The South Asia Channel

After Lahore, The Taliban’s Rise in Pakistan Continues

The Easter Sunday attack in Lahore is not a once-off occurrence. The Pakistani Taliban is strong and getting stronger, and stopping them will take more than just a military solution.

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Pakistani civil society members sing the national anthem at the site of a suicide blast in Lahore on March 28, 2016. Pakistan's army launched raids and arrested suspectsafter a Taliban suicide bomber targeting Christians over Easter killed 72 people including many children in a park crowded with families. / AFP / FAROOQ NAEEM (Photo credit should read FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images)

On Easter Sunday, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), a splinter group of the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), killed over 72 people and wounded hundreds in an attack on a Lahore park, demonstrating that the TTP and its affiliates continue to propagate their extremist ideology despite the success of Operation Zarb-e-Azb. Operation Zarb-e-Azb, launched in June 2014 in Pakistan’s tribal regions bordering Afghanistan, flushed out many of the Taliban located in that area. However, the consistent string of terrorist attacks in northern Pakistan and now in mainland Punjab since the beginning of 2016 signal that the Taliban is regaining its strength and that Pakistan cannot bomb its way out of this conflict.

JuA is led by Maulvi Omar Khalid Khorasani (real name Abdul Wali). His stronghold is Mohmand, one of the seven tribal districts in Pakistan’s northwest FATA region that borders Afghanistan’s eastern provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar. In 2014, Khorasani — already known to have strong ties with al Qaeda — took his allegiance from the Pakistani Taliban and gave it to the Islamic State (IS). Recent reports now have Khorasani re-aligning with the Taliban, suggesting that the Taliban network in Pakistan is once again more appealing than IS’ tenuous foothold.

The Easter attack was the second major terrorist strike in Lahore claimed by JuA in recent years. In November 2014, the group claimed responsibility for attacking a crowd of people gathered to watch and cheer the routine flag-lowering ceremony on the India-Pakistan Wagah border crossing.

Given the roughly 350-mile distance between the city of Lahore and Mohmand, the so-called headquarters of Khorasani’s JuA, it is almost impossible for a potential suicide bomber with a waistband full of explosives to safely travel across the country and carry out a suicide attack at the time and place of his choice.

Conventional wisdom has it that a strong support network has to exist somewhere and at some level to facilitate terrorist acts in a city as far away and secure as Lahore from an area as remote as the Mohmand tribal district. The existence of such a support network should surprise no one.

A highly charged mob of around 20,000 activists associated with a hardliner Sunni group known as Sunni Tehreek was advancing on Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad at exactly the same time as rescue workers and family members of the Lahore blast victims were removing the dead and injured from the scene of the March 27 attack. The Islamabad protesters were furious over the hanging of convicted murderer Mumtaz Qadri, the police guard who assassinated former Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer over opposition to his stance on Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws.

Taseer had met the Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, who was convicted by a Pakistani court on charges of blasphemy. Qadri believed Taseer had crossed the line by meeting Aasia Bibi and by his staunch dissent from the law, which is often abused by Pakistan’s majority Muslims against the minority Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and Ahmadis. For many ordinary Pakistanis  — particularly those belonging to the hardliner Barelvi sect, the majority of whom live in Punjab province — Mumtaz Qadri is their hero.

While Pakistan’s tribal areas are the principal homes of armed Taliban and other jihadist groups and where Pakistani security forces have been conducting operations for well over a decade, it is the more urban and better-educated mainland (or heartland, by which Punjab province is known) that generates extremist ideologies and narratives in the cities.

Since the era of military dictator Zia-ul-Haq, who held power in Pakistan during the 1980s and championed the cause of Afghan “jihad,” sectarian and extremist groups have predominantly thrived in the poor, backward, and feudalistic parts of southern Punjab, which is otherwise the country’s most-populated and richest province.

Groups such as Sipah-e-Sahaba, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jamat-ud-Dawa, and Jaish-e-Muhammad, among others, carry on the sectarian violence and Kashmir- and Afghanistan-focused jihadism that was a hallmark of state policies in the 1980s. In a recent phone conversation, a well-known, Lahore-based analyst and political commentator told me that around 500 members of these banned sectarian groups were elected during the October 2015 district government elections.

While the trafficking of explosives (such as from the Mohmand agency to Lahore) could be restricted through conventional means, it is almost impossible to restrict the flow of ideologies and narratives spread by extremists.

Soon after the December 2014 Taliban attack at the Peshawar Army Public School, the government and opposition political parties unanimously agreed on a 20-point National Action Plan to curb terrorism, extremism, and radicalism in its all forms and manifestations. A year and a half later, Islamabad is still hesitant to adopt measures including curbing hate speech and registering religious seminaries, while the military leadership is reluctant to do away with its policy of “good” and “bad” Taliban.

Violent extremism thrives on ideas and narratives. As long as Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership do not agree on across-the-board measures against those spreading extremism, any degree of bombing, military operations, and security measures will ring hollow.

FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images

Daud Khattak is a senior editor of Radio Mashaal for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Twitter: @daudkhattak1

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