Uptick in terror attacks alarms KP security apparatus

Conversations with government, counter-terror and intelligence officials paint a grim picture.
Published January 17, 2024

 Source: Home and Tribal Affairs Dept, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa
Source: Home and Tribal Affairs Dept, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa

How bad is the security situation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and will the uptick in militant attacks really impact the upcoming elections or disrupt them?

There are as many opinions on the overall security picture in KP as there are mouths, and with less than three weeks left for election campaigns, views on the potential fallout of the growing militant attacks do diverge.

Conversations with government, counter-terror and intelligence officials paint a grim picture, particularly in the southern belt of the province, which has seen more violence than anywhere else in the country.

But the figures only tell one part of the story, and can be misleading. Intelligence and other official reports indicate the presence of militants or their sleeper cells in many districts across the province. In fact, only 10 of the 36 districts in KP have been graded as ‘normal’.

Daily Situation Reports (DSRs), Situation Reports (Sitreps) and threat alerts issued by district administration, police and intelligence agencies are enough to give law enforcement agencies sleepless nights.

“We are sitting on a powder keg”, one official told Dawn. “One big attack and we have had it.” No one is sure how the security situation will unfold in the days leading up to the big day, when people line up to cast their votes.

South KP, tribal districts in the crosshairs

What is evident is that militant attacks have been on the rise, and so has their frequency. The southern reaches of KP — Dera Ismail Khan, Tank, Lakki Marwat etc — have been hit quite hard, as have the merged tribal districts.

North and South Waziristan have been restive for quite some time, but now even the likes of Bajaur have seen a surge in bombings and targeted killings. Secta­rian-sensitive Kurram is also on tenterhooks.

The impact of this instability in the merged tribal districts compounds the situation in their adjoining districts. Increased militant activity in Peshawar’s neighbouring Khyber district casts an ominous shadow over the bustling provincial capital, while the districts of Charsadda, Mardan, Kohat, Hangu, Lakki, Tank and Dera Ismail Khan are also of particular concern in terms of the security situation.

Of the 36 districts in the province, 13 have been graded as ‘most sensitive’, followed by 12 that are designated as ‘sensitive’, with only 10 being labelled ‘normal’.

Admittedly, the overall security situation is not as bad as it was during the 2008 elections, when militants ruled the roost in many parts of KP and carried out a string of bombings and suicide attacks, targeting candidates and political leaders.

The 2018 polls were held in a relatively peaceful environment, with fewer attacks in the weeks preceding the polls. But what is alarming this time around is that the levels of militant activity have already reached the level seen in the weeks ahead of the 2013 polls, which was a particularly difficult time.

Official figures vary, but here is one account from a security department, comparing the figures of the terrorist attacks in the weeks preceding the 2013 polls with those occurring in the weeks leading up to February 8.

Compared to 227 terrorist incidents in the two-and-a-half months before the polls in 2013, the number of such attacks in October and November 2023 alone has touched the 195-mark. The number of dead in these incidents in the two corresponding periods is also quite close – 155 in 2013 versus 118 in 2023.

Law enforcement officials worry that militants can interrupt and disrupt election campaigns and/or target important political figures prior to polls and on polling day, besides targeting on-duty law enforcement personnel.

Attacks on political targets

Already, leaders of some of the main political parties have received warnings and threat alerts. A convoy travelling with Mohsin Dawar, leader of the National Democratic Movement, was fired upon in North Waziristan earlier this month. His security guards retaliated killing a militant of TTP-affiliated Ariana Group, and wounding another.

The interior ministry, in a recent letter, also warned of a serious threat against ANP leader Aimal Wali Khan and JUI (F) leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman, urging them to exercise caution and take extra security precautions.

On Saturday, KP’s Counter Terrorism Department said it had seized an IS-K-linked suicide bomber and his handler from Peshawar, planning to target Mr. Khan.

The JUI-F, in particular, has been in the crosshairs of the of the so-called Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) in Bajaur, where the virulently violent group not only carried out a deadly suicide bombing against the party, killing 44 people, and later posted pamphlets in the tribal district bordering Afghanistan, warning people against attending the party’s public meetings. This was followed by an IED attack on its candidate in Nawagai in January.

But the JUI-F is not a target for the IS-K alone; the party chief and some of his leaders have also borne the brunt of attacks from the banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in the past as well.

So worrisome is the security situation for the Maulana, even in his home district of Dera Ismail Khan, that the bewildered JUI-F leader recently told a media outlet he had no clue who was after him.

But while some officials acknowledge the situation is bad, they maintain it is “manageable”.

“No one says it is going to be a piece of cake,” said a senior police official. “We have serious security challenges and force shortages to provide [complete] security cover during the election campaign and on the polling day.”

“This is going to be a huge undertaking,” the official concluded.

Published in Dawn, January 17th, 2024