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EFSAS Commentary

Terrorists target core Pakistani interests this past week, with the most damaging attack being the one on Chinese engineers


This past week witnessed a number of damaging terrorist attacks in Pakistan’s Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces. In addition to the brazen targeting of one of the country’s biggest naval air stations, a facility that hosts several government and paramilitary offices in the sensitive Gwadar Port complex was attacked. The Gwadar Port has been projected by both Islamabad and Beijing as one of the symbols and pillars of China-Pakistan cooperation. A few days thereafter, a suicide bomber rammed his explosive-laden vehicle into a bus carrying Chinese engineers, killing all of them. While all three attacks targeted the authority of the Pakistani State, and of the military establishment that supervises the State, the direct attack on Chinese personnel would have caused most concern in Islamabad and Rawalpindi.

China is Pakistan’s sworn ‘all-weather partner’, and has importantly emerged as Pakistan’s biggest backer and savior in the international arena. China has also come to Pakistan’s aid at various difficult times, and has invested in Pakistan when few others were willing to. It is for this reason that Pakistan has gradually and grudgingly accepted the de-facto suzerainty that China has in the last few decades sought to establish over it. Thousands of Chinese personnel work on projects linked to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the flagship of Beijing’s global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) infrastructure programme. Consequently, Pakistan now seems to be bracing itself not just for the loss of face the attacks would result in, but also for China’s umbrage and its robust and sustained pressure on Islamabad to protect Chinese nationals from pointedly and repeatedly being attacked and killed by Pakistani terrorist groups of all hues.      

According to a security report issued by the Pakistani think tank the Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS), Pakistan experienced 97 militant attacks just in February this year, and that resulted in 87 fatalities and 118 injuries. The report highlighted a significant escalation in violence in Balochistan, and that trend has continued through this month too. In a major incident, eight terrorists attacked the Gwadar Port Authority Colony on 20 March. The Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), the military’s media wing, informed through a press release that two Pakistani soldiers had been killed in the attack. The regional commissioner Saeed Ahmed Umrani told the Pakistani media that multiple blasts were reported in the attack, and that a large contingent of police and security forces had reached the scene of intense fighting.

Describing the attack, the ISPR added, “Own troops employed for security responded immediately and effectively engaged the terrorists, and in ensuing fire exchange, all eight terrorists were sent to hell. A large quantity of arms, ammunition and explosives was also recovered”. The ISPR claimed that the “Security forces of Pakistan, in step with the nation, remain determined to thwart attempts of sabotaging peace and stability of Balochistan, and such sacrifices of our brave soldiers further strengthen our resolve.”

The Majeed Brigade of the militant Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) claimed responsibility for the attack. The Pakistani daily Dawn reported that the Majeed Brigade had been formed in 2011, and was a particularly lethal guerilla cell of the BLA. It had been named after a guard of former Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who had been killed while attempting to assassinate Bhutto. Dawn continued, “The so-called brigade, which is the suicide squad of the BLA, mostly targets security forces and Chinese interests in Pakistan. It also claimed responsibility for the April 2022 suicide attack outside the Karachi University’s Confucius Institute”.

The Gwadar attack caused consternation in Islamabad’s corridors of power. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif bemoaned that those trying to target peace in Gwadar and Balochistan really wanted to interrupt the process for the country’s economic prosperity. He vowed to foil all internal and external conspiracies with the help of the people. Balochistan Chief Minister Sarfraz Bugti hailed security and law enforcement officials for their response to the attack, saying that “the message is loud and clear”. He added that “whosoever chooses to use violence will see no mercy from the State”.

Shortly after the Gwadar attack, four terrorists launched another attack on a nearby naval base in Turbat on the night on 25 March. Describing the attack in a statement, the ISPR said that the terrorists had attacked PNS Siddique in Turbat, but the attempt was foiled due to the “swift and effective response by the troops ensuring the safety and security of personnel and assets. Security forces in the vicinity were immediately mobilised to support the naval troops. Synergetic and effective response by the armed forces enabled killing of all four terrorists in ensuing joint clearance operation”. The ISPR informed that 24-year-old Sepoy Noman Fareed of the Balochistan Frontier Corps died in the intense exchange of fire during the attack.

Commissioner Umrani said that heavy exchange of fire and explosions were reported from the vicinity of Turbat airport on Monday night. He elaborated, “The armed men attacked from three sides of the airport boundary, but security forces responded immediately and foiled their attempt to infiltrate the premises”. Dawn added that “It should be mentioned that PNS Siddique is among the biggest naval air stations in the country. Locals said that over a dozen blasts were heard in Turbat town, while the firing, which began around 10pm, continued late into the night. The banned Balochistan Liberation Army claimed that its Majeed Brigade was behind the attack”.

The Turbat naval air station attack led to even more turmoil in Islamabad. Stating Pakistan’s unwavering commitment to eradicating the menace of terrorism, PM Shehbaz Sharif said that the entire nation stood firmly behind the country’s courageous security forces. President Asif Ali Zardari praised the security forces’ “swift and effective response” to “frustrate the attack”. He too vowed to eliminate terrorism from the country.

If these attacks had shaken Pakistan’s military establishment, the suicide attack on Chinese engineers just a day later raised the pitch much higher. Five Chinese engineers, including a woman, and their local driver were killed on Tuesday when a suicide attacker rammed an explosives-laden vehicle into their bus in Shangla district in northwest Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The bus was transporting staff of the Dasu dam project in Bisham town of Shangla district. Bisham Sub Divisional Police Officer (SDPO) Juma Rehman told Dawn that the bus was travelling from Islamabad to Kohistan when it came under the attack on the Karakoram Highway. Rehman said, “It was a suicide attack on the Chinese convoy and an explosive-laden vehicle approaching from Kohistan hit the bus”. He added that “A huge amount of explosives were used in the attack, the force of which threw the bus into the ravine”. No terrorist group has yet claimed responsibility for this attack.

