THE assassination of Punjab Home Minister Shuja Khanzada in a suicide attack in Attock could be an indication of the expansion of the infrastructure and support base of the Punjab-based militant outfits even to areas of the province ‘largely considered free from their influence until now’.

“The attack has taken place in that part of Punjab that is generally not associated with militancy and extremism,” contends a security analyst who has written extensively on sectarian/terrorist groups in Punjab.

“It underlines that the (Punjabi) militants have the ability to carry out such attacks anywhere in the province any time,” he argued, not giving his name because of personal reasons.

Recounting a suicide attack on an Air Force bus in Sargodha back in 2007 and a few other events in northern region of the province, he said these groups had the networks all over the province.

That would expose those long hiding behind the common defence. “You can’t say now that the militant and jihadi infrastructure is restricted to south Punjab alone; they are virtually everywhere. Those who deny presence of thousands of sleeping cells of militant groups in Punjab are not capable of realising the gravity of the situation.”

Punjab, especially its southern districts, has for long been considered as an ideological sanctuary and recruitment ground for extremist organisations involved in sectarian killings, and Kashmir and Afghan Jihad.

“Punjab is the source of terrorism. The main leaders of all major militant and jihadi groups are from Punjab that also houses the headquarters of these outfits,” said a Lahore-based analyst on condition of anonymity. “These groups have branched out of Punjab to the rest of the country as well as outside it.”

According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal database, there has been a considerable and increasing presence of at least 57 extremist and terrorist groups in Punjab alone. It quotes Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan as having disclosed during a briefing on the implementation of the National Action Plan (NAP) in January this year that the number of proscribed organisations actively engaged in terrorism and extremism in the province had reached 95.

Former additional Inspector General of Police (AIG), Malik Mohammad Iqbal, who had headed the CID for two years before his retirement, agrees that a very large number of militant outfits like Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LJ) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and myriad of splinter groups were based in Punjab.

The murder of the man in charge of the campaign against militant organisations under the National Action Plan in Punjab is generally being interpreted as a reaction to the killing of the leader of the outlawed LJ, Malik Ishaq, in a “shootout” on the outskirts of Muzaffargarh late last month.

This view was reinforced after the LJ reportedly accepted the responsibility for the attack.

“It is most probably a revenge killing,” security analyst Asad Munir, who has served the ISI and MI during 1999-2004, said.

“This is in line with the pattern. If it were part of a blowback of the ongoing Zarb-i-Azb, then the militants would have targeted military officials or installations. The blowback of the Zarb-i-Azb was far less than many had expected when the military operation was launched.”

Some analysts warn against viewing the Sunday terror attack in the context of any ‘particular, single event’. “If you think that those who have carried out the attack wouldn’t have done so, you are gravely mistaken,” argued the Lahore-based analyst.

“Those who have killed Khanzada have constantly been doing this. They are in this business of killing people. Only their targets keep changing.”

Malik Iqbal agrees. “It’s difficult to say that the minister has been killed in a revenge attack,” he said. “It could be an attempt to demoralise the public at large as the government implements the NAP. He was a very brave man and had vigorously been pursuing the militants. Any (militant) group could have targeted him.”

He was of the view that the ongoing action against extremism should be implemented “indiscriminately across the country instead of a specific region or group with equal intensity” if the safe havens available to the militants were to be destroyed.

Asad Munir insists that the killing of Malik Ishaq underscored the military’s intent to implement NAP across the board and clean up the cities as well in order to destroy the terrorist infrastructure from the country.

“The death of Khanzada will not reduce the intensity of the drive against militancy in Punjab; it will rather intensify it. The Shawal airstrikes (following the suicide raid on the minister’s place) that killed 40 militants is but evidence of that (resolve on the part of the military leadership),” he argued.

Munir said the sectarian groups operating out of here had substantially weakened.

“Their power and capacity to retaliate has greatly diluted. They did not target Khanzada in Lahore because they do not have the ability to carry out such attacks there anymore. They do not control any area (as they did in the tribal backyard of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). Police with the help of intelligence agencies like the ISI can easily deal with them. You only have to locate them and take them out.”

There is a school which says the clean-up in Punjab must start with its political leadership publicly pledging that they would not seek political support from the individuals and groups known for sectarian/extremist links.

Moreover, the theory goes, the madressahs known for their sectarian/extremist links must face some kind of action; so far the Punjab government has avoided taking any action even when some madressahs have been very directly linked to a number of acts of terrorism.

And, finally, the proponents of the strategy say, the state and media will have to stop jealously protecting and even promoting the militant mindset.

Published in Dawn, August 17th, 2015

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