The Peshawar school carnage has once again exposed the persisting gaps and vulnerabilities in Pakistan’s security infrastructure, which terrorists have time and again exploited quite easily.
The brutal attack also highlights persisting threats to the internal security of the country, which have become complex and extensive over the years.
The terrorists have certainly been put on the back foot by the ongoing military operations in North Waziristan and Khyber agencies of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, but their operational capabilities are still intact, mainly because of two factors:
First: The relocation of most of the militants’ infrastructure to the other side of the Pak-Afghan border.
Second: The presence of their support networks inside Pakistan.
Now that the political leadership has agreed to develop a plan of action to deal with the menace, there is a need to reassess the capabilities of the terrorists.
Also read: Our denial killed children in Peshawar
Militants competing for the 'terror trophy'
Both Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Al Qaeda have claimed responsibility of the attack in Peshawar. Although an operational cooperation between the two cannot be overruled, there is a strong likelihood that the TTP has managed this attack in conjunction with its Central Asian militant associates.
A review of some high-profile attacks suggests that four major militant formations act at different phases to carry out these attacks:
Al Qaeda planned and strategised
TTP provided logistical support
Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) served as operational core
Some local militant group facilitated such attacks on ground
The Peshawar school attack has been launched when TTP and other local and international groups are passing through certain transformations and internal crises. The Islamic State’s (IS) inspiration has widened their ideological and operational spectrum.
Dissatisfied commanders are challenging their leadership and forming their own groups. Internal infighting among militants has also initiated a competition between the different groups and factions not only to prove leadership skills but also operational capabilities.
Take a look: Rage and grief
Jamaatul Ahrar, a group that recently splintered away from TTP on similar grounds, has managed a series of attacks in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Fata and claimed responsibility for the suicide attack at Wagah border, Lahore.
These attacks certainly put pressure on the TTP led by Mullah Fazlullah in terms of how to remain relevant in the changing militant landscape of Pakistan.
At present, the TTP has its bases in Kunar, Nuristan and Khost provinces of Afghanistan and still has strong nexus with Central Asian militants and Al Qaeda. There is a strong probability that TTP took the lead in the Peshawar school attack in collaboration with its Central Asian allies.
The tactics employed in this attack were not new.
Initial reports suggest that the terrorists were in military uniforms and carried heavy weaponry, suicide vests and sufficient food; indicating they had planned to prolong the operation as they had managed to do in their attacks on the Mehran airbase in Karachi and the Jinnah International Airport.
The surprising element this time was their selection of the target — a soft civilian target.
After the Mina Bazaar attack in Peshawar, a debate over the selection of civilian targets had sprung up among the terrorists, but the attack on the school shows that terrorists can cross all limits when they have reached a certain stage of frustration.
The attack has therefore increased the degree of vulnerability of civilian and civilian-cum-military interests across the country.
A replication of, or increase in such attacks in the near future cannot be ruled out. Though managing large-scale attacks is not an easy task for the terrorists, growing competition among these groups has increased the level of threat.
Strategies, mechanisms, narratives — all messed up
How can such attacks be averted?
Problems and gaps in state responses are well-known, and issues of lack of coordination among security and intelligence institutions are no secret.
There is a need to integrate the sporadic and scattered responses into a comprehensive counter-terrorism or national security policy.
Know more: Challenge for politicians
Many ideological, political and operational ambiguities still persist in the understanding of issues of religious extremism and militancy which undermine the threat perception of the security apparatus. Coordination and trust is still absent among various intelligence and law enforcement departments, and the need for processing of data and analysis of information remains largely ignored.
Militants gain strength from the fragmentation and confusion over the war on terror among the security, political and civil society leadership in Pakistan.
The state and the political leadership have to realise that the real strength of most terrorist groups has been their ability to sell their cause. Through their propaganda strategies, they have tried to counterbalance the disparity between their capabilities and those of the security forces.
Nonetheless, the existing diverse militant infrastructure in the country needs some broader, strategic-level approaches to counter the threat.
Most importantly, there is the need to boost a combination of vigilance and surveillance to a level where breaking this firewall becomes impossible for the terrorists.