On Wednesday, at least 23 people were killed and nearly 300 were injured in a suicide bombing in Lahore. According to the NY Times, the attack was “a failed attempt to strike at the nearby provincial headquarters of Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency.” Dawn reported:
The incident took place at a heavily guarded entry point to the offices of Rescue-15 and the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) as well as to the official residences of police officers at the Plaza Cinema Chowk at around 10:10am. The buildings are adjacent to the offices of Lahore’s police chief and are only yards away from the old Freemason’s Hall where the Punjab chief minister has his secretariat. Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif was at his Defense residence at the time of the explosion.
According to media reports, a group of men shot at police officers before detonating a powerful car bomb, damaging buildings in broad daylight in one of Lahore’s busiest districts. The Times described the scene after the attack in its coverage, “The massive bomb left a crater eight feet deep and 20 feet wide and the blast was heard for miles around. Dozens of vehicles were crumpled like paper and broken glass filled the street. The red brick building of the Rescue 15 ambulance service collapsed after taking the brunt of the blast, and emergency workers struggled for hours to pull the dead and injured from the debris.” The dead included 14 policemen and a colonel belonging to the ISI.
Although an official called yesterday’s bombing a “brazen and well-thought out plan,” it certainly wasn’t the first of its kind in Lahore. In fact, it was the third attack in the city in three months. On March 3, a dozen gunmen attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team with rifles, grenades, and rocket launchers ahead of a cricket match in Lahore. Six police guards were killed in the ambush. Later that month on March 30, gunmen attacked the Manawan police academy near Lahore, killing 13 people. All attacks occurred in broad daylight. All were undoubtedly well-coordinated. All appeared to either target Pakistan’s police forces or highlight the vulnerability of Pakistan’s security apparatus. According to BBC News correspondent Shoaib Hassan, “Lahore is facing a sustained campaign of violence unlike any it has seen before.” He added, “Security officials believe the city is under attack because it is seen as a stable home for Pakistan’s Punjab-dominated army.” However, noted the Wall Street Journal, “It was unclear whether the main target of the attack was the police, the ISI or both.”
The government has blamed “Taliban fighters” for yesterday’s bombing, and Interior Minister Rehman Malik was quoted telling reporters, “Enemies of Pakistan who want to destabilize the country are coming here after their defeat in Swat.”
While pointing a finger at the Taliban has been common practice of late, it is still a vague and rather hollow accusation. In order to truly comprehend the threat that faces us, it is important to first demystify the term, “Taliban militants.” Following the Manawan police attack, I noted that the incident signified how many militant organizations are operating in Pakistan’s periphery, and how the line between them has become increasingly blurred. After today’s bombing, the “buzz-term” that was mentioned by several outlets and officials was “The Punjabi Taliban.” In the April issue of the Combating Terrorism Center [CTC] Sentinel, Hassan Abbas wrote,
Punjab, the most populated of Pakistan’s provinces, has largely escaped the bloodshed plaguing the country’s troubled northwest. Yet since 2007, violence has escalated in the province. The bold terrorist attacks in Pakistan’s heartland…show that local logistical support for these attacks is attributable to what is often labeled the ‘Punjabi Taliban’ network. The major factions of this network include operatives from Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, and Jaysh-e-Muhammad – all groups that were previously strictly focused on Kashmir and domestic violence.
Abbas defines the Punjabi Taliban network as “a loose conglomeration of members of banned militant groups of Punjabi origin – sectarian as well as those focused on the conflict in Kashmir – that have developed strong connections with Tehreek-e-Taliban, Afghan Taliban and other militant groups based in FATA and NWFP.” The network’s groups shuttle between the tribal areas and the rest of Pakistan, providing logistical support to militant groups based both in FATA and Afghanistan to conduct operations within Pakistan. Abbas asserted in his analysis, “Given their knowledge about Punjabi cities and security structure, they have proved to be valuable partners for the TTP as it targets cities in Punjab, such as Lahore, Rawalpindi, and Islamabad.”
In order to understand the evolution of these Punjabi groups, their longtime relationship with Pakistan’s state apparatus must be highlighted. In the 1990s, many of these militants directly benefited from state patronage [particularly the ISI], and “were professionally trained in asymmetrical warfare, guerrilla tactics and sabotage,” to fight as proxies in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Although it is unclear how long the state’s relationship with these groups lasted, some speculate if they still enjoy some form of support from retired members of the military or intelligence.
Moreover, despite their current alliance with Al Qaeda and the Afghan and Pashtun Taliban, several groups under the Punjabi Taliban’s umbrella have also been highly sectarian in nature. The Sunni-Deobandi essence of these organizations, particularly the Lashkar-e-Jhanghvi (LeJ) and the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), adds further dimension to this conflict.
The purpose of this analysis was to demystify the term, “Taliban,” a term we throw around too often without truly understanding its meaning. I also wanted to highlight the rising threat of the militant network in Punjab, and how their alliance with the Pashtun and Afghan Taliban makes their mutual impact all the more dangerous. In order to counter these groups, therefore, Pakistan must not only crack down on these groups but also exploit their divisions to weaken their network and influence. As for us, it’s important to think past the abstract and comprehend that militancy is not only rooted in the tribal areas. The Punjabi Taliban were created by the state itself. And it seems those chickens have come home to roost.