By Tushar Ranjan Mohanty*
At least 26 persons, including nine Policemen, were killed and another 56 were injured, in a suicide blast near the Arfa Karim IT Tower on Ferozepur Road, Lahore, the provincial capital of Punjab, in the afternoon of July 24, 2017. The suicide attack was carried out during the demolition of the old fruit and vegetable market. The suicide bomber, aged between 16 and 18 years, apparently riding a motorcycle, reached the spot where the Police were standing guard to avert any retaliation from the owners of the buildings being demolished. The bomber – wearing a suicide jacket containing at least 12 kilogrammes of explosives and shrapnel – triggered the blast at 3:55 pm (PST). An hour after the incident, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack, stating that it had been carried out by its member Fida Hussain Sawati, and released his photograph on social media. However, on July 25, law enforcement agencies identified a new terrorist network, Taliban Special Group (TSG), an offshoot of TTP, as being responsible for the July 24 attack. This was the first assault by TSG, which reportedly includes some highly trained suicide attackers.
This was the third suicide attack targeting Lahore in 2017. Six people, including four Army soldiers and an off-duty Air Force airman, lost their lives after a suicide bomber targeted a census team in the Bedian Road area of Lahore on April 5, 2017. At least 19 others were injured in the attack. TTP claimed responsibility.
On February 13, 2017 at least 14 persons were killed and 85 injured when a suicide bomber struck around 6pm outside the Punjab Assembly on Mall Road, Lahore, during a protest. Six Police officials were among the dead, including two senior officers: Deputy Inspector General (DIG), Traffic, Lahore, Captain (Retd.) Ahmad Mobin and Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP), Operations, Zahid Gondal of Punjab Police. A large group of chemists and pharmaceutical manufacturers were gathered in front of the Provincial Assembly to protest a Government crackdown against the sale of illegal drugs. There was a significant presence of SFs in the area while the protest was ongoing. Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) Chief Dr Mohammad Iqbal disclosed, “The suicide attacker was on foot.” The Jama’at-ul-Ahrar (JuA) faction of TTP claimed responsibility for the attack.
Though the first seven months of 2017 were relatively peaceful in comparison to the corresponding period of 2016, the succession of suicide attacks on law enforcement personnel in the provincial capital come as a reminder of persisting terrorist capacity disrupt the fragile peace. According to partial data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management, the Province has registered a 33.83 per cent decrease in overall fatalities, from 198 persons killed in the first seven months of 2016, down to 131 such fatalities in the corresponding period of 2017. While fatalities in the civilian and terrorist categories saw 64.63 and 19.79 per cent declines, respectively, in the corresponding period, a 25 per cent rise in the SF category was worrying.
The report of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT) released on July 11, 2017, corroborated a 33 per cent decrease in terrorism incidents in Punjab during the period. The PILDAT report observed that Punjab had apparently improved its performance in the implementation of the National Action Plan (NAP) during first quarter (January-March) of 2017 as compared to the performance in the previous two years (2015-2016), noting: “Punjab had witnessed 12 major terrorist attacks during 2015-2016, bringing the average to 1.5 during each quarter, compared to one terrorist incident during the first quarter of 2017… Of the 15 points pertaining to the performance of Punjab on the implementation of the NAP (20 points), the first quarter of 2017 has recorded upward progress on the implementation of points No 3, 6, 7, 9, 10, 14, 15 in Punjab.” NAP points in which progress has been noted principally include constraints on operation and finance of terrorism, containment of terrorist formations, steps against religious persecution, the regulation of religious seminaries and measures relating to the abuse of the internet and social media by terrorists. Points on which performance has remained unchanged relate to the implemented of death sentences for terror convicts, performance of special courts and reform of the criminal justice system, various steps against the media to neutralize promotion of terrorism and glorification of terrorists, dismantling terrorist communication networks, effective action against sectarian terrorists.
The decline in terrorism-related incidents can be attributed to the launch of a Province-wide crackdown on terrorist groups following the February 14-suicide attack on Mall Road, Lahore. The Provincial Intelligence Centre of the Punjab Home Department had issued a letter directing the Police leadership to beef up security in different cities of the Province. The letter was circulated among the Divisional Commissioners, Regional Police Offices (RPOs), Capital City Police Officer (CCPO) of Lahore, Deputy Commissioners, Central Police Offices (CPO) and District Police officers.
