IT has been a bad start to the period of mourning. On Monday, five people belonging to the Shia community fell victim to sectarian violence in Karachi. Yesterday, a day before the start of Muharram, in what came across as reprisal attacks, six activists of the ASWJ were killed. The victims did not consist of individuals alone; in probably the first incident of its kind, gunmen shot dead a horse representing Zuljanah, Imam Husain’s steed in Karbala. The militants have clearly indicated that it is not merely mourners they will target, but also precious symbols of belief. This forewarning must be taken seriously by the law enforcers in the run-up to Ashura. True, the last three years were relatively peaceful during Muharram, and we can give credit to both the security agencies and community members for their vigilance. But given the rise in sectarian killings over the years, the difficult nature of the task facing the security outfit is clear. Some volatile zones are already known to us — Karachi, Khairpur, Quetta, Hangu, Jhang and Bhakkar — and beefing up security in these places should be a priority. Given the strong security cordon around imambargahs during Muharram, majaalis held indoors are relatively safe; the real challenge lies in guarding outdoor processions that are more exposed. Here community participation has proved to be effective because volunteers can identify strangers and suspects and help in frisking mourners.

The sectarian militants are well organised and have their own system of gathering information. They have access to the latest technology and are a step ahead of the overall counterterrorism strategy. That is where we can see the gap. The political face of sectarianism is known to the intelligence agencies; but greater efforts are needed to crack down on militants. Without a serious approach to the problem of sectarian militancy, the risk of communal flare-ups, which has so far not manifested itself in most places, cannot be discounted.

Security measures during Muharram aside, there is also a need to dismantle the terrorist network that carries out sectarian and other attacks. Without penetrating the well-organised system of sleeper cells, training centres and suicide factories run by the enemy, it would be near impossible to check acts of terror across the country. At the same time, a check is also required to be kept on those who show their hate towards communities through incendiary speeches and literature. Engaging rational-minded Shia and Sunni religious scholars would be indispensable to this exercise.