Two attempted terrorist attacks struck Pakistan’s tumultuous Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province early on Friday morning. First, security forces captured four bombers headed toward a Christian colony in KP’s capital, Peshawar; minutes later a suicide bombing in Mardan’s district court killed 14 and wounded 58. Pakistani Taliban faction Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JA) claimed responsibility for both attacks.
This is the second time in 25 days that the Taliban have targeted lawyers, after the Quetta hospital bombing on August 8. In Balochistan’s capital, 54 law practitioners were massacred, eliminating nearly an entire generation of lawyers. In March this year, JA bombed a court in KP’s Charsadda district, five weeks after gunmen from another Taliban faction had raided the city’s Bacha Khan University.
Earlier this year Christians were also attacked during Easter celebrations in a children’s park in Punjab’s capital. The Lahore bombing came almost exactly a year after two churches were bombed in the city’s Youhanabad area, which is a Christian locality within the constituency of the Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif. Both attacks in Lahore were claimed by JA.
The Taliban faction’s strategy of going after professionals and religious minorities, attacking parks, hospitals, and educational institutes, has been interpreted as the terrorists’ desire to hit “soft targets.” Pakistani government officials have claimed that this strategy signifies the desperation of the militants, whose clout has been significantly reduced.
Even so, the ease and frequency with which such attacks have been pulled off this year highlights that not only do the Pakistani Taliban have sufficient strength to terrorize all regions of the country, their going after “soft targets” is a deliberate ploy to instill fear.
What further strengthens this assertion is the Taliban’s identification of two specific groups for their targets: lawyers and Christians. Understanding why these two groups have been earmarked can help us discern the menacing wherewithal of the Taliban, which makes a complete mockery of the security forces’ tall counterterror claims.
The massacre of Balochistan lawyers was meticulously planned. The lawyers had gathered at Quetta’s Civil Hospital after the Bar Association President Bilal Kasi had been admitted in the emergency ward. This was the third attempt to gather the province’s law practitioners in the same place, with the intent to collectively target them. Earlier, Advocate Jahanzeb Alvi and Balochistan Law College Principal Barrister Amanullah Achakzai had been shot dead with seemingly the same plan.
In addition to the 54 lawyers killed in last month’s Quetta bombing, over 100 are still injured. This has meant that not a single case has proceeded in the entire province over the past month. Therefore, not only did the attack give the Pakistani Taliban the psychological edge in denting the pillar of a state it vociferously intends to usurp, disrupting court proceedings also allows the jihadist group to create further vacuum for it to exploit.
Pakistan’s two western provinces, Balochistan and KP, are also its most volatile. Human rights abuses from the state and the jihadist groups’ terror-mongering has put the lawyers at the forefront, bidding to defend the locals against multi-pronged atrocities. Many of the lawyers killed and wounded in the Quetta attack were fighting cases for the province’s missing persons; others have been struggling to restore peace in tribal areas and regions that have been save havens for jihadists for over three decades.
When courtyards are being bombed, and lawyers executed, not only does it deter the professionals from taking up controversial cases, it also intimidates the citizens against any possible fight for their rights.
Just like the legal community, the attacks on Pakistani Christians are very carefully planned as well. The Lahore park bombing on Easter was orchestrated amidst overtures of religious harmony, manifested by the ruling party PML-N, which included Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif attending a Diwali event, the Punjab government removing hate literature against the Ahmadiyya community, and the government announcing holidays for minorities’ festivals, including Holi, Diwali, and Easter.
Furthermore, four weeks before the Easter attack, the government had executed Mumtaz Qadri, a policeman who killed former Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer for opposing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and defending a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who had been sentenced to death for blasphemy.
Therefore, by attacking the country’s largest religious minority, not only are the Taliban testing the resolve of the government vis-a-vis religious pluralism, the jihadists have also identified the Christian community as the scapegoat for the state’s apparent intent to revisit the troublesome blasphemy laws. With Asia Bibi’s Supreme Court appeal date set for next month, the Taliban have divulged their intentions if the Christian woman is spared.
Contrary to the state’s rhetoric, most of which is based on the decline in terror attacks last year, the Pakistani Taliban have not been weakened. The Taliban earmarking specific targets, and executing attacks against them on a regular basis this year, means that after the initial onslaught the jihadist factions have successfully regrouped. Many of them are now foot-soldiers of Islamic State (ISIS), hence self-aggrandizing as a bigger threat than ever.
It is evident that the state and security forces’ overwhelming focus on military warfare has exposed them on the ideological front. To counter the Taliban’s aggression in the psychological battlefield, the state would need to express solidarity with the communities that are being blatantly targeted. Instead the state is relentlessly reiterating that a road network is the intended victim of these terror attacks, alienating the actual victims, who have been left abandoned and increasingly susceptible to jihadist groups’ maneuvers.