Terrorism has once again struck Pakistan, more specifically, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) provinces when more than 170 people lost their lives, sending shock waves around the country and also seriously affecting electioneering in the country. The recent terrorist attacks included the deadliest-ever terrorism strike in the country, which was made in Mastung in Balochistan province. The Mastung attack was made on Siraj Raisani’s, a candidate of Balochistan Awami Party (BAP), political gathering killing at least 150 people present on the occasion. The attack was a suicide strike later claimed by Islamic State (IS) or Da’esh. In the second big terrorist attack in the KP province capital, Peshawar, 22 people were killed when a suicide bomber ripped through election-related activity of the Awami National Party provincial assembly candidate, Haroon Bilour, who was also killed. A third significant attack was made on the electioneering convoy of former chief minister of KP and federal minister, Akram Khan Durrani. The attack which happened in southern KP city of Bannu killed four people although Durrani fortunately escaped unhurt. It is the constituency, where Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) head Imran Khan contested against Durrani, who belongs to Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) and stood from the Muslim clerical parties’ alliance, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, of which JUI-F is a part.
There are different aspects of the above-mentioned terrorist attacks. The foremost important dimension of these strikes is that all of them were made on candidates during their electioneering. All of these parties the BAP, the ANP and MMA are different political groups with separate agendas. While the ANP is a secular party, the MMA is purely a religious outfit and the BAP is a newly formed group of likeminded individuals of Balochistan without any clear ideological leaning but an agenda of development and mainstreaming of the province. BAP has been accused by its opponents including the outgoing ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), of being a pro-establishment party. It is important to note that Senate Chairman, Sanjrani also belongs to BAP, who was supported by both the PTI and PPP to become Senate chairman. The BAP has forged an alliance with the PTI for elections in Balochistan. The ostensible objective of the terrorist strikes is to disrupt the electoral process in at least two provinces. The intelligence reports and estimates had warned that PTI chief Imran Khan, PPP co-chairperson, Bilwal Bhutto Zardari and ANP head Asfandyar Wali are on the hit-list of the terrorists. However, Imran Khan announced that he would not be deterred by such reports and would continue to hold gatherings while Bilawal and Asfandyar had somewhat curbed their political activities.
It is important to note that IS or Da’esh claimed responsibility for the Mastung attack while Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) owned the attack in Peshawar on the ANP. While claiming of Peshawar attack by the TTP make a lot of sense the attack on BAP by IS is less comprehensible. It was the ANP coalition government with the PPP in KP from 2008-2013 during which a lot of operations were launched against the TTP in KP, particularly Swat, which during the same period the TTP held sway under Fazlullah. As Fazlullah was killed a couple of months back in a US unmanned vehicle missile strike in eastern Afghanistan, the attack on ANP leader Haroon Bilour could be a reprisal by the TTP. Such a strike was also very important for the TTP because the group in the last couple of years has been experiencing infighting and resultant wear and tear. Military operations by Pakistan security agencies have also significantly weakened the TTP. Haroon Bilour was the son of former ANP senior minister of KP, Bashir Bilour, who was also killed by a suicide attacker before the 2013 national elections in December 2012 also in Peshawar. Whether the TTP would be able to resurrect itself by sending a strong message to its former members, is only for time to tell, but killing of Haroon Bilour is a great loss for the ANP. He was one of most educated of the young leaders of the party and was a potential candidate for chief minister in case the ANP won. So his killing is unfortunate for the ANP and generally for the political atmosphere of the province and Pakistan.
Coming to the Mastung attack, IS claimed the strike and, importantly, there is no counterclaim by any other terrorist group. It is the first such strike by the IS on an election activity in Pakistan. The scale of the attack bears the signature of Da’esh. Why IS conducted such a deadly attack in Balochistan and Pakistan is a question. The answer is somewhat simple. The group wants to make its presence felt in Pakistan and it wanted to do it in a big way. As elections and electioneering are such events and activity that are under keen public and media focus, IS wanted to exploit the situation for its advertisement.
Noticeably, in September 2016, Pakistani authorities reportedly busted a huge network of Daesh in Balochistan. Security agencies had also arrested top ten commanders of IS, who were said to be on a mission in the country to recruit thousands of foot soldiers for the IS Middle East’s war theatre, specifically in Iraq and Syria. The group once controlled large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria, but then lost a good part of it to state and international forces in both the countries. The arrested commanders then had revealed that they were directed by the IS central leadership to spread chaos in Pakistan and create a situation for a Da’esh caliphate in Pakistan. The Mastung attack should be seen in the light of this IS strategy. If the IS is able to stage such huge attacks in Pakistan, it is very alarming. Pakistan’s security agencies, and particularly the police department in KP, need to be given credit for busting the IS networks and sleeper cells in Pakistan. However, after the Mastung attack, Pakistani security agencies have to double their efforts to stop IS from developing strong networks in the country. Because it is such a fearsome and ferocious group that once it strengthens its hold, it will set new records of gore and horror.
Here one must criticize the Pakistani media for not giving adequate importance to the Mastung attack, because most of the media organizations, particularly the TV channels, were busy in round-the-clock coverage of the return and arrest of former convicted prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Mariam Nawaz. This is the height of callousness by the media. There is no doubt that the incident happened in remote Balochistan province, where the media has no interest to focus due to commercial reasons. But this is against the norms of journalism and is a serious question mark on the nationhood of Pakistan, where attacks and incidents in big provinces and cities get extensive coverage while other places do not.
[Just before going to press, two further terrorist attacks were carried out against candidates in Bannu and Dera Ismail Khan. Ed]