By Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
As terrorism thrives, sectarianism emboldens its spirit in Pakistan’s chaotic state.
On April 19, 2010, a 14-year old suicide bomber walked into a crowd, mainly comprising Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) demonstrators protesting ‘load shedding’, at the bustling Qissa Khwani Bazaar of Peshawar, the capital city of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP, formerly the North West Frontier Province, NWFP). 23 persons, were killed, including three Police personnel, JeI city Naib (deputy) Ameer Dost Muhammad and JeI Dir-Bajaur Qaumi Jirga (community council) Chairman Ghausur Rehman. While most of the victims were Sunni, the Police said the target of the child-bomber was Peshawar Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Gulfat Hussain, a Shia.
This was not the first instance when a senior officer belonging to a rival sect was targeted by sectarian extremists. In the last such instance, on January 14, 2009, unidentified assailants killed four Policemen, including a Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP), in a shootout in Quetta, capital of Balochistan. Three of the murdered Policemen belonged to the Hazara community and were Shia. "It was a target killing and Police officers belonging to the Hazara tribe were targeted," an unnamed senior Police officer had then confirmed. The Sunni militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) had then claimed responsibility.
The April 19 incident was just another link in an incessant succession of sectarian killings in Pakistan. Earlier, on April 17, 2010, two burqa (veil)-clad suicide bombers targeted a crowd of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), waiting to register and receive relief goods, at the Kacha Pakka IDP camp on the outskirts of Kohat in KP. 44 persons were killed and more than 70 were injured. The LeJ’s Al-Aalmi faction claimed responsibility for the bombings and cited the presence of Shias at the IDP camp as the reason for the attack. On April 16, a suicide bomber blew himself up in an attack inside the Civil Hospital in Quetta, killing 11 persons, including two DSPs, and injuring 35 others. According to reports, unidentified assailants riding a motorcycle first killed Ashraf Zaidi, the son of the chief of the Shia Conference, Balochistan. As a number of sympathizers and onlookers gathered at the Hospital, where the body was brought, a suicide bomber struck.
Sectarian attacks ordinarily spike during the religious months and festivals, and attacks on religious processions and congregations have become commonplace in the daily lives of the people. Nevertheless, data on sectarian incidents over the past years, demonstrates that the sectarian rivalry is not limited to these periods alone, and can erupt anywhere, at any point of time. 2010 has already witnessed 12 sectarian attacks, among which the most significant incidents include:
March 5: 12 persons, including four women, were killed and 33 were injured when a suicide bomber targeted a Parachinar-bound civilian convoy carrying Shia passengers in the Tull area of Hangu in KP. "The target was a Shia convoy. This is sectarian violence," Kohat Division Commissioner Khalid Umarzai confirmed.
March 1: Seven people were killed and 44 were injured in sectarian violence in the Dera Ismail Khan area of KP. "All the dead are Sunnis, there are some Shias among the injured," District Police Chief Gul Afzal Afridi disclosed.
Sectarian Violence in Pakistan: 2002-2010
*Data till April 23, 2010
Source: South Asia Terrorism Portal [Since media access is heavily restricted in the conflict areas of Pakistan, and there is only fitful release of information by Government agencies, the actual figures could be much higher]
Incidents and casualties in the first four months of 2010 are indicative of an increasing lethality of attacks. While 190 killings and 272 injuries were recorded in a total of 106 incidents in 2009, 2010 has already seen 116 killings and 272 injuries in just 12 incidents.
Among the primary targets of this sectarian violence are places of worship of the rival sects. The data reflects an year to year increase in incidents targeting places of worship, with the exception of years 2005 and 2006.
Sectarian attacks on Mosque in Pakistan
*Data till April 23, 2010 Source: South Asia Terrorism Portal
Another soft target of this chronic animosity has been the religious leadership of the respective sects, in a tit-for-tat sequence that never ends. While earlier incidents were restricted to mob violence or grenade attacks, these have now overwhelmingly been replaced by suicide bombers targeting religious processions and rallies. In just the first four months of 2010, the following attacks targeting rival religious leaders have been recorded:
March 11: The noted religious leader and chief of the Aalmi Majlis-e-Tahafuza-e-Khatam-e-Naboowat (AMTKN), Mufti Saeed Jalalpuri, was shot dead along with three associates in Karachi.
An attempt was also made on Maulana Abdul Ghafoor Nadeem, a leader of the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), in which he was injured, while his son was killed.
February 22: A prominent member of the Shia community, Dr. Syed Saqlain Haider Kazmi, was shot dead while his friend sustained injuries when unidentified assailants opened fire on them in the Yakatoot area of Peshawar.
January 5: An Ahmadi leader, Muhammad Yousaf (70), was shot dead in the Ferozewala Police Station area of Karachi. The family of Muhammad Yousaf, leader of the Ahmadi community in Ferozewala, alleged that unidentified persons killed him because he demanded that the Police act against groups creating religious strife in the area.
The primary player in the sectarian violence is the LeJ, which was formed in 1996. The LeJ aims to transform Pakistan into a Sunni state, primarily through violence. Muhammad Ajmal alias Akram Lahori is the present Saalar-i-Aala (‘Commander-in-Chief’) of the LeJ. Lahori has been in Police custody since his arrest from Orangi Town in Karachi on June 17, 2002. Although Lahori officially remains the LeJ chief, Qari Mohammad Zafar is now believed to be the tactical ‘commander’, while operational command is understood to have moved to middle ranking leaders. Worryingly, despite several ‘crackdowns’ by security agencies and the arrest of some 20 high profile cadres in 2009, the LeJ organisation appears to retain enormous capacities for violence.
The April 16, 2010, attack at the Civil Hospital at Quetta, moreover, demonstrates that the LeJ is now adopting patterns of multiple and coordinated attacks long used by the Taliban and al Qaeda. LeJ’s links with these groups have been of long standing, and a sharing of operational and training resources is now evident, something that does not augur well for the authorities in Islamabad.
The Government has acknowledged these risks. On March 17, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said that a ‘decisive operation’ would be launched against banned sectarian outfits if they did not refrain from carrying out terrorist attacks in the country. Malik claimed that the defunct SSP and theLeJ were behind 90 per cent of the terrorist attacks in Punjab.
Despite the eyewash of a crackdown and some arrests, however, no sustained effort to dismantle the sectarian groups, particularly the Sunni formations that have powerful links with the religious parties and the Pakistani establishment, is visible. Indeed, the impulse of sectarianism is deeply rooted in Pakistan’s society and structure of power, and extremist violence manifests an entrenched social divide. Unless Pakistan’s political wellsprings are cleansed of extremist ideologies, their manifestation in militancy and violence cannot be contained.
The author is a Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi
Courtesy: South Asia Intelligence Review [SAIR]