Further, on February 19, 2017, during a Provincial Apex Committee meeting chaired by Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, the Punjab Government decided to seek support from the Rangers to combat terrorism in Punjab. On February 22, the Federal Government approved a request forwarded by the Government of Punjab for the deployment of Rangers personnel in the Province. The decision was taken by Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan during a high-level meeting attended by National Security Adviser Nasir Khan Janjua, Federal Secretary of the Interior Arif Ahmad Khan, Punjab Chief Secretary Zahid Saeed and other officials of the Punjab Government. Punjab had requested the deployment of over 2,000 Rangers in the Province, with policing powers to conduct Intelligence-based Operations (IBOs) against terrorists, wherever required and with full authority. 10 companies of Rangers have been posted in Punjab with Police powers for the next 60 days under the Anti Terrorism Act.
After receiving the official notification on February 22, the Rangers conducted their first combing operation in the Rawalpindi area of Punjab. By February 26, they had conducted over 200 search operations in various areas including Karor, Layyah and Rawalpindi, and had arrested over 600 suspects.
During this period of 60 days (between February 19-April 22), 53 terrorists were killed across the Province in intelligence based operations, including the following prominent actions:
February 19: CTD killed five JuA terrorists in a shootout in Dera Sami Patti area of Chubara tehsil (revenue unit) in Layyah District.
February 24: CTD conducted an operation in which six terrorists were killed in the Patti Sultan Mahmood area of Muzaffargarh District.
March 29: Five terrorists affiliated to al Qaeda and TTP were killed by CTD during an encounter in the Kanja area of Gujarat District.
April 7: CTD killed 10 JuA terrorists in the night in the Manawan area of Lahore.
April 9: Five terrorists and one Pakistan Ranger were killed while one Rangers Deputy Superintendent received injuries during an IBO in Chhera Thal area of Dera Ghazi Khan District.
April 15: At least nine terrorists and three Pakistan Rangers personnel were killed during an exchange of fire in Basti Dadwani near the Choti Zareen area of Dera Ghazi Khan.
April 19: CTD personnel killed eight terrorists, neutralizing a ‘big’ TTP cell in the Narang area of Sheikhupura District. Two CTD officials were injured in the shootout.
Encouraged by these results, the Interior Ministry gave approval for a further extension of 60 days for the deployment and powers of the Rangers in Punjab on April 19, 2017. A Ministry statement noted that the ‘present powers’ of the Rangers were to end on April 22. Three days before the expiry of the period, the Federal Government issued a notification for the extension on the request of the Punjab Government under the Anti-Terrorism Act of1997.
Despite the success of the counterterrorism operations, there at least 113 ‘most-wanted terrorists’ from various Districts of Punjab still in operation, according to a April 23 Ministry of Interior and Narcotics Control (MINC) report. According to the document, 19 most-wanted terrorists hail from Lahore; eight each from Sargodha and Faisalabad Districts; six from Rawalpindi, a city located next to the Federal capital; five each from Rahim Yar Khan, Sheikhupura, Bhakkar, Multan and Attock Districts. No terrorist on the ‘most wanted’ list belonged to Sialkot, Jhelum, Hafizabad, Vehari, Narowal, Okara, Chiniot, and Rajanpur in Punjab. However, some suspected terrorists from these Districts have been added to Schedule Four of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), 1997, which allows for terrorism suspects to be brought under observation.
The MINC document divides wanted terrorists into three categories, with about 22 potential suicide attackers. The Punjab Home Department has also notified head money of PKR 50.33 million for 73 wanted terrorists out of the 113 listed, according to the report. The second category contains profiles of 62 alleged Sunni terrorists, while the third is of 29 alleged Shia extremists. Of the total of 62 terrorists, nine are from Lahore; eight from Faisalabad; five from Rahim Yar Khan District; three each from Multan, Mianwali, Rawalpindi and Sargodha.
The recent suicide attack has blown holes in the Government’s measures to contain terrorism. Reports indicate that the Punjab Police had been warned in advance about possible terrorist attacks in Lahore, with an advisory not to concentrate deployments at one place. At least 72 hours ahead of the July 24 terrorist attack in Lahore, the Punjab Police had been warned, but the message was either not taken seriously or not communicated to the grass root level in time. The suicide attack occurred just a few meters away from 180-H Model Town – the Punjab Chief Minister’s camp office, exposing the called combing operations and vulnerabilities of the provincial metropolis.
Security experts have been dismayed at the failure to follow Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) by Provincial police units across Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, resulting in such tragic incidents. In a number of recent attacks, policemen were hit by terrorists while they were sitting in clusters, often at lunch, without proper guard and without due vigilance against possible attackers.
Further, whenever operations have been launched against terrorists in the tribal areas, they have retaliated in the major cities. The recent launch of Operation Khyber-4 in the Rajgal Valley area of the Khyber Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) on July 16, inevitably drew the terrorists’ wrath upon major cities, and security agencies appear to have failed to have taken necessary preventive measures against such retaliatory operations. By targeting Lahore, the terrorists have demonstrated that they are far from being eliminated, contrary to what both the civilian and military leaderships have regularly claimed.
* Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management