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Rearing its ugly head again

At least 70 people were killed and over 150 others injured on Monday when a suicide bomber struck mourners, mostly lawyers and journalists, gathered at a government-run hospital in Pakistan’s restive southwestern Balochistan province in one of the worst attacks in the country this year. A breakaway faction of the Pakistan Taliban, Jamaat-ur-Ahrar, took responsibility for the suicide attack. However, this is where it gets a little tricky. The Islamic State has also claimed responsibility for the attack through its Amaq news agency.  

“A martyr from the Islamic State detonated his explosive belt at a gathering of justice ministry employees and Pakistani policemen in the city of Quetta,” Amaq said. If these claims are indeed true, it marks a frightening development for Pakistan. The country has been long plagued by Islamist militant violence, but most of it locally-based. The real confusion stems from the fact that the Jamaat-ur-Ahrar at one time swore fealty to the Islamic State but later switched back to the Taliban. 

International news agency Reuters claims that it still remains unclear what ties Jamaat retains to the Islamic State, which is a rival to both the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The reason for its return to the Taliban fold remains murky. Moreover, the Jamaat has never specifically disavowed the Islamic State. Coming back to the horrific incident, reports indicate that the death toll is likely to rise further. 

Officials had said the blast took place soon after lawyers and journalists gathered at the hospital following the death of the Balochistan Bar Association’s president, who was killed in a separate shooting early on Monday. In an irresponsible statement, Chief Minister of Balochistan Sanaullah Zehri had accused India’s intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing of carrying out the attack, while speaking to a local channel. Although Pakistan has long blamed Indian intelligence agencies for stoking the insurgency in Balochistan, these accusations are seemingly an attempt to divert attention from the failings of its own security strategy. This is not the first time the Jamaat has struck on Pakistani soil.

Earlier this year, in what was the deadliest terrorist attack on Pakistani soil since the December 2014 massacre of 134 school children in Peshawar, a suicide bomber killed more than 70 people at a park in Lahore. The sole target of this attack was the Christian community, which had gathered on the holy occasion of Easter Sunday. “We want to send this message to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that we have entered Lahore. He can do what he wants but he won’t be able to stop us. Our suicide bombers will continue these attacks,” a spokesman for the faction, Ehsanullah Ehsan, had said back then. The outfit is looking to raise its profile among the country’s increasingly fractured Islamist militants. It has previously carried out, at least, two major attacks in Lahore: one in 2015 that targeted two churches and another at the Wagah border between India and Pakistan in late 2014, according to Reuters. Many militant groups in Pakistan, especially the Pakistani Taliban, seek to overthrow the civilian government and introduce a strict interpretation of Islamic law or Sharia.

 Back in September 2014, the Jamaat-ur-Ahrar swore allegiance to the Islamic State, which envisions a global caliphate and lays special importance on the decimation of Christians and minority Shi’a Muslims. The arrival of an Islamic State-like ideology into mainstream public discourse has raised serious concerns that sectarian violence could further intensify in an already strife-ridden Pakistan. However, according to Hussain Haqqani, the former Ambassador of Pakistan to the United States and a leading South Asia expert, there is already broad support for such an ideology. 

“While many Pakistanis might be troubled by the violent ramifications of global jihad within the country, broad sympathy in Pakistani society for jihadis remains a reality,” he writes in a paper titled Pakistan and the Threat of Global Jihadism: Implications for Regional Security. “Most Pakistanis support Sharia rule, an Islamic caliphate, and an Islamic state, even if they disagree on the definition of those concepts.” It is an unfortunate reality that has played itself out on the streets of Islamabad earlier this year when thousands protested against the judicial execution of Mumtaz Qadri, a police commando who assassinated Punjab Governor Salman Taseer in 2011. According to leading Pakistani daily Dawn, the protest was led by popular Sunni groups. The protesters demanded that Qadri is declared a martyr, and the implementation of Sharia rule in the country. To the uninitiated, Qadri was working as Taseer’s bodyguard when he shot him 29 times after the governor spoke against the country’s controversial blasphemy law. Both events stem from radical Islam’s relationship to our time and geopolitical dynamics that surround it.

None of these attacks happens in a state of vacuum. The Pakistan Army continues to conduct extensive military operations against a slew of terror outfits, primarily the Pakistani Taliban, in the country’s northwestern tribal areas, where they are still strong. In essence, the attack in Quetta and Lahore are nothing but an act of revenge and an attempt at terrorising the Pakistani government and the Army into submission. However, these attacks are highly unlikely to have that desired effect. 

Successive governments, in collusion with the armed forces and the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), have tolerated these extreme elements in the past and used them to pursue strategic aims in Kashmir, Afghanistan, and parts of Central Asia. Most geostrategic experts are of the opinion that Pakistan has constantly indulged in these double games to pursue their strategic objectives. 

Unfortunately, and predictably, such troubled elements have come back home to unleash terror in the entire region. Despite reports of a crackdown against these terror outfits, many are still unsure whether this double game will subside. Few lessons have been learnt. While the Pakistani establishment wages a battle against the likes of Jamaat-ur-Ahrar and Tehrik-i-Taliban, it has continued to support outfits like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. Only last week, Jamaat was added to the United States’ list of global terrorists, triggering sanctions. Is it any surprise that both the LeT and JeM are on the list too?  
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