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Terror threat hitting home in Pakistan

Attacks aren't just a US concern, more Pakistanis say.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 30, 2008

Losing sympathy: Relatives and officials offer flowers in Lahore, Pakistan, where a Jan. 11 suicide bombing killed 26 people. Such attacks are turning more Pakistanis against terrorism.

Mohsin Raza/Reuters

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Lahore, Pakistan

When the Taliban first came to Abdul Malik's village in the idyllic Swat valley, he was not terribly concerned. Despite their machine guns and rocket launchers, "we were feeling secure," says the man, browsing in a hat shop in Peshawar, a town just miles from militant strongholds in northwestern tribal areas.

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Then, they beheaded a half dozen local police and stuck their heads on swords. "Anyone who helps the government will meet the same fate," Mr. Malik recalls them saying.

"That was when people began to hate them," he says. "They are not Muslims. This is inhuman."

Across Pakistan, the country's extremists are making enemies, and the desire to rein in terrorists – long seen as America's agenda – is gaining converts. Pakistanis have awaked to the threat of militancy since the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, allegedly by extremists, and a spate of recent suicide bombings in previously untroubled cities like Lahore.

"Al Qaeda is doing a good job of alienating the country against it," says Shafqat Mahmood, a columnist for the English-language daily The News.

It is the first faint echo of what has happened in parts of the Arab world, with many citizens becoming disgusted by terrorists when exposed to their tactics up close.

But there is a unique variable in Pakistan. Almost universally, Pakistanis see President Pervez Musharraf as the cause of the problem, holding his government responsible for the lack of security. Mr. Musharraf is seen by Pakistanis as playing a double game: allowing terrorism to fester so he can keep the West on his side, then acting when it gets out of control.

For instance, if the government could not control the after-effects of operations such as the Red Mosque, in which more than 100 people died when it tried to clear militants out of an Islamabad mosque last July, "it should have not launched it," says Tariq Butt, who sells government bonds on a Lahore street corner. The event has become a rallying point for militants.

As a result, the growing fear of terrorism has not brought significantly increased support for military operations in the tribal belt – operations strongly encouraged by America to rout entrenched terrorist forces. Instead, it has left Pakistanis ambivalent or even opposed to the war, which, they worry, is making the situation worse.

A January poll conducted by WorldPublicOpinion.org found that about 30 percent of Pakistanis think that US-Pakistani cooperation on security and military issues has helped Pakistan.

"Earlier, there was unrest only in tribal areas because of Talibanization, but now it has surrounded the whole country," adds Mr. Butt. "The government has totally failed to control the militancy."

It is on this Lahore street corner that the spread of militancy has been most obvious. Lahore is the capital of Pakistan's most powerful province and is much nearer to India than the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. Yet across the street on Jan. 10, a suicide bomber killed 26 Pakistanis in front of the Lahore High Court. It was the first such attack in Lahore in recent memory, perhaps ever.

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