Khyber Pakhtunkhwa: Unending Bloodbath
In a revenge killing, a Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) suicide bomber killed the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Senior Minister, Bashir Ahmed Bilour, and at least eight others, while 17 persons were injured, in the Qissa Khwani Bazaar area of Peshawar, the provincial capital of KP, on December 22, 2012.
The dead also included the Station House Officer (SHO) of Kabali Police Station, Sattar Khan, and the late Minister's personal secretary, Noor Muhammad. Police said that around 100 people had gathered at the place when the bomber detonated his suicide vest. TTP claimed responsibility for the attack on Bashir Ahmed Bilour, whose outspoken criticism of the Taliban had made him a lot of enemies among the militants. TTP's 'spokesman' for Dara Adamkhel and Khyber Agency, Mohammad Afridi, declared in a telephonic statement, that the TTP had set up a new 'revenge wing' that had carried out the attack. Afridi warned that leaders of the Awami National Party (ANP) and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) were the prime targets of his group.
Earlier, on October 24, when militants targeted the ANP headquarters at Bacha Khan Markaz on Main Paggai Road on the outskirts of Peshawar, Minister Bashir Ahmed Bilour had observed that the militants wanted to make headlines by attacking the Bacha Khan Markaz: "Bacha Khan Markaz is the symbol of peace for Pashtuns and is symbolically important for the nationalist party. The militants want to terrorise people by such attacks but they cannot shatter their will and this headquarter of peace will remain intact."
In a daring attack, at least 10 TTP militants, wearing suicide jackets, and armed with hand-grenades, rocket launchers and automatic weapons, stormed the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) base located inside the Bacha Khan International Airport of Peshawar, the provincial capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), mounted on two explosive-laden vehicles, at around 20:15 hrs, on December 15, 2012. Five of the suicide bombers blew themselves up on their way to the airport building, when challenged by Security Forces (SFs). All five terrorists, two SFs personnel and two civilians were killed. The remaining five, who escaped to the nearby Pawaki village, just one kilometre from the PAF airbase, were killed by SFs in the morning of December 16. The airport was cleared 16 hours after the assault. Claiming responsibility for the attack, the TTP 'spokesperson' Ehsanullah Ehsan said that the target was the PAF base.
The Bacha Khan International Airport is the most vulnerable strategic airport in the country because its airfield is jointly used by the Civil Aviation Authority and the military. The airfield has been used by the PAF as well as Army Aviation during military operations, especially during the ongoing conflict in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), including the Bara tehsil (revenue unit) of Khyber Agency.
Earlier, on December 10, 2102, three TTP suicide bombers targeted the Kakki Police Station in Bannu District of KP, killing three Policemen, a soldier and two civilians.
On December 4, 2012, a suicide bomber rammed a vehicle loaded with an estimated 600 kilograms of explosives, into an abandoned house near the Haved Police Station in the Bannu District of KP, killing 10 persons, including five Policemen. According to reports, the Policemen guarding the Police Station opened fire on the vehicle. The suicide bomber panicked and drove his vehicle into the abandoned house. Ehsanullah Ehsan then claiming responsibility for the attack had stated, "The TTP would continue attacks on the Police as they are the main hurdle in our way."
The SFs are the prime target of TTP attacks. However, members of various Lashkars (militia), who are assisting SFs in anti-militancy operations, are also being systematically targeted. A car-bomb attack, targeting an anti-TTP militia headquarters in Darra Adam Khel tribal region in the south of Peshawar, killed 18 civilians and injured another 40 on October 13, 2012. The suicide attack left 34 shops and seven vehicles destroyed. Reacting to this attack, KP Information, Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain called upon the Federal Government to consider launching a "decisive operation against terrorists", arguing, "These Taliban have killed our innocent people in so many attacks. They are still killing our people. Instead of wasting time, we should hit them back and do it as early as possible to save the precious lives of our innocent girls like Malala Yusufzai."
There has, however, been a decline in fatalities as well as attacks throughout2012, though the Islamist extremists demonstrably retain significant capacities to strike. Partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), recorded at least 656 fatalities, including 363 civilians, 195 militants and 98 SF personnel, in 147 terrorism-linked incidents in 2012, as compared 1,206 fatalities, including 511 civilians, 364 militants and 331 SF personnel killed in 242 such incidents in 2011. The trend in fatalities indicates that the continuing engagement between the SFs and the militants is at its lowest since 2007.
According to SATP, the Province accounted for 57 major incidents (resulting in three or more fatalities) in 2012, as against 96 in 2011. The most prominent attacks in 2012 included:
October 13: A suicide car-bombing killed 18 civilians and injured 40 in the Darra Adam Khel town of Kohat District.
September 16: 16 persons were killed and 13 were injured when a remote-controlled bomb ripped through a passenger van in the Inzaro Kandao area of Lower Dir District.
June 22: As many as 15 militants and one SF trooper were killed, and two SF personnel were injured, when terrorists crossing over from Afghanistan attacked the Karakar Security Checkpost (near the Afghan border), in the Barawal area of Upper Dir District.
