A few years ago, Lahore was regarded, comparatively, as a more peaceful metropolitan city than Quetta, Peshawar and Karachi. However, the recent attack badly affected its peace indexation.
The “big bang” of a suicide attack in Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park gave a wakeup call for the implementation of Agenda Point 15 of the National Action Plan (NAP). Point 15 emphasises zero tolerance for militancy in Punjab.
Apart from being the seat of the government, Lahore is primarily known as the education capital, city of tolerance and cultural heritage. Lahore is stretched over 1,772 square kilometres, with 10,052,000 inhabitants sharing a border with Indian Punjab.
In mega-incidents of terrorism, besides planning, coordination, dedication and facilitation, the timing and selection of targets are also of prime importance. In the backdrop of such incidents, the efficacy of law enforcement and intelligence collection and the response of rescue services, is always questioned.
After the attack on the court in Charsadda and on a bus in Peshawar, the Lahore attack was the third in a month. It depicts that the fault line is no longer restricted to Fata and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, but has extended to other areas. Extremism is no longer an issue confined to tribal territory but is an urban phenomenon as well.
The attack took place at a time when the media was flashing the visit of the Iranian president to Pakistan as well as the arrest of an Indian spy. However, the barbaric attack captured media attention and consequently, the media lost interest in the arrest of the spy and the visit of the Iranian president.
In the backdrop of the APS and BKU attacks, the law-enforcement agencies overreacted and invested too much in security of educational institutions. The selection of the NADRA office in Mardan and court premises in Shabqadar, indicated a change in targets but we may have failed to correctly decipher the vibes. Did we anticipate the likelihood of an attack on a public park? Since Lahore is a hub of tourism, the security of parks, cinemas, stadiums, shrines, historical and religious places, needs revision. To make public areas more secure, the present challenge needs to be converted into an opportunity. However, it’s not possible without the employment of technological solutions and the cooperation of the community. Had there been a strong outer security cordon, the bomber may have blown himself up away from the crowd and the damage could have been limited. Keeping in view these scenarios, security managers should concentrate on beefing up the outer-most security rings.
As the area has the imprint of twin suicide bombings, in Moon Market in 2009, the investigators need to explore why the planners selected Allama Iqbal Town, yet again?
The attack was executed on a day when followers of a sect were observing the chehlum of Mumtaz Qadri and Christians were celebrating Easter. Regarding the selection of a venue, the planners may have assumed that on Easter, apart from Muslims, Christian families may also visit. Hence, with one bullet they targeted women, children, Muslims and Christians.
It was not the first-ever attack in Lahore. Prior to the recent attack, there are imprints of mega-incidents of terrorism in the heart of Punjab. The post-9/11 scenario affected Lahore. However, in 2002, 2003, 2006 and 2007, no major incident of terrorism took place in the city.
In 2008, in four incidents, the parking area of Naval War College, the FIA office, the Alhamra Arts complex and an area adjacent to a police station were attacked, killing 40 people. In 2009, in four incidents of terrorism, the Sri Lankan cricket team, Manawa police training school, the adjoining vicinity of the CCPO, an intelligence agency’s offices and Moon Market, Iqbal Town, were targeted, killing 105 people. The year 2010 witnessed six incidents of terrorism, including the office of the FIA, two places of worship of Ahmadis, a hospital, a sectarian procession, the ‘urs’ at Duri Buri Darbar and the shrine of Data Gunjj, in which 188 persons lost their lives. Thus, in the post-9/11 scenario for Lahoris, 2010 was the worst year.
In 2011, a sectarian procession was targeted and 13 people were killed. During 2012, in three incidents, a railway station platform, fruit market and officials of the prison department undergoing training, were targeted, resulting in 12 deaths. In 2013, in two incidents, explosive devices were deployed outside restaurants, resulting in the death of one person. In 2014, one incident of terrorism at Wagah resulted in the deaths of 60 people. Last year, in two incidents outside the premises of police lines and in two simultaneous attacks on churches, 22 civilians were killed.
In Lahore, the roots of extremism existed prior to 9/11, propelled primarily by sectarian strife. In 1987, Allama Ehsan Elahi Zaheer was killed in a bomb explosion and in 1990, Sadiq Ganji, then director general of the Iranian Cultural Centre, was also shot dead. In 1997, the stalwart of a sectarian organisation, Ziaur Rehman Farooqi, was killed in a bomb blast near Lahore Sessions Court. In 2002, a religious scholar, Dr Ghulam Murtaza Malik, was killed in Iqbal Town. In June 2009, a suicide bomber attacked Jamia Naeemia, killing seven people, including a cleric who held anti-Taliban views.
A month-wise analysis of the frequency of terror attacks reveals that terrorism is a phenomenon that occurs the most in the spring season. Regarding the selection of targets, the masterminds select both hard and soft targets.
Since Punjab shares its border with all provinces, the enormity of the challenge requires intensified coordination and an information-sharing apparatus. The present security apparatus, based on mere visibility and numerical strength, cannot respond to the challenge. In the past, the Punjab Police (PP) effectively responded to sectarian terrorism. Hence, the PP has the potential to effectively deal with the situation.
Between the terrorists and the law-enforcement agencies, the side which demonstrates clarity, dedication and ownership will win.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 1st, 2016.