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Thousands of people were praying, dancing, and listening to worship music Thursday night at the shrine to the Sufi saint Data Gunj Bakhsh in Pakistan’s cultural capital Lahore when two suicide attackers entered and blew themselves up a few minutes apart, in spite of the 100 volunteers and policemen on hand to check visitors.
No one has claimed responsibility for the attack. Sufism is welcoming to both Shiite and Sunni Muslims, and is more tolerant and mystical than the fundamentalist form of Islam practiced by the Taliban.
Though the Pakistani Taliban have frequently targeted religious sites for bombings in Pakistan – in at least 22 attacks since December 2007, according to the Long War Journal – a Taliban spokesman vehemently denied responsibility for this attack to the Agence France-Presse:
"We are not responsible for these attacks, this is a conspiracy by foreign secret agencies, you know we do not attack public places," Azam Tariq told AFP by telephone from an undisclosed location.
"We condemn this brutal act. Our target is very clear and we only attack police, army and other security personnel," he added.
The Pakistan daily Dawn reports that no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, and that when a reporter asked Lahore Commissioner Khusro Pervaiz Bakhtiar at the site of the bombing whether there was a “foreign hand” behind it, he responded that it was a horrible conspiracy, but that “our own people become instruments in the hands of others.”
Some Lahore residents blamed the US drone attacks for provoking militants, The Guardian adds, while others said the minority Ahmadi sect could be behind this attack, though they have no history of organized violence and were themselves the target of twin mosque attacks a month ago that killed 80.
The attackers, assuming they're part of the constellation of radical Sunni groups operating in Pakistan, are violently opposed to differing views of Islam. Shi'ites, Ahmadis, and Sufis are all considered heretics or apostates to most of the militant groups, and thus worthy of being killed.
At the same time, mosques and shrines are popular gathering places for Pakistanis and often have poor security, making them soft targets. Attacking mosques sends a powerful message in deeply religious Pakistan, showing that no place is safe and that the government and security forces are powerless to protect people, weakening their already shaky credibility.
Thursday's attack is the largest outside Pakistan’s volatile northwestern tribal area in a month, since the May 28 strike on two Ahmadi mosques in Lahore, according to the Long War Journal. The Sufi attack differs from the Ahmadi attack, Reuters notes, because it is likely to “hit Pakistanis harder” because of the popularity of Sufi Islam:
Reprisals for the twin Ahmadi bombings was muted because they are a reviled minority group. But an attack on a popular religious shrine will mean the Punjab government, led by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the main opposition party in parliament, will now be under immense pressure to act.
The national government has already condemned the attacks, with a spokeswoman for the president telling CNN in a text message: "Peaceful worshipers have once again been targeted by those who want to destroy the fabric of this great country. We will not forgive or forget and we will get justice for all Pakistanis murdered in cold blood – be they Muslim, Christian, Ahmedi, or of any other faith."