A remote-controlled bomb blast on Monday, June 18 targeted a university bus in Quetta, the capital city of the southwestern Pakistani province of Balochistan, killing five students and injuring more than 60 civilians. All the students killed belonged to the Shiite-Hazara ethno-religious minority group. An underground Sunni militant organization, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), which is thought to have close ties with the intelligence agencies of the Pakistani military, claimed responsibility for the unprecedented attack. While ceremonies and mosques of Shia Muslims are often the target of deadly attacks, a university bus has never before come under such a robust attack.
The LeJ, which was formed in 1996 as a breakaway faction of another banned militant Sunni organization, the Sipa-e-Sahaba, has pledged to carry out more of such attacks on Pakistan’s Shia in the future. With Shia making up a quarter of the population, Pakistan has the world’s second largest Shia population after Iran. The majority of Shia Muslims in the Balochistan region are also of the Hazara ethnic origins. Theoretically, the Pakistani authorities have banned the LeJ and declared it a terrorist organization, but practically it operates with absolute impunity because of its deep contacts with some sections of the armed forces. The LeJ treats Shias as apostates and vehemently advocates for their killing if they do not convert to the Sunni version of Islam or leave Pakistan. Monday’s incident comes less than two weeks after another deadly terrorist bombing at a Sunni religious school (a madrassa) in Quetta on June 7, which killed 14 people including several students, and injured at least 40 people.
Abu-Bakar Siddiq, a spokesman for the LeJ, told the local media that the killings on June 18 were actually meant to avenge the earlier madrassa bombing. Attacks and counter-attacks by fanatic religious groups serve as the harbinger of renewed confrontation in Pakistan’s less-known sectarian battle.
Washington believes the top leadership of the Taliban, headed by Mullah Mohammad Omar, is hiding in Quetta, allegedly with the covert support of some sections of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The Quetta Shura, according to an American diplomat, is comprised of people who devise policies for the Taliban while living in Quetta. In March 2009, the New York Times reported that the Obama administration intended to extend the chain of drone strikes to Quetta, where they believe the Taliban are masterminding attacks on American troops in southern Afghanistan. Pro-Taliban members of the Balochistan Assembly immediately passed a parliamentary resolution to warn the United States of the "dire consequences" of expanding drone operations to Quetta. The postponement of action against radical Islamic elements only provided them an opportunity to further consolidate their grip on the gas-rich mountainous region.
The June 7 attack was also unique since schools run by Sunni clerics rarely come under attack. According to a senior police officer, seminaries had not received any threats. Sunni organizations and schools do not normally ask for security assistance from the government, either because they do not foresee any attacks, or because they suspect the official security apparatus because of the covert ties these religious parties keep with jihadist organizations (the security apparatus in this case refers to the local police, who don’t have the same Jihadist-supporting policies and powers of the army or intelligence agencies). The Jamiat Ulema e Islam (JUI), a pro-Taliban political party which runs most of the seminaries across Balochistan, is also a coalition partner of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in the regional government. The JUI rallied against the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and also provided manpower to the Taliban for attacks against coalition forces. Anti-American campaigns led to its overwhelming electoral victories in Balochistan and the North Western Frontier Province in the general elections of 2002 and 2008. JUI’s alignment with the ruling PPP enables it to protect and promote its Islamist interests and vast network of religious schools. Hundreds of students who are enrolled in these seminaries traditionally make arrangements for and provide security to JUI’s mammoth public gatherings and anti-U.S. protest rallies.
Pakistan’s secret services support the JUI and their Taliban proxies in an effort to counter the left-wing Baloch nationalist movement inside Pakistan. The ethnic Baloch, who represent a majority in Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province, also live in Iran’s largest province of Sistan and Baluchistan, as well as southern parts of Afghanistan. In Iran and Pakistan, the Balochs complain about maltreatment and exclusion from the mainstream by the majority Persian and Punjabi populations, but the two states have traditionally responded differently to the Balochs’ discontent. While Pakistan has allowed radical elements to fight sections of the Baloch nationalists who seek a separate homeland, Iran has treated the Sunni radical movement led by Balochi speakers in the Jundullah organization as an enemy. Local sources in Balochistan say funding for Sunni and Shiite groups mainly originates from Saudi Arabia and Iran respectively, two ideological rivals, and sections of the intelligence wing of the Pakistani military are also known to support Sunni organizations.
Against the backdrop of violent religious politics, there has been a dramatic increase in targeted killings of Sunni scholars of Baloch ethnic origin, allegedly by Shia groups. On October 30, 2011 Hafiz Itesham-ul-Haq, the secretary general of a district chapter of JUI, was shot dead in the Pakistan-Iran border town of Panjgur, an incident which was followed on March 24, 2012 by the killing of Qari Abdul Basit, the son of a noted Sunni scholar Maulvi Abdul Samad. On April 6, 2012 Maulana Muhammad Qasim, the prayer leader of a Quetta mosque, was murdered while Hafiz Imdadullah, the son of a JUI district leader, was assassinated in Quetta on June 1.
On March 24, 2012 Hafiz Hamdullah, president of JUI’s Quetta chapter, was quoted by the Karachi-based Express Tribune as saying that over ten religious scholars belonging to the Sunni sect have been killed in the past few months. He blamed a "powerful group" for targeted killings and incidents of kidnapping for ransom in Quetta. In Pakistan, "powerful group" is often used to allude to foreign countries as well as Pakistan’s own intelligence agencies. On June 2, 2012, Major General Obaidullah Khan, the Inspector General of the Frontier Corps (FC), a paramilitary organization responsible for guarding Pakistan’s borders with Iran and Afghanistan, said, without providing any evidence, that the intelligence agencies of at least 20 countries were involved in a number of activities in Balochistan.
Insiders in the government say they have arrested a member of the Shia community in Quetta in connection with his alleged involvement in the June 1 killing of a prominent Sunni leader’s son. However, they refrain from publicizing such information, fearing worse communal and sectarian backlash and unrest.
In the 1980s, Pakistan patronized Sunni militant groups across the country with Saudi funding in order to contain the Iranian Revolution. Since then, some of these homegrown sectarian groups have slipped out of Pakistan’s official control. While these organizations originated from the most populated Punjab province, they have now spread throughout Pakistan. The LeJ regularly attacks police officers and installations to intimidate the law enforcement agencies. To overcome such attacks, authorities secretly cooperate with the groups in hopes of appeasing them to stop attacks on their personnel. Civil society groups blame the Pakistani state for cultivating the roots of religious intolerance in the country. For its part, the government has merely offered lip-service, instead of punishing the masterminds behind religiously-motivated attacks, despite the enormous cost of civilian lives.