World Middle East First Look

With explosion in upscale mall, terror attacks continue in Pakistan

Pakistan has deployed paramilitary forces in a politically fractious bid to crush Islamist groups that have claimed responsibility for a wave of recent attacks on civilian targets.

Pakistani soldiers stand alert at the site of an explosion, in Lahore, Pakistan, on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017. A Pakistani provincial minister says an explosion has killed at least eight people in the eastern city of Lahore. The violence is the latest in a string of brazen suicide bombings and other attacks over the past two weeks that have killed over 125 people. The attacks have been claimed by an array of militant groups, including the Islamic State group and a splinter Taliban faction, and have prompted a countrywide crackdown on militants.
K.M. Chaudary/AP | Caption

A bomb detonated in an upscale shopping center in the Pakistani city of Lahore on Thursday has killed at least eight people and wounded 20 others, in the latest of a blitz of terror attacks to strike cities across the country.

With the bomber still at large, police kept people from entering or leaving the residential neighborhood after the explosion, which a Punjab police spokesman attributed to a “planted bomb,” either time- or remotely detonated, in an interview with Reuters.

The attack was the second in Lahore in two weeks, after a Feb. 13 explosion killed at least 13 people and wounded more than 80 others at a protest. Since then, suicide bombers claiming affiliation with multiple Islamic groups have also struck a courthouse in northwestern Pakistan and a famed Sufi shrine in the southern province of Sindh, with the total death toll reaching well over 100.

Those incidents have put the spotlight on the Pakistani government’s reaction – a nationwide paramilitary operation launched after the shrine bombing and aimed at “indiscriminately eliminating residual latent threat of terrorism,” as an Army spokesman put it, according to Voice of America.  

But the operation may also test Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s alliances with Islamist and right-wing parties, who have long opposed secular parties’ calls to deploy security forces in the province of Punjab, which will be the focal point of the operation. Mr. Sharif hails from there, and his younger brother is its chief minister. Several major Islamist parties allied with the Sharifs also have links to the thousands of hard-line religious seminaries based there and known for espousing militant viewpoints, although the parties themselves are not said to be involved in the latest attacks. 

Pakistan’s war against Islamic militants has lasted more than a decade, intensifying in recent years after it broke off peace talks and launched offensives in the tribal regions near the Afghan border, which remains officially shut down because of security concerns. 

Last October, Howard LaFranchi wrote for The Christian Science Monitor, in an article about an Islamic-State-claimed attack on a police academy, that some experts link Pakistan’s current problems with terrorism to its longtime sheltering of similar-minded groups that carry out attacks on rival countries:

A year ago, Pakistani authorities were boasting about the success of the military’s campaign against militants. Terrorist attacks in Pakistan were down by half over the year before.

But now a fresh uptick in terrorist attacks ... has jolted the country anew.

The spike is raising fresh questions over whether Pakistan’s longtime support for militants that target India and Afghanistan is coming home to roost. And Monday’s attack is adding a new twist. With the so-called Islamic State claiming responsibility, some experts are wondering if Pakistan is revealing its vulnerability to the group’s desire to pit Sunni Muslims against Shiites.  

“The government is fighting terrorism, and certainly the US and many others are rooting for Pakistan to succeed in these efforts,” says Lisa Curtis, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center in Washington.

“But at the same time the authorities have to recognize that part of the blowback from the years of tolerating and supporting the proxy groups operating in both Afghanistan and India is that you’re going to provide a conducive environment for other groups like this to operate in.”

On Wednesday, Pakistan’s military said airstrikes in the border region killed several militants, while police officials in the southern city of Karachi said eight other Taliban-linked militants were killed in a raid. 

US Ambassador to Pakistan David Hale also met with Pakistani foreign secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry and pledged that the United States would "continue to work in partnership with Pakistan to dismantle terrorist networks,” according to the Associated Press.

This report contains material by the Associated Press and Reuters.