Militant attack on cricket team in Pakistan could backfire

If militants are home-grown, domestic ambivalence about vilifying such groups could be diminished.

Mohsin Raza/Reuters
AFTERMATH: Pakistani police checked a vehicle that was hit in an attack on Sri Lanka’s cricket team in Lahore.

Pakistan's embattled government was dealt a fresh blow with the brazen attack Tuesday on Sri Lanka's visiting cricket team. But the targeting of cricket – sometimes called the country's second religion – could backfire on the militants.

Twelve unidentified gunmen opened fire on the team bus, injuring five Sri Lankan players and killing seven people, including six policemen. The assault took place in Lahore, the scene of a dramatic power struggle last week that saw the ruling party of Pakistani President Ali Asif Zardari remove the main opposition from its seat of power. Critics now say that political infighting distracted the city's security forces at a key moment.

It's not clear yet if the gunmen came from the ranks of home-grown militant outfits. But if they did, the ambivalence in the security forces and among Pakistanis more broadly about vilifying some of these groups – whose targets also include India and poor local governance – could be diminished.

"If [authorities] genuinely investigate it, and they do find evidence that this was the work of internal militant groups, then I'm sure it will help contribute to the people being mobilized against the terrorists and militants," says Lt. Gen. Talat Masood (ret.).

Determining just who was behind the attack will be complicated by the fact that all the gunmen evaded capture. As is often the case when details are lacking, some voices here are already suggesting this could be an attack from India.

Other candidates put forth by analysts include jihadi groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e Mohammad – organizations that Pakistan once supported to fight in Kashmir but which are now, at least officially, banned. And Al Qaeda and Taliban forces are battling the government in the tribal belt.

Then there's the possibility that the Tamil Tigers, a Sri Lankan rebel group that appears to be in the last throes of its long battle against Sri Lanka's government, ordered the attack. Sri Lanka downplayed the idea, however, as did Rifaat Hussain, a Pakistan security expert formerly based there.

"I think this was done more to embarrass and aggravate the crisis of security within [the province of] Punjab," says Dr. Hussain, chairman of defense and strategic studies at Quaid-i-Azam University.

Mr. Zardari's ruling party had just forced out the provincial government in Lahore. "Then you have an incident like this. What signal does that send about the security performance of the government?"

On Tuesday, the newly appointed governor, Salman Taseer, dismissed the idea that political turmoil resulted in a security lapse. "We saved the Sri Lankan team," he said, accusing the former chief minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, of trivializing sacrifices made by the policemen who were killed.

Mr. Taseer added that a security review was under way.

Initial reports suggest a well-coordinated assault. Masked gunmen wearing backpacks converged from four directions on the Sri Lankans' bus as it ferried players toward the third day's play of a test match. They fired AK-47s, grenades, and a rocket launcher, engaging police for 25 minutes before some fled in a red car. An eyewitness, a money-changer named Ghani Butt, says from 30 meters away they "looked Nepali or Filipino, maybe Indian."

The rocket missed the bus and smashed into the "Bride and Groom" clothing shop, where the clock was frozen at 8:45. Police did a poor job cordoning off the area, allowing gawkers to trample over the crime scene.

Anger in the Punjab was already on high simmer before the attack, as opposition parties and lawyers prepared for massive antigovernment demonstrations slated for mid-March. Public sentiment won't improve with the damage done to the national pastime.

"The fire that has been burning all over this country has finally reached cricket too," says Saad Shafqat, a cricket writer for ESPN Cricinfo and the English-language daily Dawn.

Persuading teams to come to Pakistan is now out of the question, he says. Australia, India, New Zealand, and England have canceled tours in recent years because of security concerns after 9/11 and a 2002 bomb that went off near the touring Kiwi team's hotel. Sri Lanka was the only major opposition to venture out.

Polls within Pakistan do not reveal much support for militant groups.

Yet passive dislike for militants hasn't yet been harnessed into widespread defiance of them. In Lahore, a city once considered safe from militancy, religious vigilantes are increasingly cowing local businesses into dropping Western products and styles.

And in Swat, the military's ambivalence about fighting indigenous militants with local grievances hampered operations, says Hussain.

Before the military finally accepted a truce, there was also "no explicit call on the local population to enlist their support against these groups. There are [many] people there. Is there a strategy to engage those people?"

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