Analysis: BLA out to bleed Pakistan economy, Chinese interests

Updated June 30, 2020

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Security personnel seen at the PSX entrance following the attack. — Photo: Shahzeb Ahmed/File
Security personnel seen at the PSX entrance following the attack. — Photo: Shahzeb Ahmed/File

A LITTLE an hour after the attack on Pakistan Stock Exchange, a banned group, the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), sent out emails to journalists and posted a message on its Twitter account claiming the responsibility for the attack.

The group said its Majeed Brigade executed the attack. Later in the day it also released a picture of the four militants who took part in the assault, donning camouflage outfits and carrying guns.

In yet another statement issued in the evening, the BLA said the purpose of attack was to simultaneously target Pakistan’s economy and China because of its involvement in Balochistan.

The choice of the target, the claim about Majeed Brigade carrying out the attack, and the style of execution left little doubt about the intent of the masterminds.

Majeed Brigade, named after a guard of former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who was killed while attempting to assassinate him (ZAB), was formed by the BLA in 2011. Its presence in Afghanistan is well documented and even reported by Indian media.

Some allege that the group also maintains sanctuaries in areas along the Pak-Iran border.

The so-called brigade, which is the suicide squad of the BLA, mostly targets security forces and Chinese interests in Pakistan.

The group attacked a bus of the Chinese near Dalbandin in Aug 2018 and the Chinese Consulate in Karachi in Nov 2018. Last year it struck a luxury hotel in Gwadar. Days after the hotel raid, Majeed Brigade released a video warning China to leave Balochistan, the province through which passes a large part of the CPEC’s land route, besides the all-important port in Gwadar.

Just last month, there were three attacks carried out by the group on security forces in Balochistan.

Then why did the group pick the Stock Exchange as its target? It wasn’t just for staging a high-profile attack against Pakistan’s financial infrastructure. There was clear message behind it. The intent was to hit Chinese interests.

The Chinese are the anchor investors in the bourse and secured its management control after acquiring 40 per cent of its shares in 2016. The shares are held by Shanghai Stock Exchange, Shenzhen Stock Exchange and China Financial Futures Exchange. Another 5 per cent of shares held by a local company are also linked to the Chinese investment.

The Chinese invested in the PSX at a time when China was ‘frontier market’ — or in simple words a less established market, while Pakistan was at that time an ‘emerging market’ — one that is on way to become a developed one.

The Chinese then envisioned Pakistan to become their gateway. But, things later changed and the Chinese market got upgraded in 2017. The value of PSX shares too has dropped significantly.

The Chinese investors have, however, kept holding on because of strategic reasons. Moreover, Chinese are planning to raise tens of billions of dollars for financing of future CPEC projects through PSX, according to a source in the bourse. This, it is believed, could be the prime motive behind this attack.

PSX director Abid Ali Habib confirmed to Dawn that the bourse had been receiving security threats because of the Chinese investment.

“Security agencies keep us updated about the threats due to the importance of the exchange,” he said.

Members of the Rapid Response Force, who played a crucial role in foiling the attack, were recently deployed at the stock exchange for augmenting the previously existing security arrangements, which included Rangers’ deployment.

Meanwhile, regional developments, including China-India faceoff, and the aggravating situation in occupied Kashmir, may also have played a role in the timing of the strike.

Pakistani leaders expressed their suspicions about the hand of a foreign actor in the attack.

Army Chief Gen Qamar Bajwa, in a statement released through the ISPR, said: “With the support of our resilient nation, we will foil all efforts of enemies aimed at destabilising the hard-earned peace achieved through sacrifices of our martyrs.”

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi tweeted: “We have repeatedly warned about externally supported terrorism.”

China was one of the first countries to denounce the attack. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said: “China condemns all forms of terrorist attacks, expresses its condolences to the innocent victims of this incident, and expresses its condolences to its families and injured people. China firmly opposes all forms of terrorism and firmly supports Pakistan’s efforts to combat terrorism and maintain national security and stability,” it added.

Ambassador of Iran to Pakistan, Seyed Mohammad Ali Hosseini, tweeted: “Defeated in all fields by valorous army of Pakistan, moribund terrorists resorted to new targetings to show their “hypothetical” strength. We categorically condemn their attack to stock exchange and hope that Pakistan get rid of terrorist residuals.”

Published in Dawn, June 30th, 2020