Peshawar bleeds again. The March 4th suicide attack on Jamaih Masjid Kocha Risaldar, Qissakhwani, located in the heart of the provincial capital, has send down shockwaves, causing gloom and despair across the country. The area around the mosque — where the deadly blast took more than 60 lives — is inhabited by a large number of people belonging to Shia community. The mosque is central to the Fiqah-e-Jaffaria where its followers assemble for Friday prayers from all around the city. These inhabitants and their ancestors live there for hundreds of years, bringing their own colour to the rich cultural diversity of the walled city.
The locality in question used to be a symbol of sectarian harmony even before the Partition; and its people, belonging to different sects, would co-exist with peace and friendship. But the rise of Sipah-e-Sahaba some three decades ago and its growing activities in the locality and its adjacent areas started turning the atmosphere toxic. And the sharing of laughter and cracking of jokes among the people were taken over by fiery sectarian speeches, venomous wall-chalking and hatred-filled sloganeering. The city has witnessed target killings and worst riots in the past.
Coming back to the latest suicide attack, the question that is asked the most is: whose handiwork is it? Well the typical official response points to the involvement of a foreign hand. Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid was no different with words, stating that all suspects connected to the Peshawar suicide attack had been identified. While the authorities only issued generalised statements as to culprits, the IS took the lead and claimed involvement in the March 4th suicide blast.
With a mindset of hate nurturing in every neighbourhood across the country, who would not know the elements behind the gory incident. This mindset operates in various forms and manifestations, under different umbrellas, and keeps switching under changed names. Such an mindset always provides a fertile ground to organisations such as Spihab-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Jhangivi. Despite the passage of the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997, there is no letup in sectarian and extremist tendencies.
Speaking from a tactical viewpoint, since the attacker of the Peshawar blast himself got killed, the offence against him stood abated. The handlers may also be arrested and even convicted or bumped off in an encounter. But, before analysing this particular incident and attributing it to a specific outfit, it is necessary to know if it was an isolated incident. Nay! Not only within the narrow radius of Peshawar but in other parts of the country also, similar acts of terrorism have occurred with regular intervals.
In fact, the use of religion card by our ruling and political class — particularly during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and in relation to the Kashmir conflict — led to the seeds of extreme ideologies germinating across the country. So much so that people belonging to many Arab countries dedicated themselves for the holy jihad being waged from the Pakistani soil. With them came the ideologies of transnational nature. Under, the philosophy of tafkir, ‘infidels’ and even the Muslims siding with them were declared to be killed.
In the early 2000s, Pakistan’s decision to act as a frontline state in the US-led war on terror led to the emergence of TTP which turned out to be an umbrella for several radical organisation already operating in the country such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Harkat-al Mujaheedin al-Alami, Lashkar-e-Taiba splinter groups, Jaish-e-Muhammad and Al-Furqan.
Many of these outfits, if not all, were working under the strategic direction of Al-Qaeda. But with the demise of Osama bin Laden and thereby the weakening of the Al-Qaeda network, the world saw the emergence of Islamic State Central in the wake of the Iraq war and Syrian conflict. Both Al-Qaeda and Islamic State provide the concept of Caliphate. Conceptually, both are more or less the same, but the difference lies in tactics.
Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K), basically an affiliate of the Islamic State Central, declared its expansion to the Khorasan region in 2015, which historically covers parts of modern day Iran, Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. A TTP commander hailing from Orakazai Agency, Hafiz Saaed, was appointed its Ameer, who brought other prominent TTP members to the IS-K fold, pledging allegiance to al-Baghdadi in October 2014. According to sources, some members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the Haqqani Network, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan have also joined their ranks, considering Afghanistan as their base.
IS-K is now focusing on recruitment from both Afghanistan and Pakistan, particularly targeting members of the Afghan Taliban who do not consider their own organisation capable enough to achieve the goal of Caliphate. Reports suggest that IS-K is now working under Shahab al-Muhajir, whose real name is Sanaullah Ghafari. He has a vast social network in Kabul which is helping the IS-K in its recruitment efforts. Ghafari is also credited with the high-profile attack on the Kabul airport in August 2021.
Under his new plan, Shahab al-Muhajir is working to reunite IS-K’s dispersed members and reinforcing and diversifying the group’s ranks to initiate urban warfare. In this connection, he is on a three-pronged strategy: planning prison breaks; providing amnesty to the more than 1,400 members who surrendered to the previous government; and advertising a diverse militant base to cast a wide recruitment net. His main sources of recruitment have been Afghan Salafi communities in and around Kabul and Nangarhar. He is trying to exploit the lack of trust between the Taliban and Salafi communities.
The discussion establishes the fact that the polices of the successive governments have provided an enabling environment for nurturing extreme ideologies in the country. There is need for the rulers to ensure implementation on the National Action Plan in letter and spirit and start paving the way for a society where there is interfaith harmony and which is free from extremism and hatred.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 16th, 2022.
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