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 – including Monday’s nighttime assault on a police academy that left scores of young recruits dead – 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.”
“The Pakistanis need to figure out one single but … multifaceted approach to fighting all these groups and … the ideologies driving them,” she adds.
Troubled corner of Pakistan
Monday night’s attack occurred in Quetta, the capital of restive Baluchistan Province, where militant separatists have operated for decades. It was the third attack in Quetta in three months: In August a massive bombing targeting the city’s legal community left 72 dead, while earlier this month militants pulled four Shiite Hazara women from a bus and executed them on the street.
The Islamic State also claimed responsibility for the August attack, which was carried out at a hospital where hundreds of lawyers had gathered to mourn the slain president of the Baluchistan Bar Association. The president had been killed in a targeted shooting.
Baluchistan, which borders Afghanistan and Iran, has remained a hotbed of militancy even as other regions of the country seemed to calm down to some degree.
“Some of the much-vaunted reduction in violence can be attributed to the military chasing the insurgency over into Afghanistan, but we haven’t seen that much decline in Baluchistan,” says Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department South Asia intelligence specialist now at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
What is striking about the police academy attack, he adds, is that it was launched against a hard target symbolizing the Pakistani state.
“The bottom line here is that there are organizations capable of planning and carrying out a rather complicated attack on what would otherwise be considered a hard target,” Mr. Weinbaum says.
Pakistani authorities originally attributed the attack to Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an outlawed radical group that targets Shiites in Pakistan (which is majority Sunni).
Pakistani security forces killed a number of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi leaders in August, so Monday’s attack might have been retaliation.
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi may also have been “a quick and easy fall guy” for authorities looking to blame someone for the embarrassing breach of state security, Weinbaum says.
“It may have been convenient to put this on a group they’ve been going after,” he says.
A new alliance?
But others point out that Lashkar-e-Jhangvi would be attracted to the Islamic State’s harsh anti-Shiite ideology, as well as to its hatred for governments that tolerate minority religions and sects. In that way, the Islamic State’s role in the attack, if confirmed, would suggest that the group continues to attract converts in other Sunni Muslim communities even as it loses ground in Syria and Iraq.
“We haven’t seen Lashkar-e-Jhangvi pledge allegiance to ISIS, but at the same time it would not be surprising to find out that it had linked up with ISIS in some manner as a result of a common rejection of Shia Muslims,” says Ms. Curtis. “ISIS is getting quite adept at taking up with local groups that share its anti-Shia ideology.”
Bangladesh is another South Asian Sunni Muslim country where the Islamic State has been able to put down roots. A deadly attack on a Dhaka café in July has been linked to a banned Bangladeshi militant group that had pledged allegiance to Islamic State.
The Pakistani military for the first time in September acknowledged the presence of the Islamic State in the country. But officials claimed that hundreds of arrests had gutted the group.
Quetta and Baluchistan are logical places for the Islamic State to focus its attention. The area has a significant population of Shiites from the Hazara community.
What worries Weinbaum is that Pakistani authorities might resort to a typical response –blaming the attack on outside forces, such as India, instead of dealing with the internal threat.
“Don’t be surprised if we see the Pakistanis declaring before too long that this is coming from India,” Weinbaum says. “The danger here is that the determination to deal with domestic groups … softens as they refocus on India, and the attention they need to put on the internal threats comes off.”