Spate of ter­ror­ist bomb­ings tests Pak­istani re­solve

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY PAMELA CON­STA­BLE AND NISAR ME­HDI pamela.con­sta­ble@wash­ Me­hdi re­ported from Karachi and Se­hwan. Haq Nawaz Khan in Pe­shawar, Shaiq Hus­sain in Islamabad and Sayed Salahud­din in Kabul con­trib­uted to this re­port.

islamabad, pak­istan — Hu­mil­i­ated by a spate of sui­cide bomb­ings that shook the na­tion and shat­tered of­fi­cial claims of win­ning the war on ter­ror­ism, Pak­istani au­thor­i­ties have launched a sweep­ing re­tal­ia­tory of­fen­sive across the coun­try since Fri­day, hunt­ing and killing more than 100 sus­pected Is­lamist mil­i­tants, pledg­ing to “liq­ui­date” all ter­ror­ists, and plac­ing se­cu­rity forces on high alert.

Pak­istan has also ac­cused nextdoor Afghanistan of har­bor­ing the armed groups be­lieved to be be­hind most of the bomb­ings, and it has de­manded that Kabul take ac­tion against them. On Satur­day, Pak­istani forces re­port­edly shelled sus­pected mil­i­tant camps across the bor­der, trig­ger­ing a protest from Afghan of­fi­cials as ten­sions rose be­tween the hos­tile neigh­bor­ing coun­tries.

But the blitz of puni­tive lethal ac­tion and the at­tempt to de­flect blame to­ward for­eign sources do not seem to have con­vinced many Pak­ista­nis. They have seen sim­i­lar vows of a de­ci­sive crackdown on Is­lamist mil­i­tancy peter out af­ter pre­vi­ous deadly at­tacks, es­pe­cially since the ter­ror­ist mas­sacre of 141 stu­dents and teach­ers at an elite army school just over two years ago.

In­stead, the stun­ning new erup­tion of vi­o­lence, claimed by the Is­lamic State and its lo­cal af­fil­i­ates as part of a new war on the Pak­istani state, has trig­gered an out­pour­ing of an­guished and an­gry re­crim­i­na­tion against Pak­istan’s lead­ers for fail­ing to ac­knowl­edge and ad­dress the on­go­ing threat of Is­lamist vi­o­lence and the forces that feed it.

The half-dozen bomb­ings and other at­tacks, car­ried out be­tween Mon­day and Thurs­day in scat­tered lo­ca­tions across the coun­try, killed more than 125 and left sev­eral hun­dred peo­ple in­jured. One blast killed 16 peo­ple in a crowded down­town area of La­hore, Pak­istan’s east­ern cul­tural cap­i­tal and po­lit­i­cal nerve cen­ter. The most deadly sui­cide at­tack, at a packed Sufi shrine in south­east­ern Sindh prov­ince, left at least 88 peo­ple dead and 250 in­jured.

In opin­ion pieces and TV de­bates, in con­ver­sa­tions at tea shops and Sufi shrines, peo­ple com­plained that the gov­ern­ment had be­come com­pla­cent af­ter a mas­sive 2015 mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion that drove thou­sands of Pak­istani Tal­iban fight­ers and other mil­i­tants from the north­west bor­der re­gion, from which many fled into Afghanistan.

Since that much-praised vic­tory, crit­ics said, Pak­istani of­fi­cials have al­lowed par­ti­san politics, sec­tar­ian bias and hos­til­ity to neigh­bor­ing coun­tries to get in the way of curb­ing other vi­o­lent re­li­gious groups, tar­get­ing them se­lec­tively and do­ing lit­tle to curb rad­i­cal sem­i­nar­ies and hate speech un­der a plan launched by Prime Min­is­ter Nawaz Sharif af­ter the army school siege.

“We are so self-con­grat­u­la­tory that we de­clared suc­cess in the mid­dle of a fight. But what have we done to ad­dress the ide­o­log­i­cal ba­sis of ter­ror? Has the sup­ply chain of hate-filled vi­o­lent ide­ol­ogy been shut down?” lawyer and rights ac­tivist Babar Sat­tar wrote in the News In­ter­na­tional news­pa­per Satur­day. “Bravado is use­ful to bol­ster pub­lic con­fi­dence when un­der at­tack,” he added, “but it is no sub­sti­tute for sen­si­ble pol­icy.”

At the Bari Imam shrine in Islamabad on Satur­day, devo­tees of a 17th cen­tury Sufi saint gath­ered at the his­toric sanc­tu­ary, de­spite of­fi­cial warn­ings and heavy se­cu­rity, as oth­ers did at the Lal Shah­baz Qa­lan­dar shrine that was bombed Thurs­day in Sindh. Arif Ali, 50, a civil en­gi­neer, brought his young son to Bari Imam and said he prayed to the saint to stop the vi­o­lence.

