The grenade attack on a Protestant church in Islamabad, Pakistan, could be the work of extremists fighting back as President Pervez Musharraf leads the biggest crackdown on Islamic militants in 45 years.
Five worshipers were killed and 45 injured when two assailants walked into the church and threw hand grenades at the congregation.
The church, located inside the high-security diplomatic enclave just a half-mile from the United States Embassy, mostly serves foreign diplomats and their families. Among the dead were an American woman and her daughter. Police say those injured include 10 Americans, five Iranians, an Afghan, an Iraqi, and an Ethiopian. The attackers escaped.
Following the Jan. 23 kidnapping of American reporter Daniel Pearl, foreigners have been on high alert in Pakistan. Foreign journalists have cut back on their trips to unstable regions, diplomats have sent their families home, and foreign executives of multinational corporations have reported receiving threatening calls and letters.
While the motivation of the church attack is unclear, it could be an attempt to undermine the credibility of General Musharraf and his crackdown on Islamic militancy in Pakistan.
"It's a classic case of displacement," says Rifaat Hussain, a political scientist at Quaid-I-Azam University in Islamabad. "Instead of taking Musharraf head-on, they might challenge him by creating panic in the foreign community, and by sparking off sectarian violence between different Islamic sects."
For the Musharraf government, which has banned several sectarian and terrorist organizations since the Sept. 11 attack, taking on Islamic militant groups was never going to be easy. Over the past two decades, such groups have grown powerful as both Pakistani and US intelligence agencies supplied them with arms and money to fight communist regimes in neighboring Afghanistan.
After the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the groups began to search for new battlefields, both in Kashmir and within Pakistan.
"The war that we launched against the Soviets has now come back to fight us here," laments one retired military source with ties to the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
Referring to Gen. Ziaul Haq, the Islamic ideologue and Pakistani military dictator who ruled from 1979 to 1988, the source adds, "General Zia gave us these rascals, and now we can't get rid of them."
Dozens of top militant leaders have been detained since Jan. 12, when Musharraf told the nation that Pakistan would no longer allow its soil to be used for terrorism. Over the weekend, Pakistani police arrested nearly 70 top militants around the country, and released hundreds of lower-level members of the same groups.
In Islamabad, police said the blasts occurred at 10:50 a.m. as about 70 people worshiped at the Protestant International Church. Worshipers said they heard a blast and saw two men walking down the aisle, tossing hand grenades into the pews. "We were in the middle of our sermon when a bang went off at the back of the church," Nick Parham, a a Briton who works for the Tearfund aid agency, told Reuters. "One chap came down the aisle a couple of feet away from me. He had a belt on with a whole load of what looked like British Army smoke grenades or home-made grenades," he said. "He had one in his hand. At that point I hit the deck. There were five or six more explosions."
To get into the diplomatic enclave, the assailants would have had to pass through several checkpoints manned by police and intelligence agents.
"The location is very important, because this is in the heart of the diplomatic enclave, which could create a sense of panic among diplomats," says Dr. Hussain.
The timing is significant too. This past weekend marks the beginning of the Islamic month of Muharram, a time when members of the minority Shiite sect of Islam march in processions through the streets of Pakistan, beating their chests with swords to atone for the murder of the Muslim leader Hussain, a contemporary of the Prophet Muhammad.
Such practices are considered heretical by members of the larger Sunni sect of Islam, and pro-Sunni militant groups such as Lashkar-i-Tayyaba, Jaish-e-Muhammad, and Sepah-e-Sahaba have been known to carry out brutal attacks during the month of Muharram.
While such attacks usually occur between these two Muslim sects, sectarian groups also target members of the Christian minority, which makes up less than 1 percent of the population.
The last major incident directed at Christians occurred Oct. 28, 2001, when gunmen entered a church in the Punjab province town of Behawalpur and killed 15 worshipers and a Muslim guard. Last week, Pakistani police announced they had killed two of the five assailants in two separate shootouts.
"This comes right at the beginning of the month of Muharram, when sectarian tensions run very high," says Hussain. "If this attack is followed by attacks on Shias, you could have a very dangerous situation."