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EFSAS Commentary

The tragic terror attack on a Shia mosque in Peshawar underscores the pitfalls of Pakistan’s policy of promoting extremists


In the weeks following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, EFSAS had in several of its commentaries cautioned that the euphoria of the Pakistani establishment and a section of the country’s population at having succeeded in installing the terrorist proxy in Kabul ought to be tempered as the adverse fallout of the flawed move would first be felt by none other than Pakistan. Recent developments, the latest being last Friday’s unsightly attack on the Kucha Risaldar mosque of the minority Shia community in Peshawar by a suicide bomber of the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), the name under which the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) operates in Afghanistan and Pakistan, are clear indicators that that is exactly what is happening.

The attack on the Kucha Risaldar mosque, one of the oldest in the area, was among the deadliest in years to hit Peshawar, a city of about two million people near Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. Describing how the attack unfolded as worshippers gathered on 4 March for Friday prayers, Peshawar police chief Muhammed Ejaz Khan said that the violence began when an armed attacker opened fire on police officers stationed outside the mosque in Peshawar’s old city. One police officer was killed and another wounded. The attacker then ran inside the mosque and detonated his suicide vest, which was packed with 5 kilograms of explosives and ball-bearings. CCTV footage showed the bomber moving quickly up a narrow street toward the mosque entrance. He fired at the police protecting the mosque before entering. Within seconds, there was a powerful explosion and the camera lens was clouded with dust and debris. At least 63 people were killed and 190 injured.

According to a translation of an ISIS statement by the SITE Intelligence Group, the bombing was carried out by an Afghan suicide bomber of the ISKP. While the ISKP has claimed several previous attacks in Pakistan, the mosque bombing was the biggest and deadliest yet. The media in Pakistan cited ongoing investigations while reporting that the suicide bomber had been given the nom de guerre Abdullah, and that his parents had moved to Pakistan during the Afghan war and had settled in Peshawar. Abdullah displayed an early inclination towards religious extremism, and he subsequently went ‘missing’. He was reported to have gone to receive arms training in Baluchistan, from where he moved to Afghanistan. For the mosque attack, investigators believe that Abdullah entered Pakistan in the second week of December through the border crossing at Chaman, and was later driven into Peshawar.

The attack drew strong condemnation. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted, “Have personally been monitoring operations and coordinating with CTD and agencies in the wake of the cowardly terrorist attack on Peshawar Imambargah. My deepest condolences go to the victims’ families and prayers for the recovery of the injured. I have asked CM Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to personally visit the families and look after their needs. We now have all info regarding origins of where the terrorists came from & are going after them with full force”. Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told The Washington Post that the government “had no prior threat alert or any information about this attack”. He added that Pakistani security forces had been put on high alert, and that “We will thwart the designs of those who want to create unrest and instability in Pakistan. Our forces have defeated the terrorists before and they will do it again”.

The Shia community did not, however, seem to share this optimism. Shiite groups across Pakistan organized protests to condemn the attack. Allama Nazir Abbas Taqvi, a Shiite religious scholar who led one such protest in Karachi, said, “The Pakistani State has failed to protect its citizens, even in the mosques”. Sher Ali, a retired army officer who had been inside the mosque at the time of the explosion and was injured by flying shrapnel lamented, “What is our sin? What have we done? Aren’t we citizens of this country?” Pakistani media reports have suggested that between 2001 and 2018, an estimated 4,847 Shias have been killed in incidents of sectarian violence in the country. A 5 March Dawn editorial, therefore, noted that “Despite what those in power have said or will say, the attack betrayed the national security apparatus’s unpreparedness for what now seems to be a gradually expanding spectrum of terrorist activities. A string of recent deadly attacks in neighbouring Afghanistan should have prompted at least some concern in national security circles regarding the welfare and protection of minorities, who frequently find themselves on the receiving end of the bestial violence unleashed by terrorist outfits”.

The scale of the tragedy in Peshawar was acknowledged by the United Nations (UN), with Secretary Gene­ral Antonio Guterres asserting in a tweet that “houses of worship should be havens, not targets. I condemn the horrific attack on a mosque in Pesh­awar during Friday prayers. My condolences to those who lost loved ones, and my solidarity with the people of Pakistan”. The UN Security Council condemned the attack “in the strongest terms” and asserted that terrorism in all its “forms and manifestations” constituted one of the most serious threats to international peace and security. Its statement added that “The members of the Security Council expressed their deepest sympathy and condolences to the families of the victims and to the government of Pakistan and they wished a speedy and full recovery to those who were injured”.