June 8: At least 21 persons were killed and over 40 others injured when a powerful bomb ripped through a bus carrying Government employees in Gulbela area on the Charsadda Road in the jurisdiction of Daudzai Police Station in Peshawar.
March 11: A suicide bomber blew himself up at a funeral in the suburban Badbher area of Peshawar, killing 17 persons and injuring 32 others.
February 23: At least 15 people, including two children, were killed and 38 injured in a car bomb attack at a bus stand on the Peshawar-Kohat Road in Peshawar.
Suicide attacks remain a major threat. 2012 has witnessed 21 such attacks in which 140 persons were killed; 2011 saw 23 such attacks, in which 411 persons were killed. The deadliest suicide attack in 2012, was the June 8, bus bombing at Gulbela in Peshawar, in which at least 21 persons were killed.
There was a marginal increase in other bomb blasts in the Province, from 198 in 2011 to 213 in 2012, though resultant fatalities fell from 554 to 258. In addition, the Bomb Disposal Squad (BDS) managed to foil several incidents by recovering and diffusing explosive devices.
Worryingly, sectarian violence is on the rise in KP. While there was just a single reported incident of sectarian violence in 2011, in which 11 persons were killed and six were injured, 2012 witnessed 10 such incidents, with at least 58 persons killed. The TTP and TTP-linked Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) played a major role in creating sectarian disturbances in the Province. In one such incident, on August 16, TTP militants killed 25 Shias, pulling passengers off three buses in the Lulusar area of Mansehra District, and selective gunning down the Shias. After this incident, TTP Dara Adam Khel/ Khyber Agency 'spokesman' Muhammad Afridi declared that the people killed were Shias who were "involved in killing Sunnis against the will of Islam", adding, "We will target them in the future."
All 25 Districts of KP were variously affected by terrorism, but Peshawar, the provincial capital, was the worst, recording at least 128 incidents in 2012, as compared to 120 in 2011. The city witnessed 10 suicide attacks with 86 killed and another 169 injured, as compared to three such incidents with 61 fatalities and 108 injuries in 2011. 75 incidents of explosion were reported in Peshawar in 2012 as compared to 59 in 2011. The capital city of the Province has evidently been put under siege by the extremists.
Though overall militancy in the Province has declined significantly, cross-border attacks by runaway militants from the Swat Valley have increased. Major General Ghulam Qamar, the operation commander in Swat, on September 6, 2012, disclosed that the Army had repulsed 17 major attacks by militants from across the Afghan border since February 2012, and that 260 attackers were killed, while 40 security personnel lost their lives in these attacks. General Qamar also noted that, since February 2012, 105 exchanges of fire with terrorists trying to infiltrate to Pakistan territory from Afghan side had occurred.
Following military operations in Swat, Dir and Malakand in 2009, terrorists led by Maulana Fazlullah were pushed out of Pakistani territory, and reportedly fled into the Kunar and Nuristan Provinces of Afghanistan, from where they prepared for cross-border attacks on Pakistani SFs. On June 25, 2012, TTP admitted for the first time that it was using Afghan soil as a springboard for launching attacks into Pakistan. TTP Swat chapter 'spokesman' Sirajuddin claimed, "Maulana Fazlullah is leading TTP attacks from Afghanistan's border provinces and is in touch with fighters in Malakand division... We regularly move across the porous border."
Among the most shocking of TTP's excesses in KP in 2012 was the attack on award winning children's rights activist Malala Yusufzai, who was shot in the head and neck on her school bus in Mingora, the Swat District headquarters, on October 9, 2012. The attack was intended to 'avenge' her campaign for the right to education in the extremists' former stronghold. Malala won international recognition for highlighting TTP atrocities in Swat with a blog for the BBC three years ago. Her struggle resonated with tens of thousands of girls, who were being denied education by the terrorists across north-west Pakistan. She received the first-ever national peace award from the Pakistani Government, and was nominated for the International Children's Peace Prize by advocacy group Kids Rights Foundation, both in 2011.
TTP immediately claimed responsibility for the attack on Malala Yusufzai, with the 'spokesman' Ehsanullah Ehsan declaring, "Anybody who speaks against us will be attacked in the same way... She was pro-West, she was speaking against Taliban and she was calling President Obama her idol... She was young but she was promoting Western culture in Pashtun areas." Further, TTP threatened that they would target her again if she survived because she was a "secular-minded lady". The attack was intended as a 'warning for all youngsters' who were involved in similar activates and they would also be targeted if they did not stop.
