By Ajit Kumar Singh
At least 28 persons were killed and another 60 injured in twin suicide attacks in the Civil Lines area of Quetta, the Provincial capital of Balochistan, on September 7, 2011. At 8.58 AM, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a vehicle packed with explosives near the Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of the Frontier Corps (FC, Balochistan), Brigadier Farrukh Shehzad’s car. Five minutes later, another suicide bomber entered the DIG’s house and detonated his device. According to a Civil Defense official, about 100 kilograms of explosives were used in the twin blasts. Significant gunfire was also reported from the site of the blast. The attacks targeted the DIG, and the dead included Colonel Khalid Masood of the FC and the wife of the DIG. Shehzad was injured, but survived.
Earlier, on April 7, 2011, a suicide attack at the house of DIG (Investigations), Wazir Nasir Khan, in Quetta, killed two persons – the bomber and a Police Constable. The attacker entered the residential Police colony in an explosive laden car and rammed it into the DIG’s house. A Police constable posted at the gate died, and nine others, including the DIG and several children, were injured.
Claiming responsibility for the September 7 attacks, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan stated, “Our fidayeen (suicide bombers) have carried out this attack. It is revenge for the arrests of our brothers in Quetta. If they make more arrests then the reaction will be much more forceful.” On September 5, 2011, Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) disclosed that FC personnel had arrested senior al Qaeda leader, Younis al-Mauritani, believed to have been responsible for planning attacks on the US, Europe and Australia, in Quetta on an unspecified date. He was arrested along with two other high-ranking al Qaeda operatives, Abdul Ghaffar Al Shami aka Bachar Chama and Messara Al Shami aka Mujahid Amino. On September 7, 2011, the US had imposed financial sanctions on three al Qaeda militants based in Pakistan, including al-Mauritani, as well as the Libya-born propaganda chief, Abu Yahya al-Libi, and Mustafa Hajji Muhammad Khan, responsible for logistical support to al Qaeda.
Quetta witnesses high levels of violence, both by Islamist extremists and Baloch nationalists. There have already been at least 79 militancy-related incidents in Quetta in 2011 (till September 12), as against 101 in 2010, 73 in 2009, 81 in 2008, 72 in 2007, 75 in 2006, 61 in 2005, 51 in 2004 and 32 in 2003, according to the partial data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management. At least 136 persons, including 113 civilians, 12 Security Force (SF) personnel and 11 militants, had been killed in the current year (till September 12). Fatalities in 2010 stood at 177, including 152 civilians 20 SFs and five militants. The Balochistan Province accounted for at least 502 and 347 terrorism / militancy related fatalities in 2011 and 2010, respectively.
Terrorist violence in Quetta has had a significant sectarian overlay. In a prominent attack, at least 11 Shias were killed and another three were injured when their vehicle was attacked near a bus stop on Spiny Road in Quetta on July 30, 2011. In another attack, a suicide car bomb killed at least 11 Shias and injured 22, while they were celebrating Eid-ul-Fitr in Quetta on August 31, 2011. The bomber was apparently targeting a Shiite mosque, but could not get close enough because the road was blocked. Significantly, Federal Minister of Interior Rehman Malik on July 13 said over the past three years, 134 Punjabi-speaking people had been killed, while another 45 were killed in sectarian violence in Balochistan.
The relatively small proportion of SF fatalities, however, indicates that frontal engagements with the militants occur infrequently, suggesting a tacit understanding between the two apparently warring sides. Significantly, where a succession of major military operations have been launched (no doubt with very uncertain outcomes) in other provinces, including the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), and even in the Baloch rebel areas of South Balochistan, the Taliban dominated North Balochistan, including Quetta and its environs see little by way of concerted military effort to defeat the extremists. The reason is obvious, and increasingly acknowledged by security observers: as is the case in the North Waziristan agency in FATA, where the presence of the Jalaluddin Haqqani Network has prevented Pakistani Forces from even thinking of launching operations, the existence of the Mullah Mohammad Omar dominated Quetta Shura, and of senior al Qaeda leaders in Quetta, explain Islamabad’s reluctance to launch operations in this region.
The Quetta Shura, as the name suggests is a Shura (council) based in Balochistan’s provincial capital. It was formed by Taliban militants, under the leadership of Mullah Omar, who fled Afghanistan after US Forces attacked the Taliban in Afghanistan in November 2001. After long denying the existence of this group, the Pakistan Government, on December 10, 2009, conceded the existence of the Shura. Defense Minister Chaudhary Ahmad Mukhtar claimed, in a media interview, that the SFs had “taken on” the Quetta Shura and had inflicted considerable damage, adding, “It no longer poses any threat.” Evidently, both the operational success claimed was vastly exaggerated, and all indicators suggest that the Quetta Shura is alive, well and quite active, even as the policy of denial has been restored. In the latest assertion to this effect, for instance, Balochistan Chief Minister Nawab Muhammad Aslam Raisani on August 4, 2011, denied media reports about the existence of Quetta Shura or the presence of Mullah Omar or al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri in Balochistan.
