The shrine of Rahman Baba, following an attack by militants in 2009
The shrine of Rahman Baba, following an attack by militants in 2009
Some years ago, a man appeared at the funeral congregation of Noor Rahman’s mother, a man no one appeared to have invited. He visited for three days, the customary mourning period, flanked each time by a contingent of men wielding rifles.

The presence of the man filled Rahman with trepidation; he wasn’t on nodding terms with him but everyone knew who he was: a local leader of the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, the latest incarnation of the banned Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), a man whose mystic name – Muhammad Ismail Darvesh – belied his militant tendencies.

Rahman, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, discovered to his dismay that Darvesh was also a friend of his son, Arsalan.

In the days following the funeral, Arsalan began growing his hair, lank locks that reached his shoulders. He openly insisted on joining hands with the Taliban.

Rahman says he didn’t know what to do: “Arsalan was extremely difficult to handle. Sometimes I’d address him harshly, sometimes with excessive courtesy — anything that would make him change his mind.”

A compromise was ultimately reached: Rahman agreed to let his son join the Tableeghi Jamaat, a religious movement with an emphasis on proselytisation over militancy. Arsalan was too young to go on tableegh as per the rules of the Tableeghi Markaz but he was at least engaged enough to resist the pull of the militant groups in the neighbourhood. Rahman breathed in relief.

Extending for seven kilometres, flanking the left side of the City Circular Road from Lahori Gate to Aasia Gate, the area that Rahman calls home is now known as both a breeding and battle ground for militancy. Inhabited mostly by Mohmand and Afridi tribesmen who started migrating here in the 1950s, it is said to be teeming with activists of multiple militant organisations: sectarian outfits such as the outlawed SSP and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi as well as more generalist terror groups such as the Mohmand chapter of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

Evidence of this is everywhere: In the Waliabad area, in plain view of the Agha Mir Jani Shah police station, the SSP has christened a chowk after Noor Gul, an activist believed to be behind a failed assassination attempt on Nawaz Sharif when he was prime minister in the 1990s.

Noor Gul was killed in a police encounter some years later. During the 2013 general elections, candidates linked to the SSP – who contested under an alliance of religious parties called the Muttahida Deeni Mahaz – received a reasonable number of votes: Saeedur Rahman Safi bagged 2,782 votes in PK-1 and Darvesh received 3,831 votes in PK-3, both constituencies of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assembly.

This suburban belt has also witnessed a number of attacks. In the particularly notorious area of Beeri Bagh, stands the shrine of beloved Mughal-era Pakhtun poet Rahman Baba — it was blasted by militants in March 2009.

Across the road from the suburban belt, within the walled city that houses the majority of Peshawar’s Hindko-speaking population, is the century-old All Saints Church, where 87 Christian worshippers were killed in a bomb explosion in September 2013. Indeed, the variety of attacks that have taken place within the radius of few kilometres from this area – on churches and shrines, political activists and Shia professionals as well as on hapless police personnel – is both a testament to the fading cosmopolitan nature of the city and a warning against the potent lethality of allowing a militant sanctuary to flourish here.

Army personnel arrive at the Army Public School in Peshawar after the attack. Photo courtesy: INP
Army personnel arrive at the Army Public School in Peshawar after the attack. Photo courtesy: INP

Age has failed to slow down septuagenarian Pir Muhammad Chishti: He runs a madrasa, established in 1966, and simultaneously serves as the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa patron of Tahirul Qadri’s Minhajul Quran and Pakistan Awami Tehreek.

But a few years ago, he could barely step out of his house. “That was a very critical time,” recalls Chishti, a native of Chitral who adheres to the Barelvi school of thought. He was receiving threats at the time from the Mangal Bagh-led Lashkar-e-Islam. “We had strict security measures in place at our madrasa; whenever I had to step out for something unavoidable, I’d use a different route each time to reach my destination.”

“This belt is highly dangerous,” he warns. “Even the presence of al Qaeda can’t be ruled out.”

Chishti points towards the slew of seminaries present in the area, many of which are run by radical Deobandis and Salafis. One of them, situated outside Gunj Gate, was put under sanctions by the United States in August 2013.

The US treasury department alleged that the madrasa radicalised students to conduct terrorist and insurgent activities: “In some cases, students were trained to become bomb manufacturers and suicide bombers.” Chisti is of the opinion that most of the seminaries do not impart jihadi training to students, though. “Rather they provide would-be militants with ideological support,” he says.

Another cleric, who works as a khateeb in a Barelvi mosque surrounded by radical seminaries, points to the number of recent attacks on security personnel as proof of the sensitivity of the area.

On July 18, 2014, three policemen were killed and another injured when their van hit an improvised explosive device (IED) in the jurisdiction of Agha Mir Jani Shah police station. On October 2, an assistant sub-inspector of police – Asif Mehmood – was gunned down in the same area. A week later, a Frontier Corps personnel was shot dead within the jurisdiction of the same police station.

