Let’s first get rid of a brazen lie, fed to us by the unholy beards — i.e., Muslims cannot commit atrocities because Islam forbids them from doing so. The fact is, Muslims can and they have committed terrible atrocities in spite of Islam’s teachings, just like peoples of other faiths and denominations. There’s theory and there is praxis, and while East and West can meet ‘when two strong men stand face to face’, this twain normally diverge.

This lie should therefore be dumped, buried deep. The reason is simple: it is meant to obfuscate the facts. It helps create straw men. It allows non sequiturs to choreograph our lives. It prevents us from self-correction. It keeps us in the poisonous bubble. It sustains, as society’s leaders and deliverers, the very charlatans responsible for putting us in a deep hole. It perpetuates our sundry grotesqueries and villainies and mires us even deeper in our theological buffooneries.

If this bucket list of vices is not enough for us to think anew, I don’t know what is.

So, this is how it goes: Muslims are fully capable of attacking a church and killing innocent Pakistanis, just like Christians, when they fought their battles of faith, destroyed churches and burned heretics. Man, with the ability to go beyond his immediate needs, is capable of both Divine compassion and extreme cruelty. If we don’t accept that there are people and groups in this country, perfectly normal on a dull day, who can commit unspeakable atrocities the next day, we are either in need of a brain transplant or are plain, shameless liars. To state it clearly, we are infested with both types.

Now to the Peshawar church attack itself. Who did it?

The immediate reaction was, and remains, that the self-styled Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) — a franchise which has linkages with several extremist-terrorist groups across Pakistan — is responsible. But so far the TTP’s spokesperson Shahidullah Shahid has not spoken to any of the reporters he normally would call up to claim responsibility. Why?

There’s another issue here. The TTP has tried hard, through its terror attacks, to make political space for itself. The current governments at the Centre and in K-P are very interested in talking to the TTP and convened an APC to that end. Strategically speaking, it does not make sense for the TTP to lose its hard-won gains by mounting such a gratuitous attack on a soft target.

This is neither to suggest that the TTP is fastidious about who it kills or how or even that it hasn’t killed mercilessly in the past. It has done both. But the timing is just not right. Consider.

The TTP, while it has a core — call it the HQ — that seeks to coordinate action by its various affiliates, does not have a solid, central command structure. Just like al Qaeda (AQ) which is constrained to grant a degree of autonomy to its local affiliates around the world until they continue to serve the larger AQ agenda, the TTP does the same.

Corollary: oft, it has to look the other way when groups choose and engage a target that the franchise HQ would rather they had not engaged. It gets into operational and PR problems when that happens. However, since the affiliate groups are useful, the TTP has to do a cost-benefit analysis and if the group’s usefulness outweighs the damage its actions have done, the TTP would generally take responsibility after the affiliate group has claimed it. In more extreme cases, the TTP will remain quiet while responsibility is claimed by its affiliate.

A good example of the loose arrangement is the Asmatullah Muaviya group. Muaviya, commander of the Punjabi Taliban linked to the TTP and serving as an AQ company commander, was expelled by the TTP for welcoming the talks offer by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz government. His expulsion was widely reported and was also confirmed by Shahidullah Shahid. However, Muaviya hit back at the TTP by telling the media that the TTP had no authority to expel him and he was not under its command because the Punjabi Taliban movement was independent of the TTP.

The church attack has been claimed by Jundallah, with their spokesperson Ahmed Marwat coming on record. Some sources also point to Jundul Hafsa, led by Muaviya but no one has ‘officially’ heard from them. The primary targets of both groups have been Shias and Imambargahs, though they have also carried out attacks on foreigners (Nanga Parbat; Jundul Hafsa) and the Sukkur ISI detachment (Jundallah).

It doesn’t make sense for Jundul Hafsa to mount this attack either, given Muaviya’s approach to the talks offer. That leaves us with the only group that has claimed responsibility, Jundallah. In my programme two nights ago, Brig Asad Munir (retd), who also writes for this newspaper, said he was convinced the attack was carried out by Jundallah. I agree.

This has implications. While my views on talking to the Taliban are clear, if the foregoing is any indication, there are rifts within the larger collection of these scums on the issue of talking. Muaviya is one and while he was ‘expelled’ by the TTP for reacting positively to the talks offer, the TTP itself seems to be getting more serious about it. If, in theory, the talks can be started and do not scuttle at the very outset, given the extremists’ extremism, the ruptures could be exploited by the state. Jundallah’s act is very clear in its message: we do not want talks. The question is: is that also what other groups want, to continue with their violence?

If not, will the franchise HQ leash such groups by killing, if necessary? Or will they help the state nab the perpetrators of this attack by providing intelligence on their whereabouts? If the state has done some homework and not just expressed the intention to talk, this is the time to test the ‘sincerity’ of those who want to talk. And nothing will prove sincerity more than punishing the groups that don’t want to talk.

At the same time, this should also make the state realise the fractured nature of the threat. Lesson: do talk but do not compromise on the capability to put these groups down.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 25th,  2013.

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