By Ajit Kumar Singh*
On July 13, 2018, at least 149 civilians were killed and 186 others injured when a suicide bomber blew himself up targeting a political rally of the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) at Dringarh village in Mastung District of Balochistan. According to the bomb disposal squad (BDS), up to 15 kilograms of explosive material was used in the incident. The dead included Siraj Raisani, the BAP candidate from National Assembly seat Province Balochistan–35 (PB-35, Mastung). Siraj’s elder brother, Nawab Aslam Raisani, was the Chief Minister of Balochistan Province between 2008 and 2013. Most of the other victims were residents of Kanak and Dringarh areas, who had invited Raisani to announce their support for him. The Islamic State (IS) and the ‘Ghazi force Lal Masjid’ wing of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) separately claimed responsibility for the attack.
On the same day, at least four persons were killed and another 32 injured in a bomb triggered by remote control, targeting the convoy of Akram Khan Durrani in the Haved Bazaar (market) area of Bannu town (Bannu District) in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Durrani had served as Federal Minister for Housing and Works between June 2013 and May 2018, and as Chief Minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa between 2002 and 2007. He was heading back from an election rally near North Waziristan District. Durrani, who escaped unhurt, is the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) candidate for the National Assembly seat Province Khyber Pakhtunkhwa-35 (PK-35, Bannu), standing against Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) leader Imran Khan. The attack was claimed by TTP.
On July 10, 2018, at least 22 persons, including Awami National Party (ANP) leader Haroon Bilour, were killed and over 30 people injured in a suicide blast which targeted an ANP election gathering in the Yakatoot area of Peshawar, the provincial capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The blast took place when Haroon Bilour, who was a candidate from the National Assembly seat Province Khyber Paktunkhwa-78 (PK-78), arrived at the site where the ANP workers had gathered for a meeting. Bilour suffered serious injuries and was shifted to the hospital, where he succumbed to his wounds. Mohammad Khurasani, TTP ‘spokesperson’, claimed responsibility of the blast. Earlier, on April 16, 2013, TTP had carried out an attack targeting Haroon Bilour in the Mundabheri area of Yakatoot in Peshawar. Though Haroon had escaped unhurt, 16 persons were killed and more than 35 others were injured in the attack. Among the injured was Haroon’s uncle and senior ANP leader Ghulam Ahmed Bilour. While claiming responsibility, the then TTP ‘spokesperson’ Ehsanullah Ehsan had told journalists that Haroon was the target, but “unfortunately Ghulam Ahmed Bilour got injured”. Haroon Bilour was the son of Bashir Ahmed Bilour, a senior ANP leader and the then Minister for Local Government and Rural Development in KP Assembly, who was killed by a suicide bomber during a party meeting in the Qissa Khawani Bazaar area of Peshawar on December 22, 2012. Eight others were killed and another 17 others had sustained injuries in that blast. TTP had claimed the attack.
These were the three most prominent election-related terror incidents among 12 reported from across Pakistan since the announcement of the date of General Elections 2018 by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) on May 26, 2018. At least 180 people (178 civilians and two militants) have been killed in these incidents and another 270 have been injured. The General Elections 2018 are scheduled to be held on July 25, 2018.
The attacks have taken place despite National Coordinator of the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) Suleman Khan issuing a warning on July 9, 2018, that terrorists could target top leaders of political parties during their election campaigns. Khan disclosed,
As head of the NACTA an organization established to coordinate counter terrorism efforts I would say we have received some very serious reports. Hitherto NACTA has issued 12 threat alerts based upon source reports concerning the election campaigns, some quite general and others particular.
General Elections in Pakistan have been a bloody affair for some time now. During the General Elections 2013 (declared on March 22, 2013, and conducted on May 11, 2013), at least 268 persons (260 civilians, seven Security Force, SF, personnel, one militant) were killed and another 45 injured in 80 election-related terror incidents. The worst election-related terror incident during this period was recorded on May 6, 2013, when 23 civilians were killed and more than 70 were injured in a blast targeting an election rally of the Fazal faction of Jamiat Ulema-e Islam (JUI-F) in the Sewak village area of Kurram Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
Similarly, General Elections 2008 were marred by terror incidents. In the period between February 8, 2007 (the date of declaration of elections) and the election date, February 18, 2008, at least 259 persons (251 civilians and eight militants) were killed and another 513 injured in 14 election-related terror incidents. The worst election-related terror incident during this period was recorded on February 16, 2008, when a suicide bomber rammed his explosives-laden car into the election office of an independent candidate in Parachinar city, FATA, killing at least 47 persons, including six children, and injuring 109 others.
Even against this background, the current elections are a matter of great concern, because they follow a phase of relative calm. Terrorism-related fatalities have recorded declining trends over the past few years, but election violence has put Pakistan once again on the boil. During a single week – between July 9 and July 15 – Pakistan has accounted for at least 178 terrorism-related deaths (176 civilians and two militants) as against a total of 281 (90 civilians, 95 SF personnel, and 96 militants) such fatalities recorded in first 189 days of the current year.
Significantly, moreover, the July 13, 2018, incident is the worst attack, in terms of fatalities, recorded since the Army Public School (APS) attack on December 16, 2014, in which at least 150 persons, including 134 children, nine school staff members and all seven suicide attackers, were killed.
