Two recent strikes by militant groups show that Pakistan still has a long way to go in its fight against terrorism, writes Rahimullah Yusufzai
At a time when most Pakistanis felt the worst was over with regard to acts of terrorism in the country, two back-to-back terrorist attacks on the same day in different provinces shattered hopes that peace and stability was just round the corner.
The November 23attacks – which happened in two far removed corners of Pakistan, Karachi in the south and Orakzai tribal district in the northwest– are being termed as the beginning of a new wave of terror. It remains to be seen, however, if more such attacks will follow soon after, or if there will bea long gap before the terrorists manage to strike again.
One target was the Chinese consulate in Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city in terms of population and the capital of Sindh province. The three attackers were shot dead at the first roadside security checkpoint before they could enter the consulate compound. All 21 Chinese diplomats and staff members remained safe, but two policemen manning the check post were killed in an exchange of fire with the terrorists,along with a couple of civilians, a father and son who had come from Balochistan province to apply for Chinese visas. A third policeman was wounded.
The attackers had clearly come well prepared. Law-enforcement agencies found a number of weapons and also recovered food and medicines, which the terrorists intended to use over time as they apparently planned to take the Chinese diplomats hostage and use them for bargaining purposes – for example, to demand ransom money or the release of their men.
The Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), an armed separatist group campaigning for the creation of an independent Balochistan state, claimed responsibility for the attack. The groupalso released pictures of the three young attackers on social media, issuing a strongly worded statement accusing China and Pakistan of plundering Baloch resources and denying the people of Balochistan their rights. It maintained that China was helping Pakistan with money, weapons and technology to exploit Baloch resources and warned of further attacks against Chinese companies and workers.
This was the second BLA strike against the Chinese in Pakistan. On August 11 this year, at Dalband in in Balochistan province, a suicide bomber rammed his vehicle into a passenger coach transporting Chinese engineers from the Saindak gold and copper mines in Chaghi district to the provincial capital, Quetta. Three Chinese engineers were wounded, along with the Pakistani driver and a paramilitary soldier providing them with security.
The suicide bomber –identified by the BLAas Rehan Baloch, the son of leading BLA commander Aslam Baloch– was the only person killed in the incident. In a statement recorded before the mission, he said the Baloch were waging war against Pakistan to seize their rights, but China was suppressing their struggle by backing the Pakistani state. He also accused China of exploiting the resources of the Baloch people, in collusion with Pakistan.
Although the attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi failed, the BLA’s selection of this important and high-security target in Sindh province, far from its base in Balochistan, illustrates its ambition and seemingly new-found capacity to undertake such attacks. Previously, the BLA didnot carry out suicide bombings, which require utmost commitment and elaborate training. The August 11 coach attack was the first of its kind by the BLA, but this case involved a lone suicide bomber. In the Chinese consulate attack, three BLA fighters embarked on the suicide mission and were killed.
The BLA’s decision to undertake an attack in Karachi could prompt other Baloch separatist groups to plan such assaults. These groups have differences with each other and compete for influence among the Baloch people. Due to factionalism, they have become weaker and the insurgency is low-intensity. In most cases, the groups’ leaders have left Balochistan and sought political asylum in the United Kingdom, Switzerland, the Netherlands and other countries. The only known separatist leader still based in Balochistan is Dr Allah Nazar Baloch, a physician who has spent time in the custody of the Pakistan government. BLA head Harbyar Marri, who has been living in the UKfor the past several years, has been named as the main suspect in the Chinese consulateattack in the First Information Report (FIR) lodged by the Karachi Police. The FIR also claimed that India had a hand in the attack, as it was allegedly backing the Baloch separatists.
While the attack increased concern among Chinese engineers and workers in Pakistan, and prompted Beijing to call on Islamabad to take steps to protect its citizens,at the same time China renewed its commitment to stand by Pakistan and continue work on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and other China-funded projects. Both countries are convinced that such attacks are aimed at foiling CPEC and harming their time-tested friendship. In fact, the assault on the Chinese consulate strengthened the bond between the people of the two neighbouring countries, as Chinese citizens started a campaign to donate money to the families of the two Pakistani policemen who sacrificed their lives trying to protect the Chinese diplomats in Karachi.
The other November 23 terrorist attack, which targeted the weekly mela (fair) at Kalaya, headquarters of Orakzai tribal district, was sectarian in nature. Kalaya is inhabited by Shias and the men who flock to the fair every Fridayare mostly Shia. ISIS – or Daesh, as it is commonly known in the Arab world – claimed responsibility for the attack. It too has clear sectarian roots and has a history of attacking Shias, not only in the Middle East but also in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Due to the throng of people at the mela in Kalaya, the death toll from the bomb explosion quickly rose to 35, while 40 others sustained injuries. There was confusion initially whether it was a suicide bombing or a blast caused by explosives planted there in a vehicle. Officials later said the improvised explosive device was placed in a bicycle. Whatever the method employed in causing the explosion, it was obvious that the attack was timed to cause maximum human loss at the crowded fair. The motive was to cause sectarian strife in Pakistan, but the masterminds of the attack failed in their objective. The Sunnis and Shias knew it was a ploy to set them on the path of confrontation, and they showed solidarity in thwarting this conspiracy.
These two terrorist attacks show that Pakistan continues to face terror threats, both from militants based in the country and those operating from neighbouring Afghanistan. It started military operations 15 years ago against local and foreign militants, and eventually drove most of them from the country by 2014-2015. But fully and finally defeating the terrorists will take time, resources and a determined political will.