Pakistan blast: How did we get here?

Suicide attacks are getting increasingly common in Pakistan, with the latest blast in Bajaur killing scores, including many children, at an election rally

Pakistan blast: How did we get here?
Pakistan blast: How did we get here?


With the death toll for the most recent suicide bombing climbing past 50 in Pakistan, the head of Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI-F) party, whose supporters were targeted in the blast, decried the country's security forces over the apparent intelligence failure.

"Where are they? When will they listen to us? When will they heal our wounds? When will they establish a system that safeguards our future generations?" JUI-F leader Fazl-ur-Rehman asked on Twitter.

The conservative preacher is not the only one in Pakistan raising his voice against the rise of terrorist attacks, including suicide bombings.

The Sunday blast was claimed by a local affiliate of the "Islamic State" militia. The "Islamic State Khorasan" (ISIS-K) accuses JUI-F of hypocrisy for being an Islamic political group that has supported secular governments and the military.

But other extremist groups are also using suicide to target their political enemies in Pakistan. The nation experienced over a dozen suicide attacks in the first half of 2023, according to report by the Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies, an Islamabad-based security think-tank. This also includes a bombing in a Peshawar mosque that killed over 100 people. A commander of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, initially claimed responsibility, but this was later denied by a TTP spokesman.

And the Sunday blast at the JUI-F rally was only the latest in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which borders Afghanistan.

On July 18, eight people were injured in an apparent suicide bombing in Peshawar. On July 20, two suicide bombers attacked the official compound in Bara, Khyber district, with at least four police officers losing their lives. Another police officer was killed five days later while attempting to arrest a suicide bomber in a mosque.

Competing factions behind deadly terror strikes

Abdul Basit, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and an expert on jihadi networks, said that the TTP terror group has been associated with suicide terrorism in Pakistan since its establishment in December 2007.

"Apart from TTP, other major groups involved in suicide attacks include ISIS-K, North Waziristan-based commander Hafiz Gul Bahadur's faction in North Waziristan, and the recently formed Tehreek-e-Jihad Pakistan," Basit told DW.

"Additionally, among the various secular ethnic-separatist groups, the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) stands out as one of the major actors who took inspiration from the Islamist militants, and adopted suicide bombing as a warfare tactic," he added.

In June, the BLA claimed responsibility for a suicide attack involving a woman bomber targeting a law enforcement convoy in the Pakistani section of Balochistan.

Long history of suicide bombings

Pakistan has experienced multiple suicide attacks since the mid-1990s, but most of bombings of that era were organized by international militant organizations and sectarian outfits.

In November 1995, terrorist targeted the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad, killing 17 people. The bombings were linked to Ayman al-Zawahiri and his then-Egyptian Islamic Jihad militant outfit.

In May 2002, a suicide bombing on a bus in Karachi resulted in the deaths of 14 people, including 11 French engineers. The US consulate in Karachi was also attacked by suicide bombers in June 2002 and March 2006, leading to the death of a US diplomat and many others.

Even Pakistan's top officials faced the threat of suicide blasts, including ex-President General Pervez Musharraf, and ex-Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, in 2003 and 2004 respectively. Both were unharmed in the attacks.

In 2005, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Pakistani sectarian terror outfit, carried out suicide attacks at the shrines of Pir Rakheel Shah in Jhal Magsi, Balochistan, and Bari Imam in Islamabad.

TTP rises after Red Mosque clampdown

However, organized suicide terrorism in Pakistan took root after a military operation against militants sheltered in Islamabad's radical Red Mosque in June 2007.

The siege culminated in a deadly battle, with over 100 militants and at least 11 law enforcement members losing their lives. Several months later, the TTP appeared on the scene as a formidable militant outfit.

"This marked a significant turning point in Pakistan's history, as the TTP began a series of suicide attacks that terrorized the nation for years," said Fakhar Kakakhel, a Peshawar-based journalist who covered Islamist militancy extensively. "The suicide bombings targeted military, government installations, public places, and civilian gatherings, instilling fear and chaos in society."

Attacks quickly grew more frequent, with the country's former prime minister Benazir Bhutto dying in a suicide attack on December 2007. The background of her assassination was never fully cleared.

In 2008, Pakistani officials noted 59 suicide attacks in the country, with more total causalities than Afghanistan and Iraq had that same year. The numbers remained high for several years after that.

Years of decline

In 2014,the military launched a major military operation known as "Zarb-e-Azb" aimed to eradicate TTP and other al-Qaida-linked militant groups. In the years that followed, Pakistan has experienced fewer suicide attacks, with the numbers dropping into single digits around the turn of the decade. Namely, officials noted four, three, and five suicide attacks occurring in 2019, 2020, and 2021 respectively, according to the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies.

"Until late-2020, TTP had been crumbling under Pakistan's sustained Zarb-e-Azb operation, the deaths of successive leaders by US drone strikes, and an internal rift that steadily pushed factions of the terror organization to relocate to neighboring Afghan provinces," said journalist Kakakhel.

Taliban takeover in Afghanistan boosts militants

With the rise of the Taliban government in Afghanistan in August 2021, however, the TTP has resurfaced as a formidable threat.

"Since the reunification with several splinter groups, TTP has aspired to re-establish control of territory in Pakistan after being emboldened by the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan," said the UN Security Report on July 25.

"The group is focused on high-value targets in border areas and soft targets in urban areas. TTP capability is assessed as not matching its ambition, given that it does not control territory and lacks popular appeal in the [country's] tribal areas," the report said.

Experts said that the recent suicide attack in Bajaur undoubtedly shows a substantial escalation of militant groups' capabilities and assertive approach in Pakistan.

"As the conflict intensifies, suicide terrorism also tends to increase, while when militant groups face suppression through operations like Zarb-e-Azb, the incidents of suicide terrorism decrease," said Basit.

Edited by: Darko Janjevic

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