The Pakistani establishment – civilian and military – has, from time to time, claimed that ‘terrorism is over’. The Chief of Army Staff (CoAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa claimed, on October 11, 2017, that Pakistan had improved the security situation on the internal front and defeated the challenges to the writ of the State, though a ‘residual threat’ remained. Further, on January 13, 2018, the then Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi declared that Pakistan had achieved remarkable success against terrorism: “The tide has been turned against terrorists and their capacity to conduct activities has been immensely curtailed.” It is pertinent to mention here that though terrorism-linked fatalities were on a decline between December 16, 2014, and July 13, 2018, there were at least 156 major incidents (involving three or more civilian killings) targeting civilians even during this period. At least five of these incidents recorded over 50 civilian fatalities each, including one in which 88 persons were killed, and two where 74 persons were killed in each.
As SAIR has noted earlier, all the factors responsible for the rise of terrorism in Pakistan remain intact, and no honest effort has been made to deal with basic issues, as state policy continues to support select terrorist formations and is against taking any hard measures against domestic extremism as well.
Crucially, the infiltration of terrorist elements into mainstream politics in Pakistan now appears imminent. The Nation thus reported on July 8, 2018,
Religious parties have fielded the highest number of candidates on the National Assembly seats for the first time in the country’s history, focusing on all the provinces and breaking all past records. Although Jamaat-e-Islami [JeI] had come up with a long list of aspirants in 1970 against the then nominees of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s PPP [Pakistan Peoples Party] and Sheikh Mujeeb’s Awami League [AL] in East and West Pakistan, and Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal [MMA] had also fielded candidates across the country in 2002, the number stands the highest this time. More than 460 aspirants fielded separately by MMA, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan [Tehreek-e-Labbaik ya Rasool Allah Pakistan (TLP)], Milli Muslim League [MML, the political front of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) chief Hafeez Saeed-led Jammat-ud-Dawa (JuD)]-backed Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek and other small entities…
Significantly, TLP, an Islamist party, erupted against the alleged change in the Khatm-e-Nabuwat [finality of Prophet-hood] clause, and has now underlined its extremist-terrorist orientation. TLP chief Maulana Khadim Hussain Rizvi, who has fielded as many as 152 candidates for the General Elections 2018, declared on July 9, 2018,
If they give me the atom bomb I would remove Holland from the face of the earth before they can hold a competition of caricature. I will wipe them off the face of this earth.
He was referring to a competition of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad announced by The Freedom Party of Dutch anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders in June 2018.
Among the 460 candidates for the NA Elections, are Hafeez Saeed’s son, Hafiz Talha Saeed, and son-in-law, Khalid Waleed, both internationally proscribed terrorists. Significantly, they face no face impediment in standing for elections.
On the other hand, attempts are being made by the deep state to target particular political formations among the front line parties, most prominently Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), which has been in power since 2013, using courts and ECP. For instance, on July 14, 2018, the Lahore Police registered at least 12 FIRs [First Information Reports] against top PML-N leaders, including the current party chief Shehbaz Sharif, on charges of terrorism, attempt to murder, interference in government matters, and violation of Section 144 of Pakistan Penal Code which prohibits joining unlawful assembly armed with deadly weapon. Shehbaz Sharif, the Chief Minister of Punjab Province till May 2018 (the Punjab Province like other Provinces and the country are presently under care taker Governments) is the brother of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The FIRs were lodged a day after violent clashes erupted between PML-N supporters and law enforcers on Nawaz Sharif’s arrival in Lahore. Nawaz Sharif and his daughter, Maryam, were convicted by an Accountability Court on July 6, 2018, in absentia, while they were visiting Sharif’s ailing wife in London. The sentence, 10 years in prison in Nawaz Sharif’s case, came almost a year after Pakistan’s Supreme Court removed him from office and less than five months after the court barred him from holding office for life. The case stemmed from the so-called Panama Papers leak that disclosed expensive and undeclared property owned by the Sharif family in London. Nawaz Sharif and Mryam were both arrested on their arrival and are currently lodged in Rawalpindi’s Adiala Jil.
The Leader of Opposition in the Senate, PPP Senator Sherry Rehman on July 12, 2018, also alleged that some parties were being rewarded while others being targeted, including the PPP. Talking to journalists after she and Senator Maula Bakhsh Chandio met with Chief Election Commissioner Justice Sardar Muhammad Raza Khan, she said they apprised him of their concerns and how their candidates were being disqualified and pressured to change loyalties. She complained that they had been talking to the ECP for over a month, but ECP was not paying any attention to their concerns. “’Proscribed organisations’ candidates are being brought to the forefront, while our candidates are being disqualified,” she asserted, “Our party is being stopped from running its election campaign. Magisterial powers are being given to people other than the presiding officers.”
The efforts of the military to steer the elections against PML-N and PPP, the two most popular political formations in Pakistan, and in favour of a possible coalition led by Imran Khan’s PTI and including a range of radical Islamist formations, has enormously destabilized both the political and extremist landscape across the country. Under the prevailing situation, a dramatic rise in violence is not unexpected.
*Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management