The TTP rule in Swat Valley, particular under the Mullah Fazlullah-led Swat-Taliban between late October 2007 and November 2009, saw the destruction of the education system in the Valley. The process has decelerated, but continues. 2012 saw 58 schools attacked by the TTP throughout Province, as compare to 55 in 2011. While speaking to the persons in Peshawar on June 14, 2012, KP Education Secretary, Mushtaq Jadoon disclosed that a total of 758 schools had been destroyed by extremists in different parts of the Province, including 640 schools in the Malakand Division. Among these, 164 schools were completely destroyed, while 476 were partially damaged. In addition, 36 schools in Peshawar, Hangu, Bannu, Lakki Marwat and other areas had been completely destroyed, while another 82 were partially damaged. The Secretary stated, further, that most of the damaged schools had been 'rehabilitated' by the Pakistan Army and different non-governmental organisations (NGOs). However, the schools that had been completely destroyed were still awaiting reconstruction.
The Provincial Government has recognized the urgency of the challenge and, on June 8, 2012, announced an increase in allocations for security-related expenses by PKR 5.6 billion for the financial year 2012-13, in view of the precarious law and order situation in the region. The allocation for fiscal year 2011-12 was PKR 23.2 billion, while PKR 28.8 billion has been earmarked for security-related expenses in the provincial budget for fiscal year 2012-13. Of this, PKR 22 billion is to be provided from the Federal Divisional Pool, while the remaining amount is to be made available by the Provincial administration. PKR 23.355 billion has been earmarked for the Police, of which PKR 19.226 billion would be spent on salaries and PKR 4.129 billion on non-salary/operational expenses of the Police Force.
On August 6, 2012, the KP Government directed the Provincial Police Department to implement new defensive Standing Operating Procedures (SOPs) approved by the KP Cabinet on May 2, 2012, which are intended to boost counter-terrorism efforts.
However, conviction rates in cases relating to terrorism in KP hover around a meagre 4 per cent, despite accrued evidence that included camera footage and confiscated suicide vests, which should count as 'ample proof' in court, according to Information Minister, Iftikhar Hussain. Home Secretary, Muhammad Azam Khan also told the Cabinet that the conviction rate of terrorists was 'surprisingly low'. Hussain also mentioned that a large number of those arrested were 13 or 14 year-old boys. who benefit from being classified as minors under the law. He proposed not treating the minors involved in terrorist activities under the same law and reiterated that the concerned departments were reviewing the situation to ascertain why terrorists were 'escaping' due punishment.
Akbar Khan Hoti, Inspector General (IG) of Police, told the Provincial Cabinet that, although there was an increase in terrorist acts this year, their effectiveness ratio has dwindled as compared to incidents since 2009. Incidents targeting the police and politicians have increased. The IG also disclosed that, due to increased planning and a more effective strategy in 2012, the number of Police deaths at the hands of terrorists had decreased by 49 per cent and civilian killings by 47 per cent. The ratio of suicide attacks decreased by 37 per cent, while the ratio of suicide attacks foiled by law enforcement agencies improved by 29 per cent. In total, 73 police personnel have been killed and 218 civilians (108 in Peshawar) died in terrorist attacks from January 1 to November 31, 2012.
On December 18, 2012, the Provincial Government informed the Peshawar High Court that it had transferred about 260 suspected militants to internment centres and that another 86 would undergo four months of de-radicalisation, commencing January 2013. Most of the suspects were arrested in Swat District and the FATA in 2009. The Bench, comprising Chief Justice Dost Mohammad Khan and Justice Waqar Ahmad Seth, were told by the Provincial Home Secretary, Azam Khan, that the Government had complied with a Peshawar High Court order to move detained suspects to internment centres or to release them, if evidence was lacking. Khan also indicated that the authorities had released 45 detenues. Authorities transferred suspects to centres in Lakki Marwat and in Fizza Ghut; and the Pak-Austrian Institute of Tourism and Hotel Management, both in Swat, Khan stated. After workers finish building the Kohat Internment Centre by January 15, 2013, authorities will move another 200 suspected hard-core militants there. The Frontier Corps (FC) has moved another 71 suspects to five internment centres, FC spokesman Major Farrukh stated.
After the December 17, 2012, suicide attack on the PAF base inside Bacha Khan International Airport, KP Information Minister, Iftikhar Hussain ruled out the need for a military operation against terrorists in Peshawar, claiming that the security situation in the District was 'under control': "There is no need for the start of a military action in Peshawar because the law and order situation is under control. Police can take necessary steps against terrorism on their own if a need arises." The Minister observed that the PAF base attackers were Uzbeks, with heavily tattooed bodies: "Involvement of foreigners in the attack means that terrorist groups are not getting local support any longer and are thus, using terrorist trainers for attacks." The Minister stated further that the Government was committed to continuing the fight against terrorists, who wanted to carry out attacks like those at the Mehran and Kamra Air Bases, but law-enforcement personnel and agencies deserved praise for foiling such attempts.
Despite gains against the terrorists, the attacks on core security establishments in the recent past, including some where components of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal are located, raise grave apprehensions. While there is limited evidence of some improvement in the efficiency and effectiveness of responses, the threat of terrorism in Pakistan, and in KP in particular, remains dramatic, and the gains of the recent past are, at best, fragile.
(The writer Tushar Ranjan Mohanty is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management)
(The view expressed in the article is of the author and not India Blooms News Service)