Pakistan’s largest city has been gripped by a wave of terrorist attacks, mainly targeting Chinese national and security officials.

In a span of just one month, the city witnessed three bombing incidents — a suicide attack on Chinese teachers at the University of Karachi’s Confucius Institute, and bicycle and motorbike improvised explosive device (IED) blasts in the densely populated Saddar and Kharadar areas targeting Pakistan Coast Guards and police vehicles, respectively.

The attacks left six people dead, including three foreign faculty members, and more than two dozen injured, besides property damage.

The university and Saddar blasts were claimed by the banned Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) and Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army (SRA), respectively. However, no group has so far claimed responsibility for the Kharadar attack.

Security officials blame hostile foreign agencies for unrest, say they are taking advantage of political uncertainty, bad economic condition

The BLA has also claimed responsibility for other terrorist incidents in the past, including armed attacks on the Chinese consulate in Clifton and the Pakistan Stock Exchange. However, this was the first time the outfit used a female suicide bomber, signifying a change in Baloch rebels’ strategy.

Similarly, the SRA has also been accused of launching terrorist attacks on the metropolis and other parts of the province. Law enforcers say the group has tried to create a rift on ethnic and linguistic bases through targeted killings in Sindh. It was, however, the first time it claimed responsibility for an IED attack on the coast guards.

After the attacks, law enforcers started combing different parts of Karachi. Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah directed the police to ask shopkeepers and traders to be vigilant and install closed-circuit television (CCTV) to keep an eye on nearby areas, including parking lots.

However, observers see complex reasons behind the sub-nationalist militancy in Balochistan and Sindh and say tackling it requires more than just administrative measures.

SRA-BLA nexus

Muhammad Amir Rana, a security and political analyst who has extensively written on terrorism in Pakistan, says the SRA has a “formal alliance” with BLA and Baloch Raji Ajoi Sangar (BRAS), a coalition of several Baloch militant outfits.

Therefore, after carrying out terrorist acts against security personnel or Chinese citizens, it tends to issue the same statement usually issued by the BLA or BRAS, says Mr Rana, who is also the director of Islamabad-based think tank Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS).

He says the group recently carried out small cracker-like attacks on the Chinese in Clifton and Defence areas of Karachi as they shared the objectives with Baloch militant groups.

However, he believes the SRA is not a big group like the BLA because it doesn’t have widespread support in Sindh. The SRA is “isolated in Sindh”, he says.

The annual report of PIPS for 2021 also talks about growing links between Sindhi and Baloch militants.

“Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army (SRA) was the only Sindhi insurgent group that perpetrated terrorist violence in Sindh in 2021,” the report notes. Its main targets were security forces, Punjabi settlers and railway tracks.

The think tank says some reports also hinted at a growing operational nexus between Balochi and Sindhi nationalist insurgents, mainly the SRA’s growing links with Baloch groups like BLA and BRAS.

“Some major attacks in Karachi in recent past were attributed to this growing nexus,” it says.

For instance, Sindh police’s counterterrorism department claimed to have detained two SRA militants from Karachi on March 16, 2021 who were reportedly provided with weapons by the BLA to carry out attacks against security forces.

Police sources said the detained suspects, Sadiq and Mukhtiar, were involved in attacks on law enforcement and security officials, including the killing of a constable in Kandhkot.

A security official, who wishes not to be named, says the BLA has also trained SRA members abroad to make bicycle- and motorcycle-mounted IEDs, as the latter group mostly carried out previous attacks using grenades and small bombs.

The officer believes the upsurge in terrorist incidents in Karachi may be partly linked to political uncertainty and bad economic condition in the country, as hostile foreign agencies consider it the best time to create unrest.

External factors

Dr Abdul Majeed Chandio, a professor of international relations and former Dean of Social Sciences at Shah Abdul Latif University, Khairpur, believes the present upsurge in militancy in Sindh was partly motivated by “external factors”, as both India and US are not happy over the growing role of China in Pakistan, particularly the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

He says terrorist attacks have increased after a change of government last month partly because the incumbent premier, Shehbaz Sharif, focused on further cementing ties with Beijing while the “external factors” wanted to contain China.

India doesn’t like CPEC, and that is precisely the reason why the United States and the European Union want to maintain ties with India despite differences over the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the professor argues.

He says the situation in Sindh is different from Balochistan, where federal or nationalist parties hold a jalsa in a year. In contrast, Sindh sees frequent rallies where mainstream parties like the Pakistan Peoples Party and other nationalists highlight public issues.

For instance, several political parties and civil society organisations held a big rally in the province against alleged land grabbing by a business tycoon.

Militancy in Sindh may ultimately bring more harm, Prof Chandio says, insisting that enforced disappearances over the pretext of militant attacks in the province can aggravate the problem.

Radicalising Baloch women

The first of the three recent attacks in Karachi — a suicide bombing targeting Chinese nationals — was shocking in the sense that the attacker was a woman. It later came to light that she was an educated mother of two young children, belonging to a well-established family and working as a schoolteacher in her native Turbat, Balochistan.

Malik Siraj Akbar, a Washington-based political analyst, says radical elements in Balochistan have been able to fill the vacuum created due to the continued failure of moderate Baloch nationalist leaders and successive governments in Islamabad to work together to find a political solution to the Balochistan conflict.

On the radicalisation of Baloch women, he says, “The participation of women in the Baloch politics in its latest phase [starting from 2004] began with the rise of enforced disappearances in the province.”

Mr Akbar recalls that “protests, petitions and hunger strike camps provided the Baloch women with new platforms to voice their grievances and learn more about the province’s politics”.

“There has been a constant rise in these sentiments mainly because populism attracts young people more than pragmatism, moderation and reconciliation,” he observes.

However, he agrees that such tactics — using suicide bombers and women for terrorist attacks — have created a rift within Baloch society. “This policy has divided the Baloch society between those who justify it and those who renounce it and view it as immoral and counterproductive,” he says.

To tackle growing militancy, he suggests that the current government should take advantage of the support it has from moderate Baloch nationalists and prioritise Balochistan’s pressing issues.

However, he insists that a sustainable political solution cannot be found unless all branches of the government, mainly the military and the judiciary, are on board.

“Every missed opportunity will only embolden the armed groups and provide them with an opportunity to recruit disillusioned young Baloch boys and girls for their cause,” he says.

Published in Dawn, May 21st, 2022

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