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Bombing, siege: Understanding Easter terror in Pakistan

A suicide bomber targeting Christians killed 70 people in a Lahore park on Sunday. Indian express answers some key questions.

Written by Nirupama Subramanian | Updated: March 29, 2016 4:42:35 pm
lahore, pakistan, pakistan blast, lahore blast, pakistan blast, pak gulshan iqbal park, pakistan explosion, pakistan news, world news, latest news The grandmother of Pakistani Christian Sahil Pervez mourns over his coffin at a church in Lahore on Monday. (Source: AP)

Is it coincidental that Barelvis protesting the hanging of the man who killed Salman Taseer for defending a woman accused of blasphemy were trying to lay siege to key government buildings in Islamabad at the same time as a suicide bomber targeted Christians in Lahore?

There’s no link at first sight. Barelvi Sunni groups that led the pro-Qadri march see the Taliban as an enemy. Sunni Tehreek, which has been at the forefront of projecting Qadri as a martyr, has an old blood feud with Sipah-e-Sahaba, which has ideological and logistic links with the Taliban. Maulana Ashraf Ali Jalali, secretary of the umbrella Sunni Ittehad Council, has said terrorists must get no mercy.

However, both justify violence in the name of Islam. Sunni groups hailed the ‘justice’ of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Jalali’s demands on Sunday were not very different from those made by the Taliban periodically. They wanted Qadri to be declared “official shaheed”, the “immediate imposition of Nizam-e-Mustafa” or sharia, and a purge of the Ahmadiyya. The Taliban have carried out deadly attacks against the Ahmadiyya, including at two Ahmadiyya mosques in 2010 that killed 80 people. Jalali would have no objection to that, just as the Taliban would approve of Qadri. On March 7, a Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) bomber killed 17 in Peshawar, apparently in retaliation for Qadri’s February 29 execution.

Some 30,000 are estimated to have sat in at Islamabad’s Red Zone late on Sunday night. What is the extent of support for Mumtaz Qadri in Pakistan?

Most Pakistanis regard blasphemy as a serious offence. Increasing religious and political conservatism has added to the seriousness with which it is viewed. Junaid Jamshed, a one-time pop star who later renounced music as haram and devoted himself to Islam, was accused last year of mocking one of the Prophet’s wives — despite fervent apologies, the stain remains, and he was beaten up at Islamabad airport on Saturday night. The popular view that blasphemy cannot be pardoned is one reason that no government has been able to think of even amending the blasphemy laws, which are often misused to fix personal enmities. President Pervez Musharraf brought minor changes to the Zia-era Hudood laws, which are seen as anti-women, but quickly withdrew, in the face of protests, a proposal to raise the bar for blasphemy complaints to prevent misuse of the law. As things stand, it is not difficult to gather 30,000 people in ‘defence of Islam’ in Pakistan.

Who are the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar who have claimed responsibility for the Lahore bombing? What are the current capabilities of the Pakistan Taliban?

Jamaat-ul Ahrar is a group that broke away from the TTP in 2014, rebelling against the leadership of Mullah Fazlullah, the so-called Mullah Radio. The rebels led by Omar Khalid Khorasani accused TTP of selling out to the “killers of the mujahideen” by entering into talks with the Pakistan Army earlier that year. A ceasefire the Taliban had begun ended after Khorasani’s fighters killed 23 paramilitary troops who had been in their custody since 2010. Until Sunday, the biggest attack for which JuA took responsibility was the November 2, 2014 attack at the Wagah border minutes after the daily sunset parade. The bombing killed 60 Pakistanis. It also claimed last year’s March 15 attacks on two churches at Lahore’s Youhanabad, in which 15 people were killed. The group professed allegiance to the Islamic State, but it is doubtful whether the IS gave it financial or other support.

How successful has the Pakistan Army’s Operation Zarb-e-Azb been in targeting terrorists along the Pak-Afghan border?

Zarb-e-Azb (the Prophet’s Sword) was launched in June 2014 after the Nawaz Sharif government’s attempt to talk peace with the Taliban failed, and the TTP attacked Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport. It was the first such operation with wide support among Pakistan’s political parties and the public, and was pursued with renewed vigour after the Taliban attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, in which 139 people, mostly students and teachers, were killed.

Inter-Services Public Relations said in a statement on June 14, 2015 that in a year of the operation, the military had killed 2,763 militants, destroyed 837 hideouts, and recovered 253 tonnes of explosives. The number of terrorist strikes across Pakistan came down dramatically, and the military was able to re-establish control over many parts of FATA. However, as Sunday’s bombing in Lahore and the March 7 suicide attack in Peshawar show, the Taliban retain the capacity to carry out attacks against soft targets.

How significant is the fact that Prime Minister Sharif had to call in the Army to secure Islamabad against the Qadri protesters in the context of the larger civilian-military relationship?

Any action or move by the Army is watched closely for its implications for the fragile civilian-military relationship in Pakistan. In September 2014, when Imran Khan laid siege to the Red Zone along with the maverick cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri and his followers, demanding that the Sharif government resign for alleged electoral malpractice, the Army urged the police to show restraint against the protestors. The statement raised suspicion that it was acting to help Imran behind the scenes, fuelled further by a reference by Imran himself to the “third umpire”.

Pro-military, anti-Nawaz lobbies would have felt vindicated at the PM being forced to seek the Army’s help. After the perceived success of Zarb-e-Azb, Gen Raheel Sharif has become larger-than-life in Pakistan, and gets as much, if not more, media attention as the Prime Minister.

What do Sunday’s incidents portend for Pakistan in the near to medium term?

Pakistan has survived worse. But what the two incidents, and the not-so-apparent link between them show is that rightwing religious conservatism and extremist ideologies are entrenched across Pakistan. It will take extraordinary political will, and nothing less than a total revamp of Pakistan’s military-run security policy, to finish these ideologies root and branch — unlikely at least in the near future.

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