THE suicide bombing at the sprawling Malik Saad Shaheed Police Lines in Peshawar was among the deadliest to hit this city.
Headquarters to capital city police and half a dozen other units including the frontier reserve police, the special security unit of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the counter terrorism department, the elite force, telecommunication, rapid response force and special combat unit, it is no ordinary facility.
With a single entry and exit point, where guards ask all visitors for identification and search their vehicles, it is a mystery how a suicide bomber managed to sneak in, and that too with explosives.
Investigators acknowledge it is not an easy case to solve.
With more than 2,000 staff working for the many units, and two to three hundred visitors daily, profiling each individual alongside reviewing hours of CCTV footage from the lone camera outside the mosque’s front gate and the compound, will be a time-consuming and painstaking task.
Equally difficult is collecting forensic evidence from underneath the debris of the collapsed roof that caused the most damage and casualties.
Here are some of the questions investigators are trying to answer.
Who was the bomber?
A chapter of the banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) from Mohmand, which accepted responsibility for the attack, described the bomber as 25-year-old Huzaifa — probably an organisational name given to an individual, like Ehsanullah Ehsan.
Police have so far recovered two heads from under the rubble, so mutilated that they could not be run through the Nadra database for positive identification. Efforts are now on to reconstruct the faces and produce identikits.
How did he manage to get in?
The high-walled compound is manned by police round the clock. It is difficult to get in without being questioned and asked for identity papers. However, in the absence of a single command authority, six to eight police guards can barely cope with the task of searching and establishing the identities of the 2,000-plus staff and the hundreds of visitors that pass these gates every day.
“There was a security lapse,” acknowledged the Inspector General of Police, Moazzam Jah.
Senior police officials say that while there has been an alarming and disturbing increase in threat alerts of possible militant attacks in some key districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, there was no specific threat from the intelligence agencies regarding the Police Lines compound.
“There was some complacency and the militants took advantage of this. We might not have seen [such an attack] had there been more vigilance,” a police officer admitted.
Was there a facilitator?
It is highly likely. While no one has a definite answer to this question, investigators continue to pore over hours of video footage and check the personal profiles of thousands of employees to look for possible suspects. There are also procedural questions: did the bomber walk in through the main gate; did he carry the explosives on him or was there someone inside the compound that helped him smuggle the explosives in beforehand. Intelligence and police sources speculate that the bomber couldn’t have pulled off such an audacious task without inside help.
Which group was involved?
Interestingly, there are parallels between the latest incident and the most gruesome attack in Peshawar’s history — the massacre at the Army Public School (APS) in Dec 2014.
The gruesome APS attack was also carried out by a militant group not officially part of the outlawed TTP, but allied to the splintered conglomerate led by Mullah Fazlullah. The scale of the bloody attack at APS was so shocking that even the most violent of the militant group had chosen to distance itself from it.
Soon after Monday’s bombing, TTP’s Mohmand chapter — formerly known as the Jamaatul Ahrar — claimed responsibility for the attack through its social media handles, saying that it was carried out to avenge the death of its leader, Umar Khalid Khurasani – who was killed in Afghanistan in Aug, 2022 — the fourth such revenge attack so far.
A little later, however, TTP Central issued a denial, insisting it was against its policy to attack mosques. Investigators believe this was a distraction, since the militant commander who accepted responsibility for the bombing had only recently been appointed by TTP Central to head the Zhob Division (Wilayah in militants’ parlance) in Balochistan.
Amaq, a news agency linked to the Islamic State, also made its own claim of responsibility for the attack. Police and investigating agencies, however, see the TTP’s fingerprints on the attack. Investigators believe that the militant groups that form the TTP enjoy operational independence, even if their actions are at variance with the organisation’s central policy guidelines.
The Afghan connection
As federal ministers blamed the Afghanistan-based TTP for the attack, Taliban’s acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi advised them to look inward and stop blaming its western borders.
“Had terrorism originated from Afghanistan, it would have spread to China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran as well,” he said in a speech on Wednesday.
“Afghanistan is not a centre of terrorism. The problem is within Pakistan. Pakistani ministers shouldn’t shift blame on to others and need to minutely investigate the Peshawar bombing,” Muttaqi said.
What caused so many casualties?
Preliminary investigations reveal the bomber detonated ten to twelve kilogrammes of explosives, which caused many casualties in the first few rows of the packed mosque. However, most of the fatalities occurred because of the trapped shockwave, which caused a wall to slip, leading to the collapse of the roof that buried many underneath.
Police and doctors at the Lady Reading Hospital, where the dead and wounded were brought, concur that more than 60 per cent of the deaths and injuries were caused by roof crashing down on worshippers.
There has been an uptick in militant attacks in parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for over a year now, and Peshawar police are seeing constant pressure on their outposts. But life inside the provincial capital had largely remained normal until the bombing inside the high-walled and well-protected police compound.
“We are facing a new wave of terror and we should brace for it. This one is going to get bloodier. [The militant] leadership is enjoying [operating from] a sanctuary across the border, and there is nothing we can do anything about it. We need a new National Action Plan and robust, better and well-coordinated strategy. The old tricks wouldn’t work now,” a security official told Dawn.
Published in Dawn, February 2nd, 2023