Return of carnage

Published March 5, 2022

A PALL of gloom hangs heavy on Pakistan. Peshawar’s fragile peace — which was at times tested, but had largely endured for the past few years — was rent asunder yesterday by the indiscriminate slaughter of Shia worshippers gathered for weekly Friday prayers.

As the faithful packed the halls of a mosque in the provincial capital’s Kocha Risaldar area for the congregation, at least one attacker shot his way inside the place of worship before detonating a vest rigged with explosives. At the time this paper went to print, hospital sources had confirmed 57 dead and more than 190 injured.

Condemnations were swift and incident reports hurriedly sought by both the interior minister and the premier. The information minister pointed to a ‘larger conspiracy’, while the interior minister saw the hand of elements wanting to destabilise the country and reignite sectarian tensions. Despite what those in power have said or will say, the attack betrayed the national security apparatus’s unpreparedness for what now seems to be a gradually expanding spectrum of terrorist activities.

A string of recent deadly attacks in neighbouring Afghanistan should have prompted at least some concern in national security circles regarding the welfare and protection of minorities, who frequently find themselves on the receiving end of the bestial violence unleashed by terrorist outfits.

This latest attack, though as yet unclaimed, has all the hallmarks of similar attacks in Kandahar and Kunduz in Afghanistan this past October. Both were claimed by the militant Islamic State’s Khorasan chapter, which revels in a virulently anti-Shia ideology. It had earlier been feared that the IS-K’s bloody successes in Afghanistan would inspire similar attempts by sectarian outfits on this side of the border.

Read: The IS-K challenge

There were also other signs of terrorist outfits’ increased focus on minorities residing in Peshawar. In September, a Sikh herbalist who had run a clinic for 20 years in the city was murdered, branded a polytheist by IS-K operatives. In January, a Christian priest returning home from Sunday service was gunned down in similar circumstances, and security sources believe IS-K to have been involved.

The two events should have alerted authorities to the heightened danger being faced by minority communities. Instead, as the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government’s spokesperson suggested, the security provided for protection of worshippers who frequented the Kocha Risaldar mosque had only been provided as a ‘general rule’. This suggests that there had been no serious escalation in threat perception despite the multiple red flags.

Yesterday’s attack, grave tragedy that it is, also represents a significant setback for those who have been working to change how Pakistan is perceived internationally. There needs to be a rethink of national security policy regarding outfits that target communities for their beliefs, as well as those that enable and encourage them to further their hateful agendas in the name of some misguided ideology.

Published in Dawn, March 5th, 2022

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