Indeed, says Muhammad Shahid, these areas along the City Circular Road are similar in nature to Matani, a village in Peshawar that borders Darra Adamkhel, known for its gun bazaars and for housing the Tariq Geedar faction of the TTP. Shahid’s brother Anwarul Haq, an organising secretary for the Awami National Party in Peshawar district, was gunned down in Kohati area in May last year.

“Most of the people nominated in the FIRs of Shia targeted killings belong to this belt,” states Muzaffar Ali Akhunzada, coordination secretary for the Imamia Jirga Peshawar.

He runs an organisation that looks after the families of those killed in terrorist attacks, irrespective of sect. His own brother, Anwar Ali Akhunzada, was gunned down in 2000 — the two men nominated in his murder belonged to these same areas, he says. Nineteen members of the Shia community have lost their lives in instances of targeted killing in the past year and Akhunzada firmly believes that most of the attacks were orchestrated and carried out from here.

Police officials inspect the aftermath of the February 14, 2015 attack on a Peshawar imambargah. Photo courtesy: IFP
Police officials inspect the aftermath of the February 14, 2015 attack on a Peshawar imambargah. Photo courtesy: IFP

The terrorists based on the left side of the City Circular Road have become so emboldened that they prevent the heirs of murdered Shias from pursuing their cases in the local courts. Akhunzada cites the murder case of Gulab Husain Tori, provincial head of Tanzeemul Momineen, who was gunned down on February 26, 2008 within the walled city.

His sons, Masahib and Waqar, had to seek asylum abroad — they were threatened with dire consequences when they tried pursuing the murder case. Akhunzada says the men nominated in the case are still at large. Moreover, two eyewitnesses to another pair of targeted killings – of Dr Saqlain and Muhammad Abbas, murdered on February 22, 2010 – were shot dead in Peshawar on December 30, 2010 and November 12, 2014, respectively.

“We can’t leave our houses to buy breakfast anymore out of fear of getting killed,” laments Akhunzada. “Now our women go and get groceries in the morning.”

Sectarianism and militancy have joined hands in these areas, says an official of the counterterrorism department who wishes to remain unnamed. “We have solid information that Lashkar-e-Jhangvi men were also involved in carrying out the attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar,” he says.

“The TTP is mainly holed up in the mountains and needs help from local people to carry out its activities down in the cities. The sectarian elements in the plains area provide it with this support.”

Dr Mian Saeed Ahmed, senior superintendent of police and the operational head of the Peshawar police, is uncharacteristically unequivocal for a man in his position: “The masterminds of terrorist attacks in Peshawar may be in the adjacent tribal areas but they definitely have facilitators in this belt,” he says. The police is aware of the presence of members of the Mohmand chapter of the TTP, apart from sectarian outfits, here. “They have informers, facilitators as well as those who carry out the actual hit-and-run operations here.”

Despite consensus on the simmering militancy in this belt, there is curiously little data available on police action in the area.

The police say they are constantly conducting search operations — but this exercise extends to the whole city, not to this belt in particular.

According to Ahmed, 2,100 suspects have been arrested throughout Peshawar after the Army Public School massacre. But the only reported instance of a police incursion in the area is prior to the school attack: on November 12, 2014, two militants affiliated with the SSP were killed in a police encounter in Wazirbagh area. According to police officials, they were involved in the targeted killings of Shias in the city.

But Rokhanzeb Khan, deputy superintendent of police in these suburbs, says his job is confined to tackling common criminals. “The issue of terrorists involved in sectarian and other activities is the domain of the counterterrorism department,” he says.

Meanwhile, Rahman remains worried about his son. “I keep him busy with business so he does not find time for any other activity. But I am still afraid that he may land into the hands of the extremists. After all, it is impossible to keep an eye on him all the time or to cage him in the house.”

Opinion

Editorial

A call for bloodshed
30 Nov, 2022

A call for bloodshed

The state has wasted precious time by not consolidating its success in pushing TTP out of its strongholds in the north.
Missing childhoods
30 Nov, 2022

Missing childhoods

THE fact is that despite some legal efforts to end the curse of child marriage taking place in Pakistan under the...
Unemployment concerns
30 Nov, 2022

Unemployment concerns

THE ILO finding that labour market recovery from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in Pakistan, as in many other...
Back to politics
Updated 29 Nov, 2022

Back to politics

PDM and PTI must realise that neither will get what they want if they keep fighting bitterly at every turn.
Election delay
29 Nov, 2022

Election delay

OF recent, leaders from the ruling PML-N have been dropping hints about a possible delay in general elections after...
Sugar woes
29 Nov, 2022

Sugar woes

IT’S that time of year again when cane growers get anxious over the delay in the commencement of the new sugar...