ON June 29, 2020, at 10.02 am, four terrorists of the Majeed Brigade, a faction of the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), attacked the Pakistan Stock Exchange (PSX) in Karachi with weapons and grenades. They had with them dried ration packs, indicating they intended to take over the place and hold people hostage before killing them. But by 10.12 am, within 10 minutes, before they could enter the premises all four were killed by three well-trained police commandos.
Two pointers here. One, the civilian police exhibited the capability to neutralise desperate, well-armed terrorists, on their own, efficiently and effectively. Two, the Baloch sub-nationalist terrorists demonstrated a greater degree of commitment and sophistication in attacks than before. These two dimensions have an important bearing on understanding the latest trends in Baloch sub-nationalist militancy and the state’s response.
The most noticeable trend is that there has been a consistent, significant reduction in the number of terrorist attacks by Baloch sub-nationalist groups (BSNGs) since 2015. According to one estimate, terrorist attacks by BSNGs between 2015 and 2019, came down from 194 in 2015 to 51 in 2019. This is a reduction of 74 per cent in terms of terrorist attacks in the last five years. This is no mean achievement and, to an extent, speaks volumes for the effectiveness of the government’s CT measures. But one would hasten to add that there is much criticism of the heavy-handed tactics adopted to achieve the reduction in terrorism, eg the policy of enforced disappearances and ‘kill-and-dump-the-militants’ approach.
Changes in the nature of Baloch militancy call for a review of our CT strategy.
Is this reduction in attacks sustainable using the present tactics? I guess not. The paramilitary forces have played their role in reducing attacks, but continuing to use them is likely to lead to a situation of diminishing returns, because they have become a symbol of oppression for Baloch youth. We must start moving towards a response which gives a greater role to civilian institutions mandated to maintain law and order in society. The rapid response to the PSX attack shows that police can develop the capability to deal with such attacks, if provided due resources and training.
This brings us to the second new trend in Baloch militancy ie a fundamental change in modus operandi in terrorist attacks. Earlier, BSNGs used to plant IEDs on railway tracks/roadsides or carry out kill-and-run tactics. Suicide bombing, the most common tactic of religiously inspired militants, was never adopted by Baloch militants. This has changed as Baloch militants have not only resorted to suicide bombings but also conducted more sophisticated attacks aimed at holding hostages, as in the attacks on the Chinese consulate (Karachi, 2018), PC Gwadar (2019) and PSX (2020).
It started in 2011 when the Majeed Brigade declared itself a fidayeen group, carrying out only suicide attacks. The first suicide attack they claimed was in 2011 against Naseer Mengal, killing 13 persons. Such attacks may not have caused much damage till now but are likely to continue, and though less in number, attract a lot of media attention here and abroad. Some say the adoption of suicide bombing by Baloch militants is the direct outcome of the alleged policy of enforced disappearances and killing militants and then dumping their bodies by LEAs, besides reliance on excessive force. That is not to deny that this fault line is exploited by India, Afghanistan and Iran who provide support to these militants.
To counter this, besides neutralising the external factor, we must have a phased programme of Balochistan’s civilianising internal security by going for capacity building of police, ultimately replacing the Frontier Corps. Also, there’s a need for a shift in our security paradigm so that non-kinetic measures form the main thrust of our approach to dealing with Baloch alienation, and kinetic measures are scaled back over time.
The third significant recent trend involves the effective leadership of BSNGs shifting from tribal sardars to the educated middle-class youth. We see this happening in the two most dangerous Baloch organisations, ie BLA and the Baloch Republican Army. While the former is formally being headed by London-based Harbiyar Marri, the latter is led by Brahmdagh Bugti based in Switzerland. The de facto leadership of these organisations, which is leading the fight from Afghanistan, are two militants, Bashir Zeb and Gulzar Imam. Both are former leaders of the Baloch Students Organisation and belong to the middle class.
The third important Baloch militant organisation is the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) headed by Dr Allah Nazar Baloch, a middle-class doctor (MBBS). The main fallout of this ‘non-sardarisation’ of Baloch militant organisations has been seen, for the first time in the militants’ history, in the form of an alliance between four major groups of militants ie BLA, BRA, BLF and the Baloch Republican Guard, called the Baloch Raaji Aajoi Sangar. Earlier, the egos of tribal sardars were a major obstacle in the setting up of any united platform of militants. The creation of BRAS, is likely to deprive CT forces of a major advantage they had over the militants, ie tackling a fragmented insurgency. This calls for a strategic and tactical rethink by the state, one which focuses more on the Baloch youth and educational institutions. Nacta can play a lead role here.
The fourth trend in Baloch militancy is the increased focus on targeting Chinese premises and personnel, besides Pakistani state institutions and personnel. The reasons given for the attack on the PSX by Majeed Brigade spokesman Jeehand Baloch was that they wanted to target the Pakistani economy as well as Chinese financial interest which has 40pc ownership in PSX. This not only calls for a more proactive, integrated and sustained intelligence collection but also hardening of the likely targets, especially those with Chinese involvement.
These changes in Baloch militancy are fundamental in nature and call for a review of our CT strategy. The status quo may lead to a reduction in terrorist attacks in the short run but would also add to the alienation of Baloch youth, driving them, in the long term, into the fold of those advocating lethal tactics. The sooner we realise this simple fact, the better.
The writer is a former police officer and Nacta’s first national coordinator.
Published in Dawn, July 25th, 2020