began in 2014.
Officials close to Nawaz Sharif have expressed their unhappiness that the army has already taken over most areas of policy-making. They are concerned that if Raheel Sharif remains in office, civilian politicians would be rendered almost entirely powerless.
Owen Bennett-Jones is the London correspondent for Dawn newspaper and presents Newshour Extra on the BBC World Service. He is the author of Pakistan: Eye of the Storm (Yale University Press), a history of Pakistan now in its third edition.