A teenage suicide bomber wearing a school uniform blew himself up at a military base in northwestern Pakistan Thursday, killing at least 31 military personnel and wounding more.
The attack, which took place in the city of Mardan, was claimed by the Pakistani Taliban and highlights the group's increasing tendency to recruit women and young teens from areas targeted by US drone strikes, say regional security specialists.
It also ends a lull in major strikes by the Taliban and reaffirms its potency after a period of rebuilding, they say.
“Militants have started 2011 on a high note," says Abdul Basit, an expert on militancy at the Pakistani Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), who points out that militants have also been ramping up small-scale attacks in the northwestern city of Peshawar. "They have been able to strike Peshawar on a near-daily basis – this shows their growing influence not just within tribal areas but also the urban districts of Pakistan.”
The attack comes after a 22 percent decrease in terrorist attacks across Pakistan in 2010 compared with 2009, according to figures compiled by Mr. Basit's PIPS organization in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad.
Recruiting women and children
Azam Tariq, a spokesman for the Taliban told reporters the attacks were to avenge the drone attacks and military operations in the tribal areas. "We will continue such attacks on those people who are providing security to the Americans," he said.
It was the deadliest suicide bombing in Pakistan since a burqa-clad woman killed some 45 people at a United Nations food distribution point in late December.
Recruiting woman and children help the Taliban to evade the ubiquitous security checkpoints that now dot Pakistan’s towns and cities, though they could lead to greater scrutiny of these groups.
“The Taliban are becoming more shrewd and diversifying their recruitment pool,” says Basit. “It is sending a message that you’ll be more vulnerable for these suicide missions. The majority of [the recruits] are victims of drone attacks or artillery fire. They are not only ideologically motivated but carry revenge in their hearts.”
Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani condemned the attack in a statement from his office. ”Such cowardly attacks cannot affect the morale of the security agencies and the resolve of the nation to eradicate terrorism,” he said.
A new low in US-Pakistani relations
The suicide bombing comes at a time when relations between the US and Pakistan have hit a new low following the ongoing detention of an American man on double-murder charges. The US claims the man, identified by Pakistani officials as Raymond Davis, has diplomatic immunity.
Three members from the House of Representatives visited Pakistan earlier this week to pressure the Pakistani government to release Mr. Davis. “It's entirely possible that a member of Congress would come down and offer an amendment to cut funding for Pakistan based on their detaining Mr. Davis," Representative John Kline told reporters in Washington Tuesday on his return.
But according to Basit, any cuts to military aid to Pakistan would not only harm Pakistan’s domestic security interests but also US goals in Pakistan as it gears up for a spring offensive in Afghanistan.