By Tushar Ranjan Mohanty*
In the latest terrorist attack on immunisation teams in Pakistan, Doctor Zakaullah Khan, a senior member of the polio vaccination campaign, was shot dead by unidentified motorcycle borne terrorists near his house in Peshawar, the provincial capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), on September 11, 2016. Jama’at-ul-Ahrar (JuA), a breakaway faction of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), claimed responsibility for the attack. TTP-JuA ‘spokesman’ Ehsanullah Ehsan, while claiming responsibility, vowed to carry out more such attacks.
On April 20, 2016, Seven Police officials guarding polio workers were killed in two separate attacks in the Orangi Town of Karachi, the provincial capital of Sindh. Deputy Inspector General (DIG), West Zone, Feroz Shah disclosed that eight gunmen riding four motorcycles carried out the killings in two separate attacks in the neighbourhood: “The gunmen first opened fire on three Policemen in the streets of Orangi Town, killing them all… Later they shot dead four Policemen, who were sitting in a police mobile van” a few streets away.
On March 27, 2016, Akhtar Khan, a supervisor in the Expanded Programme for Immunisation (EPI), was shot dead by terrorists while he was sitting in his private clinic in the Khuga Khel area in the Landikotal tehsil (revenue unit) of Khyber Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Lashkar-i-Islam (LI) claimed responsibility for the killing. In January, terrorists had distributed pamphlets in the same locality warning health workers not to conduct the polio vaccination campaign and local parents to desist from sending their daughters to school.
The worst attack on the polio vaccination programme came on January 13, 2016, when a suicide bomber struck the Government polio vaccination centre in the Satellite Town area of Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan, killing 15 people, including 13 Police personnel, a Frontier Corps (FC) soldier and a civilian; another 25 were injured. Quetta DIG Syed Imtiaz Shah stated that most of the victims were Policemen who had been deployed to guard polio workers. TTP spokesman Muhammad Khurassani sent an email to journalists, claiming responsibility for the attack.
Attacks on polio vaccination workers as well as on Security Force (SF) personnel deployed for their security have once again raised concerns about the situation in the country. Opposition to all forms of inoculation grew after the CIA organised a fake vaccination drive by Dr. Shakil Afridi to track down al Qaeda’s former chief Osama Bin Laden, who was killed in Abbottabad by US SEALs in 2011. Terrorists are not only killing health workers but also spreading negative propaganda against the polio vaccination campaign, including the canard that polio vaccination drops were part of a western plot to sterilise Muslims.
The polio vaccination campaign in Pakistan has not only suffered at the hands of terrorists but also suffered a socio-religious setback as a result of Islamist Fatwas (religious edicts). Though TTP had been pursuing an anti-polio campaign in Swat Valley since 2009, the first Fatwa came from cleric Maulvi Ibrahim Chisti in Muzaffargarh District of Punjab, on June 12, 2012. Declaring the anti-polio campaign “un-Islamic”, Chisti warned that a jihad (holy war) would be launched against polio vaccination teams.
Following Chisti’s ‘divine formulation’, TTP’s North Waziristan Agency (NWA) chapter ‘commander’ Hafiz Gul Bahadur issued a fatwa on June 18, 2012, denouncing vaccinations as an American ploy to sterilise the Muslim community and banned these in NWA until the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) stopped its drone strikes in the region. Bahadur’s declaration was a reflection of the consensus reached by the various terrorist outfits that formed the shura-e-mujahidin, and came two days before health workers had decided to accomplish their target of 161,000 children vaccinated in the area. A tripartite coalition of tribesmen-mullahs-terrorists appears to have crystallized against the ‘common enemy’ – the purported US conspiracy behind the vaccination drive as well as drone strikes. Tribal elder Qadir Khan declared, “Polio vaccination will be banned until drone attacks are stopped.” A similar line was reiterated by another tribal elder, who argued, “Drone martyrs so many children, while polio afflicts one or two out of hundreds of thousands.”
Polio immunisation programmes in Pakistan have been reeling under terrorist attacks with a total of 71 health workers and Policemen killed in the line of duty since 2012. The first such causalities came on July 20, 2012, when unidentified terrorists shot dead doctor Ishaq (45), associated with the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) polio prevention campaign, at Al-Asif Square in the Junejo Town of Karachi. The campaign received a major jolt in December 2012 during a three-day vaccination campaign, when attacks in Karachi, and the Peshawar, Nowshera and Charsadda Districts of KP killed eight vaccinators, six of them women. Four of these women were killed in less than an hour in seemingly coordinated attacks in Karachi.
Some of the major attacks (each resulting in three or more fatalities) targeting the Polio immunisation programme include:
October 7, 2013: At least seven persons including four Policemen were killed and eight were injured as a bomb ripped through a function called to distribute anti polio material among the anti polio teams in the Suleman Khel area in the Union Council Bazidkhel of the Badhaber area of Peshawar.
January 21, 2014: At least seven persons were killed and nine injured in an explosion near a Police vehicle on its way for security duty for polio immunisation workers in the Sardheri Bazaar of Charsadda Town in KP.
January 21, 2014: Three polio workers were shot dead when unidentified terrorists opened fire on them in the Qayyumabad area of Korangi Town in Karachi.
March 1, 2014: 12 SF personnel of the Khyber Khasadar Force, who were providing security to a polio team, were killed in two separate blasts in the Lashora area of Jamrud tehsil in the Khyber Agency of FATA.
November 11: Three Levies officials were killed and two injured when an IED planted by the roadside blew up in the Chargo area of Salarazai tehsil in Bajaur Agency, FATA, while escorting polio teams.
November 26, 2014: Unidentified terrorists shot dead four polio workers, including three female health workers, and injured another three on the Eastern Bypass in the outskirts of Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan.
March 17, 2015: Two female anti-polio campaign workers and a Policeman were killed in the Danna area of the Mansehra District in KP.
The restriction of the vaccination campaign under terrorist threat have kept Pakistan and Afghanistan as the only two countries remaining on the World Health Organization’s ‘polio-endemic nations’ list. Last year, Somalia became polio-free, and WHO removed Nigeria from the polio-endemic list in 2016. According to Endpolio Pakistan data, the situation during the last two years has improved, with just 13 polio cases in 2016 and 54 in 2015. 2014 had recorded the highest number of polio cases, 306, in 15 years, with health officials blaming the rise on attacks on immunisation teams.
Source: Endpolio Pakistan.
Among the worst affected areas are KP, Balochistan and Karachi, mostly due to terrorist threat and the sheer number of children. On December 12, 2015, Senator Ayesha Raza Farooq, the Prime Minister’s focal person on polio, identified three “polio virus nurseries” from where the crippling disease continues to re-emerge and spread across the country. These nurseries are located in the Khyber-Peshawar conveyer belt, the Quetta block and Karachi, according to Senator Raza. These places “continue re-seeding the polio virus infection across the country and have become major problem areas for Pakistan’s Polio Eradication Programme continue to hamper efforts to root out the disease from the country. Senator Raza added that security issues were a leading factor behind the low impact of anti-polio campaigns in these areas.
Though the Government provides security during vaccination programmes, there is no security for the people associated with these programmes after they end. Despite precautions taken by people associated with the anti-polio campaign, the threat to life remains constant. Radical Islamism compounds the direct threat to life as a result of terrorism with the danger of a new generation exposed to this entirely preventable disease.
*Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management