Sheraz Khan, the official in charge of Rescue 1122 station in Bisham, described chaotic scenes after the rescuers reached the site of the attack. “The area was engulfed in smoke as the bus that had fallen into the ravine was on fire”. he said. A government official in Bisham, Bakht Zahir Khan, said that the blast was so intense that it completely destroyed the bus. “We found some of its part on nearby trees which showed the intensity of the blast”, he said. He added that the Chinese nationals travelling in other buses were shifted to safer places from the site.

Irfanullah Mehsud, the deputy commissioner of Upper Kohistan, told Dawn that “The multilayer security of the Chinese national executing the Dasu dam, and the residential campus has further been enhanced following the suicidal attack on engineers of one of the flagship energy projects of Sino-Pak friendship”. A senior official from the provincial interior ministry told AFP that security had actually been beefed up at more than two dozen sites hosting Chinese engineers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. He said on condition of anonymity that “Directives have been issued to all law enforcement agencies to enhance security for Chinese nationals and all other foreigners. Instructions have also been given to foreign nationals to restrict their movements”.

This is not the first such attack on Chinese nationals in the area. On July 14, 2021, nine Chinese citizens and four Pakistanis were killed after a suicide explosion targeted their vehicle. It was in response to this attack that Pakistan had apparently increased the security of Chinese nationals, and one of the steps it had taken in this direction was to stipulate that Chinese nationals would then onwards travel only in the formation of a convoy of vehicles. Those steps, evidently, have not proved enough to overcome the thinking among several of the region’s terrorist groups and residents that China’s intentions, and its presence in the region, were exploitative and hence inimical to the interests of the local population.

The Shangla suicide attack evoked a strong response from Beijing, which asked Islamabad to punish the perpetrators. It said in a statement that “The Chinese Embassy and Consulates General in Pakistan strongly condemn this terrorist attack, express deep condolences to the victims and sincere sympathy to the bereaved families, and are making every effort to handle the aftermath together with the Pakistani side”. It added that an “emergency plan” had been launched immediately. It urged Pakistan to thoroughly investigate the attack and severely punish the perpetrators, while informing that the Chinese mission in Pakistan was taking “all necessary measures to protect” Chinese citizens, institutions and projects in Pakistan.

Such was the concern that the attack on the Chinese nationals generated that Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif himself, along with his cabinet members, visited the Chinese Embassy to assure Beijing about security for its citizens and promise a comprehensive probe into the suicide bombing. Shehbaz asked the Chinese envoy to relay his condolences to the Chinese President, the premier, and the families of the deceased. He also assured the envoy of a high-level probe into the attack. He added, “We will not let such nefarious attempts to undermine the Pak-China friendship succeed (sic). The enemies of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor have again tried to interrupt it through such cowardly attempt but the enemy will never succeed in its evil designs”.

In a similar statement, the ISPR said that the attack was aimed at hurting China-Pakistan ties. It alleged that the series of incidents over the past few days, including the Gwadar and Turbat attacks, were aimed at destabilizing the country. The statement read, “Strategic projects and sensitive sites vital for Pakistan’s economic progress and the well-being of its people are being targeted as a conscious effort to retard our progress and sow discord between Pakistan and its strategic allies and partners, most notably China”. It continued, “With the unwavering support of the resilient nation and our iron-clad ally China, we will ensure that all those involved in aiding terrorism, directly or indirectly, are held accountable and find their due comeuppance. Together we will prevail over adversity and evil”.

The killing of the five Chinese nationals has quite clearly put the cat among the pigeons in Pakistan. A day after the attack, Information Minister Ataullah Tarar revealed at a press conference in Islamabad that PM Shehbaz had chaired a high-level meeting attended by Army Chief General Asim Munir, all provincial Chief Ministers, and police chiefs. He said the participants recognized the need for a “unified policy” against terrorism, and had decided that a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) would be formed to probe the attack. Army Chief Asim Munir was quoted as saying at the meeting that “We shall not leave any stone unturned to ensure that every foreign citizen, especially Chinese nationals, contributing to the prosperity of Pakistan, is safe and secure in Pakistan. We shall fight terrorism with all our might, to the very end”. On ensuring the future security of Chinese nationals, Tarar said in a similar vein that “SOPs are in place for the security of Chinese nationals. They are identified at airports and arrangements are made for their security wherever they go. Wherever there are gaps, we will fill them. The security of all Chinese nationals will be ensured”.

Reflecting the rut that Pakistani politics had slipped into, which has also contributed to the present dismal state of affairs, Tarar blamed ex-premier Imran Khan for the resurgence of terrorism in the country. He said, “Who was it who was sympathetic to terrorists? Who was it who failed to convene the National Action Plan’s apex committee? Who was it who was insistent on dialogue? During Imran’s tenure, the terrorism we eradicated in 2018 has once again reared its head. At that time, Imran was Prime Minister and he is responsible for his policy. Now, we are reaping what he sowed”.

Reports in the media have suggested that following the suicide attack China’s proposal to deploy its own security agencies for protection of its nationals in Pakistan had gained renewed relevance and focus, and should Pakistan’s resistance to this proposal become untenable on account of its repeated inability, or unwillingness, to protect Chinese citizens, the consequences for Pakistan’s remaining sovereignty could be quite grave.