End Of Suicide Bombings – Is There Reason To Be Complacent?
The absence of suicide bombings in major urban centres of the country is generally perceived as an indicator that Pakistan’s security situation has now completely returned to normalcy. The last suicide bombing was three months ago in May this year.
This is in complete contrast with the security situation prevailing in last three years of the last decade, when suicide bombings were almost a daily occurrence. The wave of suicide bombings that hit Pakistan in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks touched alarming heights in 2007, averaging more than one suicide attack a week. The widely- held perception at that time was that the state machinery had lost control of the situation.
While PPP leader Benazir Bhutto’s December 27 assassination was the most high-profile suicide attack of 2007, there were 56 incidents of suicide bombings in Pakistan during 2007 that killed 422 members of the army and the police besides 220 civilians.
Two suicide bombings, in April and May this year in two urban centres of the country – Quetta and Lahore – started to give sleepless nights to security managers of Pakistan. On April 12, a suicide attack on Quetta’s Hazarganji sabzi mandi killed 20 people. This was followed by a suicide bombing in Lahore’s Data Darbar on May 8 that killed 10 people, including police officers.
Two suicide bombings, within a month’s time, in major urban centres of Pakistan raised the apprehension that this might be the start of another wave of suicide bombings that might grip Pakistani society.
Both Pakistani and International experts describe suicide bombings as never being an isolated event, but rather part of a strategic campaign on part of militants and terror groups aimed at achieving strategic objectives like weakening the resolve of state machinery to confront militancy and terrorism.
Violence in Pakistan has dropped significantly since the country´s deadliest-ever militant attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar in 2014, that left more than 150 people dead.
Suicide bombings have gradually disappeared as a threat to internal security of the country since 2014. Suicide bombings continued to take place in urban centres and tribal areas of Pakistan till 2018, but they were intermittent.
It is now almost clear that the two suicide bombings in Quetta and Lahore early this year were not the starting point of another wave of suicide bombings. But there is a question mark on the implicit claim of the security officials that they have eliminated the threat of suicide bombings from the security landscape of the country.
During the wave of bombing between 2007 to 2011, the terrorists hit military installations, personnel and convoys, police stations and police personnel, political leaders, diplomats, sectarian targets and tribal elders. Some of the suicide bombings were targeted against rival militant leaders and groups. The most common form of suicide bombings was the targeting of military and police check posts in the tribal areas and settled areas. In the most gruesome attacks, even the mosques visited by rival groups were also targeted.
But this period has vanished from our memory as if it had never happened. We don’t talk about it, we don’t produce any research or academic paper about it—the only worthwhile book about suicide bombings in Pakistan is written by a National Defense University professor, Khurram Iqbal, and ironically the book was never meant for Pakistan and was sold in US only. Most dangerously we don’t consider that this wave can repeat itself.
Pakistani security planners, however, are not as oblivious to their surroundings and they did show some apprehension at the time of two suicide bombings in April and May that another wave of suicide bombings might be just round the corner.
The July 2007 Lal Masjid military operation was the starting point of the wave of suicide bombings in Pakistan in the first decade of this century. It all started as what seemed to be isolated incidents of suicide bombings. However, this time, the bombings do not accompany a big event like the Lal Masjid operation in 2007.
In 2007, the signs of revolt against the government were already there a week before the Lal Masjid operation was carried out on July 10. There were protests in northern Punjab, parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and tribal areas. In Bajaur, the religious leader warned government of retaliation if Lal Masjid operation was not stopped immediately. The security forces were coming under attacks on different parts of KP. There were all signs that what was happening in Lal Masjid was a carefully planned revolt against the government.
Lal Masjid cleric, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, said that they would respond forcefully if military government of General Musharraf started a military operation against the mosque. This he said while talking to a regional television in response to Musharraf’s statement that there were many potential suicide bombers inside the mosque.
The tensions between Lal Masjid students and security forces deployed around the mosque erupted and continued for six hours. The tensions started when Lal Masjid students attacked a group of policemen and Rangers deployed close to the mosque and snatched weapons and wireless sets from them. When the Rangers officials and Islamabad administration approached the Ghazi brothers for the return of the weapons, they refused to give it back to them. While the negotiations for the return of the weapons were underway, the students and militants holed up inside the mosque opened fire at the Rangers.
The signs of Lal Masjid situation turning into a bigger problem for the state of Pakistan became apparent on July 4, when militants started attacking police in Swat valley. There was an attack on a police station in Matta Tehsil where a constable was killed by militants firing at the police station. The militants also lobbed hand grenades on the police station.
A suicide bombing was carried out on the vehicle of district police officer Swat in which both the DPO and his driver were severely injured. Another attack took place when militants opened fire on security officials in a village of Swat. Security officials were quoted as saying that these attacks were linked with the Lal Masjid situation.
Suicide bombing in North Waziristan took place when a military convoy was attacked. The bomber rammed his explosive laden vehicle into a military convoy, killing six soldiers and four children playing in the fields near the site of the blast. The blast, according to officials, was apparently linked with the Lal Masjid situation as most of the students of the mosque were from tribal areas.
In the next three years, countless military convoys and military installations were hit by terrorists in the tribal areas as the militant leaders aimed to weaken the resolve of the political and military leadership to fight the militants.
The second major target were those political leaders who were supporting the military operations against tribal militants. The Shia community and diplomats were two other targets of the militants during this period.
Experts say all this was part of the strategic campaign to target the state machinery to obtain concessions from the state for the militants’ continued survival in the tribal areas.
There is no empirical study or research paper pin-pointing the reasons for the discontinuation of suicide bombings in Pakistan. All the analysis of the situation is primarily based on the claims of security officials.
Firstly, security officials claim that they have broken the back of militancy in Pakistani tribal areas. This means that now, militants are not controlling any territory in any part of Pakistan. This also means that militants are not running any schools for the training of suicide bombers in tribal areas as they used to do when they were controlling South and North Waziristan.
As the military is controlling every inch of the tribal areas now, there is little possibility that the militants would be allowed to recruit suicide bombers from poor and under nourished families in tribal areas. This seems plausible but is hardly enough reason for complacency.
Umer Farooq is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist. He writes on security, foreign policy and domestic political issues.