“May God have mercy on us and our coun­try,” Ali said. “We thought all the blasts and ex­plo­sions were over, but now it is the same havoc as be­fore. These ter­ror­ists don’t spare even mosques or schools. The sad thing is that our gov­ern­ment seems to be help­less in crush­ing them. Look at these po­lice, they are stand­ing here but they can­not pro­tect any­one. I say it would be bet­ter if this gov­ern­ment re­signs and the army takes over.”

Mil­i­tary and civil­ian of­fi­cials have taken pains to speak with one voice on the new ter­ror­ist threat, and there seems lit­tle dan­ger of the army step­ping in as it has done dur­ing past crises. Sharif has made a num­ber of tough an­titer­ror­ism state­ments as well as con­demned the shrine bomb­ing Thurs­day as “an at­tack on the pro­gres­sive and in­clu­sive fu­ture of Pak­istan.”

How­ever, the mil­i­tary es­tab­lish­ment has taken the lead in ac­cus­ing Afghanistan of fail­ing to go af­ter the mil­i­tants — an ironic role re­ver­sal af­ter years of com­plaints by Afghan and U.S. of­fi­cials that Pak­istan has been shel­ter­ing anti-Afghan Tal­iban forces on its side of the bor­der.

On Fri­day, Afghan diplo­mats were called to Pak­istan army head­quar­ters and handed a list of 76 ter­ror­ists — largely from the Ja­maat-ul-Ahrar (JUA) group, an af­fil­i­ate of the Is­lamic State that claimed most of the bomb­ings — and were told the fight­ers were op­er­at­ing from Afghan soil. On Satur­day, Afghan of­fi­cials for­mally com­plained that Pak­istan had shelled civil­ian ar­eas in Afghanistan’s Nan­ga­har prov­ince, near the Pak­istani bor­der.

In other ar­eas of Pak­istan, of­fi­cial at­ti­tudes to­ward a hodge­podge of re­li­gious mil­i­tant groups have been more am­biva­lent. Some are tol­er­ated for their po­lit­i­cal or sec­tar­ian af­fil­i­a­tions, oth­ers for their strong op­po­si­tion to Hindu-led In­dia. But ex­perts said that many of these groups have ties to the lo­cal Is­lamic State af­fil­i­ates that claimed the bomb­ings, and that at­tempt­ing to dif­fer­en­ti­ate among the mil­i­tant groups has been a dis­as­trous mis­take. “These groups come in var­i­ous col­ors and va­ri­eties, but they share a com­mon pur­pose. Ul­ti­mately they are joined at the hip,” said Ri­faat Hus­sain, a pro­fes­sor of gov­ern­ment and pub­lic pol­icy at Pak­istan’s Na­tional Univer­sity of Sciences and Technology. The re­cent bomb­ings, he said, con­sti­tute “the re­ju­ve­na­tion of a dan­ger­ous ver­sion of Is­lam. The mes­sage of these ter­ror­ists to the gov­ern­ment is, ‘We are alive and kick­ing, and we can strike wher­ever we want.’ ”

In a video cir­cu­lated widely last week, the JUA showed scenes of masked fight­ers train­ing with as­sault weapons and de­clared that it planned to carry out a deadly cam­paign against “all gov­ern­ment in­sti­tu­tions,” any­one who sup­ports the army, all le­gal and law­mak­ing bod­ies and pro­gov­ern­ment lead­ers, and any group that is “anti-Is­lamic.” Lead­ers were shown pray­ing for suc­cess in their ultimate goal, en­forc­ing sharia across the coun­try.

But at the ma­jes­tic blue-tiled Lal Shahzad Qa­lan­dar shrine in the Sindhi town of Se­hwan, thou­sands of devo­tees gath­ered dur­ing the week­end to show their de­ter­mi­na­tion and faith in a tol­er­ant, wel­com­ing strain of Is­lam, even as vol­un­teers were still wash­ing off blood­stains from the build­ing and sur­round­ing stone plazas.

“This re­mains the last de­fense against rad­i­cal­iza­tion,” said Syed Me­hdi Sabzwari, cus­to­dian of the 13th-cen­tury shrine. “We preach unity and bring to­gether the de­prived. Prayers are an­swered here, re­gard­less of fac­tion.”

Sabzwari said the shrines need more pro­tec­tion but that “killing mil­i­tants is not the so­lu­tion. The gov­ern­ment needs to change what they be­lieve in. These ter­ror­ists are brain­washed for years, and they de­spise us for spread­ing love,” he said. “But we are open to­day, and rit­u­als are be­ing of­fered. This is a clear mes­sage that they have failed.”


A Pak­istani se­cu­rity of­fi­cer stands guard out­side a Sufi shrine in Karachi dur­ing Fri­day prayer. The coun­try’s au­thor­i­ties have launched a sweep­ing of­fen­sive against Is­lamist mil­i­tants in the days fol­low­ing a half-dozen Is­lamic State at­tacks last week that killed more than 125.

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