Nevertheless, on May 16, 2011, SFs did kill five suspected al Qaeda linked militants, foiling an alleged attempt to carry out a suicide bombing in Quetta. Earlier, a person suspected of having links with the Afghan Taliban was arrested along with explosives during a search of the Quetta-bound Chaman passenger train at the Chaman Railway Station on April 8, 2011. The September 5, 2011, arrest of Younis al-Mauritani and two of his associates from the city demonstrated the presence of some top al Qaeda operatives in Quetta. Worryingly, the extremists also have a huge popular support base, and hundreds took to the streets in Quetta on May 2, 2011, to pay homage to Osama bin Laden, chanting “Death to America” and setting the US flag ablaze. The demonstrations were led by Maulvi Asmatullah, an independent Member of the National Assembly.
Meanwhile, Interior Minister Malik, in a Press Conference on September 10, 2011, disclosed information that suggested that the situation in Quetta was decidedly likely to worsen. He claimed that, “The Tehreek-e-Taliban [Pakistan, TTP] leaders, who were based in the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA), are facing defeat at the hand of the Pakistan Army and have now moved to Quetta.”
The Quetta Shura-al Qaeda combine has plagued US-led forces fighting in Afghanistan. In one of the deadliest recent attacks, on August 6, 2011, Afghan Taliban militants, working under the guidance of the Quetta Shura shot down a Chinook Transport Helicopter in the Wardak Province of eastern Afghanistan, killing 30 US troops, including 22 Navy SEAL’s from the elite Team 6 – the unit that neutralised Osama bin Laden in the Abbottabad raid – six Afghan National Army (ANA) commandos, and one civilian interpreter. Reiterating Islamabad’s support to terrorist formations in Afghanistan, US Republican Senator Mark Kirk, on September 6, 2011, stated, “Let me be clear: many Americans died in Afghanistan because of Pakistan’s ISI [Inter Services Intelligence]… Pakistan’s intelligence service is the biggest danger to the Afghan Government. It is also a tremendous threat to the lives of American troops.”
Pakistan has also utilized the militant combine’s services in carrying out attacks against Indian interests in Afghanistan. 79 persons have been killed in at least 16 attacks on Indian interests in Afghanistan since 2003. In the latest of such attacks, two Indian nationals were killed in a missile strike launched by Taliban militants on an Indian Non Governmental Organisation’s (NGO’s) office in Kunar Province of Afghanistan on October 11, 2010. Earlier, on February 26, 2010, Taliban militants carried out coordinated suicide attacks at two hotels in Kabul, killing at least nine Indians, including two Major-rank Army officers. At least 10 others, including five Indian Army officers, were injured in the strike, which killed eight others, including locals and nationals from other countries. The bombers, believed to be three in number, struck at the guest houses, particularly at Park Residence, rented out by the Indian Embassy for its staffers and those linked to India’s developmental work in Afghanistan. These attacks are believed to have been directed by the Quetta Shura.
The Pakistan establishment believes that its relations with Afghanistan under the incumbent President Hamid Karzai are at odds and its perceived need for ‘strategic depth’ in the country. Consequently, Islamabad has supported Taliban formations in Afghanistan, including the Quetta Shura, believing that these will help drive its strategic interests forward in the event of a premature US withdrawal.
There is visible reluctance in the Government and the Army to take on the Quetta Shura and al Qaeda elements in and around Quetta, even as Pakistan’s SFs execute a brutal ‘kill and dump’ policy against Baloch nationalist rebels. Voice for Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP) Chairman Nasrullah Baloch on August 18, 2011, claimed that more than 190 bullet-riddled dead bodies had been found during the preceding 11 months. Earlier on June 29, 2011, describing lawlessness in the Province, Zohra Yusuf, Chairperson, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, confirmed that at least 140 mutilated bodies of people who had gone ‘missing’, had been recovered over the preceding year. “A very dangerous trend has emerged that those who disappeared were now found dead on roadsides. The bodies have torture marks,” she noted. The disappearances and killings are widely believed to have been engineered by the Pakistan Army and its intelligence services. Meanwhile, on August 16, 2011, former Balochistan Chief Minister Mir Humayun Marri alleged that the SFs, backed by the Police, had planted arms and ammunition at his farmhouse as a part of bigger plot to kill him.
As in its other provinces, Pakistan’s dual game of targeting one set of militants / extremists, while protecting and even supporting others who are deemed to serve the country’s purported ‘strategic interests’, continues in Balochistan as well. Indeed, in order to appease the Quetta Shura-al Qaeda combine, Pakistan has even asked the US to vacate the Shamsi Air Base in the Kharan District of North West Balochistan, as it overlooks the Quetta region, and is used by the US to execute Drone operations against these groups within and outside Balochistan.
Quetta Shura and al Qaeda linked terrorists are bringing increasing chaos into the city in particular, and the Balochistan Province and the country at large. The ambivalence of the Pakistani establishment has fed, and continues to feed, their power both within the country, and across the border into Afghanistan, where they have wreaked devastation in eight Provinces, including Helmand and Kandahar, where some of the highest International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Afghan fatalities have been recorded.
Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management