The South Asia Channel

Targeted: What’s Behind the Militant Assault on Pakistan’s Minorities

The May 13 attack on Pakistan's Ismaili community is the latest in a broader trend of violence.

An activist of Pakistan Muslim League-Q lights oil lamps during a vigil for the victims of an attack by gunmen on a Shiite Ismaili minority bus, in Karachi on May 15, 2015. The United States offered to help Pakistan investigate a deadly Karachi bus attack which left 44 Shiite Ismailis dead, in the first assault in the country claimed by the Islamic State group.   AFP PHOTO/ Asif HASSAN        (Photo credit should read ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images)
An activist of Pakistan Muslim League-Q lights oil lamps during a vigil for the victims of an attack by gunmen on a Shiite Ismaili minority bus, in Karachi on May 15, 2015. The United States offered to help Pakistan investigate a deadly Karachi bus attack which left 44 Shiite Ismailis dead, in the first assault in the country claimed by the Islamic State group. AFP PHOTO/ Asif HASSAN (Photo credit should read ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Minorities in Pakistan have been under attack for years. In the months since the atrocious attack on school children in Peshawar, that left 141 dead, 132 of them children, Pakistani authorities enacted the National Action Plan (NAP), a comprehensive document of interventions designed to combat and eradicate militancy in the country. Since the NAP came into effect, however, the focus of terror attacks has increasingly and visibly shifted from the general population and civil-military infrastructure to minorities.

On May 13, 2015, a bus carrying members of the Ismaili community, a Shia sub-sect, was attacked by gunmen on motorcycles, killing 45 people, and injuring another 19. The youngest victim was 16 years old. Police reports and eyewitness accounts establish that six gunmen surrounded the bus, and then boarded it. They separated very young children from the rest of the passengers, and told everyone to bow their heads. They then shot the separated passengers using 9mm pistols. The attackers managed to flee the scene.

This is the worst attack against Ismailis in the history of Pakistan. The Ismailis are widely recognized as a patriotic, peaceful community, largely apolitical, middle-class, and well educated. In the past, isolated incidents have occurred, such as the bombing at Aisha Manzil in Karachi in 2013, which killed four people and injured 42 others. Flare-ups in the northern Chitral Valley and Gilgit-Baltistan regions, where a large concentration of Ismailis reside, have resulted in casualties in the past, but nothing on the scale of the May 13 attack.

Within hours of the attack, several banned groups clamored to claim responsibility. The first was Jundullah, a splinter group of the proscribed Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Initially affiliated with al-Qaeda, the group has claimed responsibility for multiple terror attacks, especially on minorities, often without any real evidence to prove their involvement. In November 2014, the group changed its allegiance, swearing fealty to the Islamic State (IS). The second claim, boasting cooperation in the attack alongside Jundullah, came from the main branch of the Pakistani Taliban, led by Mullah Fazlullah.

Most troublingly however, the final claim, as reported by AFP, came from the Islamic State in Khorasan (the ancient geographical region comprising of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and adjoining areas), the IS affiliate in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the first time IS has directly claimed responsibility for an attack in Pakistan, even though the group’s presence was felt as early as mid-2014, in the form of pamphlets distributed in the city of Peshawar and refugee camps in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, which borders Afghanistan.

It remains unclear which outfit carried out the attack. The police have arrested four suspects, including the alleged mastermind, and claimed that an “al-Qaeda inspired” group was behind the attack. Adding to the confusion are Chief Minister of Sindh Qaim Ali Shah’s remarks that the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the premier foreign intelligence agency of India, perpetrated the attack.

Regardless of who carried out the attack, the reality is that it is no different from the wide array of sectarian and extremist attacks carried out by a diverse range of organizations. The overall goal for this attack, and many others like it, can be divided into three broad categories: maintaining legitimacy, destroying diversity and vibrancy thus destabilizing the state, and isolating Pakistan in the international community.

While violence in Pakistan declined in the first quarter of 2015, when compared to the same time period in 2014, sectarian violence has grown. In January, Jundullah claimed a suicide attack on a Shia mosque in Shikarpur, Sindh province, which killed 61 people. In March, two churches in Lahore, Punjab province were bombed during Sunday prayers, killing 15 people and injuring another 70. The attacks are the result of the increased focus by militant outfits on minority targets since the implementation of NAP. The state’s response towards violence against minorities has been traditionally weak, a capacity gap that militant outfits exploit. By claiming attacks on minorities, they continue to fuel sectarian and religious hatred, recruit fresh blood, and remain relevant in the crowded landscape of terror outfits in Pakistan. As a result, an estimated 12,000 members of minority communities have fled the country since 2009.

The common goal for many militant outfits is to destabilize Pakistan, to cause fear and panic, and to make light of Pakistan’s efforts against extremism. One of the ways to accomplish this is to attack the cultural, religious, and ethnic vibrancy and plurality in Pakistan. The ultimate objective is to destabilize the state, by repeatedly asserting that Pakistani law enforcement agencies are helpless.

Finally, isolating Pakistan has been a major goal of terror groups. On Friday, May 22, 2015, Pakistan witnessed the first international cricket match hosted inside the country in over six years. The last time a team visited Pakistan, seven members of the Sri Lankan team left with shrapnel and bullet wounds as their convoy came under fire in Lahore’s Liberty Market. Other attacks aimed at triggering international isolation include raids on major metropolitan airports, in both Karachi and Peshawar, killing of tourists, as well as attacks on high profile military targets, such as General Headquarters in Rawalpindi, Kamra Air Base and Mehran Naval Base.

The combined goal, ostensibly, is to prove that western ideas of democracy and inclusion have no place in Pakistan, and instead to impose Sharia law as the solution to all predicaments. But hidden beneath layers of rhetoric and propaganda is the militant groups’ need for legitimacy, relevancy and continued momentum given voice in the rush on the part of multiple groups to claim responsibility for the attack.

ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images

Zeeshan Salahuddin is a journalist and serves as a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad. He holds a bachelor's and master's degree in strategic communications from Ithaca College, NY. He tweets at @zeesalahuddin. @zeesalahuddin

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