The United States State Department described the attack as “horrific”. It conveyed “sincere condolences” to the victims’ families and friends, and added that “The United States mourns in solidarity with Pakistan”.

For Islamabad, the Peshawar attack was one of the several illustrations of the reality that the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan had become a major security and foreign policy challenge for it. As Muhammad Amir Rana had written on 12 December 2021 in the Pakistani daily Dawn, “While most in Pakistan are now busy in debating the political and strategic pros and cons of the Taliban regime, there is an acute lack of discourse on the socio-cultural impact of the emerging Afghan situation on Pakistani society. The situation has implications for Pakistan in many ways. First, a protracted conflict and insecurity in Afghanistan, as being projected by many analysts, will affect Pakistan’s border security as well as the militant landscape in its bordering areas in KP and Balochistan. Secondly, the Taliban – ISKP fight has already entered Pakistan… the ongoing fighting between the Islamic State’s Khorasan chapter and the Afghan Taliban is not merely a conflict between two rival militant and ideological forces; it is also a reflection of sectarian, ethnic and class divisions in Afghan society, and has already started to impact Pakistan as well. Trends suggest that the conflict between the Taliban and IS-KP will add to the insecurity in Pakistan”.

The ISIS’s sectarian animosity towards Shias had been amply demonstrated by the group in Iraq and Syria, where it carried out systematic attacks against Shias after terming them “rejectionists” of Islam. In Afghanistan, the ISKP targeted religious minorities such as Shias and Sikhs and used such attacks to drum up support among Sunni hardliners for their violent ideology. The Peshawar attack suggests that the ISKP threat is now spreading across the porous Afghan border into Pakistan.

In Sunni-majority Pakistan, over the years minority Shias have, in any case, come under repeated attack by Pakistani extremist groups linked to the military establishment. Even PM Imran Khan has cozied up to such extremist groups, and his government last year made a deal with the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) after it unleashed violence that claimed the lives of several security officials. Along with the Ahl-e-Sunnat-Wal-Jamaat, the TLP has been at the forefront of the current anti-Shia campaign in the country. Shias, who constitute over 20% of Pakistan’s population, have also had to contend with a State crackdown using dubious blasphemy laws. The ISKP, it seems, wants to exploit these existing sectarian hostilities in Pakistan by carrying out attacks on Shia mosques.

The attack on the mosque suggests that the long-standing Pakistani policy of promoting and pandering to a wide array of religious extremists and terrorists is coming back to bite it. That this would happen was well-nigh inevitable. The danger that this presents for Pakistan is serious, and as was the case with the 63 victims of the Peshawar attack, the brunt will be felt by the common folk, especially those belonging to minority religious communities, and much less by the elite that constitute the establishment that was responsible for drawing up such policies in the first place. Referring to the Peshawar attack, Pakistani analyst Huma Yusuf wrote in her 7 March article titled ‘Growing bloodlust’ that “Sadly, we have been here before. And, may God forbid, we are likely to be here again. This attack will not prompt introspection or a sea change in security policies. In fact, the attack likely heralds worse to come. And it reveals that the social and political fissures that prevented swift action against militancy around a decade ago still run deep… State and policy level ambivalence is unfortunately — and arguably more problematically — echoed in Pakistani society, in the clearest sign that the scourge of violent extremism and militancy will not be easily eradicated”.

As tragic as the mosque attack was, and as alarming as the outlook for Pakistan from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan is, the crux of Pakistan’s problem is in its military establishment’s unending liaison with hardnosed extremists. Unless this comes to an immediate end, peace and stability will not return to Pakistan’s frontiers, nor will a sense of security and belonging return to its religious minorities.

Among the most important goals that Pakistan under PM Imran Khan has set for itself is to improve the country’s image in the eyes of the international community, something that will remain a pipe dream so long as images of minorities being massacred and intelligence chiefs sipping tepid green tea with terrorist leaders of the ostracized Haqqani network in Kabul keep dominating the front pages.