A WORRYING trend observed in Pakistan’s northern areas over the last several months saw a dramatic escalation on Monday. In a brazen daytime attack, masked gunmen shot dead four female vocational trainers travelling in a van near Mirali, North Waziristan district. While the driver was injured, another trainer escaped unhurt.

The victims were working for a technical institute in Bannu to impart skill development to local women. Coincidently, the attack took place on the fourth anniversary of the launch of Operation Raddul Fasaad that followed on the heels of the kinetic operations that had successfully destroyed the terrorist infrastructure in the tribal areas. Based mainly on intelligence-based operations, Raddul Fasaad tackled the tentacles of militancy that had spread throughout the country. At a press conference on Monday, DG ISPR Maj Gen Babar Iftikhar said that more than 375,000 IBOs had been carried out in Pakistan over the past four years to curb urban terrorism and dismantle remaining militant networks.

Nothing, however, quite underscores the return of violent extremism as does the mass murder of innocent women working for the good of society. And make no mistake, this act, the very audacity of it, was meant to send a message: the militants are confident enough to again carry out the kind of attacks that spread terror in large swathes of the country not too long ago. The signs have been there for some time. There has been an unmistakable uptick in targeted killings of civilians as well as deadly clashes of militants with security personnel in the tribal areas.

The reunification in Afghanistan of several splinter groups with the TTP that, according to a recent UN report, was overseen by Al Qaeda, have heightened the terrorist threat in the region. The same document also held the TTP responsible for more than 100 cross-border attacks between July and October 2020. While no one has yet claimed responsibility for the attack on Monday, the KP police believe the TTP are the perpetrators. However, the modus operandi also tallies with the obscurantist agenda of the Shura-i-Mujahideen. An extremist group based in North Waziristan, it has threatened music shop owners, barbers, etc and, in one of its recent flyers, warned women to desist from working with NGOs.

The fact is, extremism is a hydra-headed monster that needs a sustained, multifaceted approach to vanquish. In that, we have fallen woefully short. Efforts at mounting a counter-narrative, which was critical to secure the gains made on the battlefield, have been piecemeal and inconsistent. Paigham-i-Pakistan, that much-vaunted unified message against extremism signed by 1,829 Islamic scholars in 2018, looked good on paper but was never owned by the religious community. The process cannot be forced or imposed from above: the state must strengthen the hand of progressive forces that have a stake in the local communities. It is the only long-term solution.

Published in Dawn, February 24th, 2021

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