By Tushar Ranjan Mohanty*
At least 33 people, including 22 Shias and three Sikhs, were killed and more than 51 were injured in a suicide attack near an imambargah (Shia place of worship) in the Kalaya town of Lower Orakzai District in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) on November 23, 2018. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack so far.
This is the worst sectarian attack’ in terms of fatalities, recorded in Pakistan since June 24, 2017, when at least 67 persons were killed and more than 200 injured in back-to-back explosions in the Turi Bazaar area of Parachinar, the headquarter of Kurram Agency, in the then Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), when the market was crowed for Iftar(meal eaten by Muslims after sunset during Ramadan)and Eid(the day celebrated to mark the end of holy month of Ramadan). Initially, an explosion took place at the busy Turi Bazaar, moments after an Al Quds Day (an international day of solidarity with the Palestinian people) rally had concluded at the central imambargah. When people rushed to the spot to remove the injured and bodies, the second blast, which was more powerful, occurred, resulting in even greater death and destruction. The al-Alami (International) faction of Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LeJ) had then claimed responsibility for the twin blasts, issuing a statement that it was targeting Shias and threatened more attacks over “Pakistanis fighting against Sunni militants in Syria’s civil war”.[FATA was merged with KP on May 31, 2018, and all the former Agencies are now Districts of KP].
Since June 25, 2014, Pakistan has recorded at least 10 incidents of sectarian killing resulting in 43 fatalities and 67 persons injured. Threeof these attacks were major incidents (each resulting in three or more fatalities):
October 5, 2017: At least 24 persons, including a Police constable, were killed and more than 30 were injured in a suicide attack just outside the Dargah (shrine) of Pir Rakhyal Shah in the Gandawa area of Fatehpur, a small town in the Jhal Magsi District of Balochistan. Islamic State (IS, aka Daesh) claimed responsibility for the attack.
September 10, 2017: Unidentified assailants opened fire at a vehicle coming from Chaman in the Kuchlak area of Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan, in the evening, leaving five Shia Hazaras dead. No group claimed responsibility for the attack.
July 19, 2017: At least four persons belonging to the ethnic Hazara Shia community were shot dead when unidentified assailants opened fire on their vehicle on the main RCD highway in the Mastung town of Balochistan.No group claimed responsibility for the attack.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), at least 4,607 persons have been killed and another 8,266 injured in 1,493 incidents of sectarian violence in Pakistan since 2001 (data till November 23, 2018). Some of the other major incidents of recent past include:
March 31, 2017: At least 24 persons were killed and another 100 injured in a suicide attack on an imambargah in the Noor market area of Parachinar town in the Kurram Agency of FATA. The explosion took place as people gathered for Friday prayers near the women´s entrance of imambargah. A witness stated that security personnel at the Imambargah were checking devotees when an unidentified person parked a car next to the building, which then exploded. The Jama’at-ul-Ahrar (JuA) faction of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack. The attack was part of TTP’s “Operation Ghazi” and Shias were the targets, according to the outfit’s statement to the media.
February 16, 2017: At least 88 people were killed when a suicide bomber attacked the crowded Sufi shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in the Sehwan Sharif town of Jamshoro District in Sindh, injuring at least another 343. The blast took place inside the premises of the shrine as a dhamaal(Sufi ritual)was taking place. A large number of women and children were said to be among the casualties. Devotees throng the shrine of the revered Sufi saint every Thursday to participate in a dhamaal and prayers. Daesh claimed responsibility for the attack.
November 12, 2016: At least 52 persons were killed and 102 were injured in an explosion at the shrine of Shah Norani in the Khuzdar District of Balochistan. The explosion took place at the spot where the dhamaal was being performed, within the premises of the shrine. Daesh claimed responsibility for the attack. .
In Pakistan’s sectarianism-riddled society, Shias are the primary targets, with the second largest population (estimated at 20 to 30 per cent of the total) in the Sunni dominated nation. The primary players in this sectarian violence have been TTP and LeJ, which aim to transform Pakistan into a Sunni state, primarily through violence. The Islamic State of Khorasan is relatively new player in the sectarian bloodbath. Nevertheless, Daesh has claimed some of the major sectarian attacks in the recent past. The Pakistani establishment continues to deny the organised presence of Daesh in the country. After the Quetta Essa Nagri attack on April 15, 2018, in which two Christians were killed and another five were injured, Deputy Inspector General of Police (DIGP), Quetta, Abdul Razzaq Cheema stated, on April 16, 2018, that, “LeJ and its offshoot LeJ al-Alami, with the support of Daesh’s network operating in Afghanistan, are carrying out the attacks in Balochistan. LeJ and other sectarian groups have thrown their weight behind Daesh and they are working for them”. However, Zahid Hussain, a Pakistani security analyst, noted, on November 13, 2016, “IS may not have a formal structure in Pakistan, but certainly they have support among some of the banned terrorist groups, particularly Sunni sectarian groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Al Alami (LeJ-AA)… It’s a kind of nexus that we are seeing between global jihadi groups and local sectarian groups.”
With the Pakistan military initiating lethal targeted operations against domestically oriented terror groups, like LeJ and TTP, and consequent significant reversers inflicted on them, the country has recorded a dramatic decline in all kinds of terrorism-related fatalities, including fatalities in sectarian violence. According to the SATP database, Pakistan has recorded a total of 675 terrorism-linked fatalities (367 civilians, 155 SF personnel and 153militants) thus far in 2018 (data till November 23, 2018). At its peak, Pakistan had saw 11,704 terrorism-linked fatalities (8,389 militants, 2,324 civilians and 991 SF personnel) in 2009. Similarly, the total sectarian violence-linked fatalities stood at 40 in 2018 (data till November 23, 2018). A peak of 558 fatalities in this category was recorded in 2013. In 2017, the number of such fatalities was 231.
The latest sectarian-suicide attack is a manifestation of the fact that sect-based hatred remains deeply rooted in Pakistan. Groupings involved in such violence have sadly been used for political gains since long. On January 10, 2017, for instance, the then Federal Minister of Interior Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan created an uproar in the Senate (Upper House of National Assembly) by stating that “banned sectarian organisations could not be equated with other banned terrorist organisations”. The Minister made this remark to justify his meeting with Ahmed Ludhianvi, the chief of the banned sectarian Ahle-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ).
Sunni militant groups backed by the authorities at the helm have sustained a violent campaign against Shia Muslims, particularly since the time of former dictator General Zia-ul-Haq. Prominent anti-Shia groups include the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), the Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jama’at (ASWJ), earlier known as Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP). SAIR noted in the past that both political parties and the military leadership have propped up and exploited Islamist extremist and sectarian formations, in pursuit of their own agendas. Increasingly, however, these radical groups are realizing their own power and capacity for mass mobilization and, instead of operating as proxies for others, seek a direct political role for themselves. The ‘political front’ of the United Nations (UN)-designated terrorist Hafiz Muhammad Saeed-led Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), the Milli Muslim League (MML), radical groups like Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), sectarian groups like Alh-e-Sunnat-Wal-Jamaat (ASWJ) contested the General Elections of July 25, 2018, often in alliance or with the support of other political parties.
Islamabad has long been opportunistically complicit with Sunni sectarian elements, with state actors providing patronage and protection. While the rising tide of domestic terrorism has forced the state’s hand to act against domestically oriented terrorist formations – resulting in the targeting of TTP-affiliated sectarian outfits as well – the state’s orientation to Sunni sectarian violence remains ambivalent. The spectre of sectarian violence is unlikely to leave Pakistan in the foreseeable future.
*Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management