Pakistan mosque attack underscores bid to target military

During a Pakistan mosque attack in the military city of Rawalpindi Friday, attackers fired indiscriminately on worshipers, most of whom are connected to the military.

Vincent Thian/AP
Pakistani Army soldiers cordon off the area near a mosque after a suicide attack in Rawapindi, Pakistan on Friday.

LAHORE, PAKISTAN – A coordinated attack on a mosque in the garrison city of Rawalpindi that left at least 40 dead and more than 80 injured on Friday may signal militants’ attempts to extract retribution on the families of Army personnel in response to Pakistan’s ongoing campaign against the Taliban.

In a worrisome development for authorities, the targeting of a mosque may point to the involvement of Punjab-based militant groups, who were once sponsored by the state but have in recent years turned their attention toward fighting Pakistan’s security forces.

“The sanctity of a mosque doesn’t matter much to Jaish-e-Mohammad [a Punjab-based militant group], given their history of sectarian violence,” says Rifaat Hussain, a defense analyst at Quaid-e-Azam University. The same group was believed to be behind an attack on the Army headquarters in Rawalpindi in October that left over 20 dead.

Analysts believe that groups like Jaish-e-Mohammad are deepening their links with the Pakistani Taliban, a traditionally Pashtun movement, and that most attacks that occur in the populous eastern province of Punjab are at least partly their work.

According to Geo Television, six or seven attackers threw grenades and fired indiscriminately at worshippers during Friday prayers. At least 10 children were killed. The attackers later engaged in gun battles with security forces. The mosque, which is located in the Qasim market area of Rawalpindi in a supposedly secure "red zone," is frequented almost exclusively by military personnel and their families.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik blamed the Taliban for the attack. He told reporters: “They are taking revenge for the Pakistan Army’s successful operations in Swat and Waziristan regions.”

Dr. Hussain says that Friday’s attack, along with the attack on the Pakistani naval headquarters yesterday, shows militants are determined to attack secondary targets associated with the security forces because they are less fortified. The object is to weaken the morale of the military and their families, and such attacks are likely to become more frequent, he says.

Shaukat Qadir, a retired Pakistan Army brigadier based in Rawalpindi, says the tactic may backfire. “Each successive attack has in fact served to cement the morale – we are more determined to get rid of people from our midst who are causing this kind of damage.”

He adds that while the security forces are often blamed for being negligent, reports suggest that today’s attack could have inflicted more damage had one of the suicide bombers not been intercepted by a policeman and forced to blow himself up outside the mosque. Security forces were also quick to arrive on the scene.

“They [security forces] were pretty poor at this, but they are getting training and improving by the day, unfortunately,” Mr. Qadir says.

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