On June 29, four members of the Majeed Brigade, a faction of the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), launched an attack on the Pakistan Stock Exchange building in Karachi, Sindh province, resulting in 10 fatalities. The Majeed Brigade was founded in 2011 and is an elite unit within the BLA, with a modus operandi that regularly features suicide attacks. That an attack was carried out on the Karachi stock exchange is significant, given its high profile and location in the city’s central corporate district, which headquarters several multinational corporations. Early analysis indicates, however, that the militants were ultimately unsuccessful in their attempt to establish a days-long siege in the building – with the total operation reportedly lasting less than an hour.
The BLA is one of several militant groups pursuing an independent Baloch nation, or significantly greater autonomy. The group views both Pakistani and Chinese interests in the region as a threat, characterizing them as exploitative. Balochistan province is rich in natural resources, such as minerals, but remains one of the least developed and educated in the country. Hostility toward Chinese foreign workers and associated interests has peaked as local communities feel disconnected from the ongoing Chinese-backed infrastructure development linked to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). China’s investments in infrastructure in Balochistan have little practical benefit for local populations, while further integrating Balochistan with wider Pakistan through developing transport and power networks.
The BLA is part of the Baloch Raji Aajoi Sangar (BRAS) umbrella group of Baloch nationalists, which comprises of the BLA, the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF), the Baloch Republican Guard, as well as the Baloch Republic Army. BRAS and its affiliates are generally pro-independence for the Balochistan region; they regard both Pakistan and China as threats. While the groups typically work separately to achieve their aims, they have been known to band together to execute attacks. One example includes the joint Operation Aas-Rech launched in February 2020, with local Baloch groups stating that the coalition reportedly attacked the Islamist militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba owing to allegations that the outfit benefited from the patronage of the national government and intelligence services, though this is not confirmed.
What explains the BLA’s latest target? In addition to the profile of the Karachi stock exchange being significant for Pakistan, it is also very closely linked to, and representative of, China’s interests. In January 2017, a consortium of Chinese firms acquired 40 percent equity of the Pakistan Stock Exchange for $85 million. In addition, in November 2019, it was reported that the Pakistani Stock Exchange had signed a contract with the Shenzhen Stock Exchange for a new trading and surveillance program, allowing the Pakistani Stock Exchange to link with Chinese international stock markets.
The recent attack clearly demonstrates the BLA’s intent and capability to continue carrying out attacks against both Pakistani and Chinese interests – particularly those targets that can be considered joint interests. Despite a declining trend of terrorist attacks from 2000 to 2019, along with the reinforcement of security around Chinese investments in Pakistan, this attack does demonstrate retained capability, particularly given the security measures that would have been circumvented to get the attackers’ arsenal to the gates of the building. While ultimately unsuccessful at establishing the days-long siege the militants had prepared for, their ability to approach the compound of the Pakistan Stock Exchange undetected should not be dismissed. This view is also underscored by the regular reports that funding from Baloch dissidents abroad is giving the BLA greater financial capabilities.
The recent attack is also indicative of an emerging trend of targeting locations outside of Balochistan, marking the second such incident. The first terrorist attack committed by the BLA outside of Balochistan was also in Karachi, in 2018, when the BLA carried out an attack on the Chinese consulate, resulting in four fatalities. The latest incident demonstrates continued intent to expand beyond their original region of operations, upping the pressure on Pakistan and China for concessions.
The recent attack has wider consequences for security risks within Pakistan more broadly, especially for Chinese nationals. Given the location of the attack in Karachi, future attacks in other major urban centers hosting prominent Chinese-affiliated targets should be expected, both within and outside of the Balochistan region. Further attacks on Chinese-linked investments inside of Balochistan are also certain, given the increased capabilities of the militants in the state. The question remains whether Pakistan will be able to act quickly and effectively enough to protect China’s assets in the region and across the country.
Ultimately, Pakistan needs CPEC as much as China does. While China has raised its voice about security before, it too is between a rock and a hard place; the size of its sunken investment in CPEC, and the need to find alternatives to its reliance on the Malacca Strait, makes withdrawal a nonstarter. Instead China will remain, and the insurgency will go on. If the BLA cannot be brought to the table or completely dismantled, then the outlook for the security risk environment remains bleak.
Yumi Washiyama is a Singapore-based security risk advisor for Asia-Pacific with Healix International, a global risk management group and international assistance company.