In a barbaric act of terror, a seven-member suicide squad of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) killed at least 133 school children and nine staff members, including the Principal, in an attack at the Army Public School (APS), Peshawar (capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, KP) on December 16, 2014. Another 121 persons, including 118 students and three staffers sustained injuries. The attack, which started at about 10 am (PST), ended after more than eight hours, when the seven-member suicide squad was eliminated. Nine personnel of the Special Services Group (SSG), a special operations force of the Pakistan Army, including two of its officers, sustained injuries during the operation. An estimated 1,100 students and staff members were inside the school at the time of the attack, of which some 960 were rescued.
Schools and children have been targeted by terrorists before, but there was a qualitative escalation in the Peshawar atrocity. In the past, major incidents in which mass fatalities have been inflicted on children have been hostage cases, where terrorists had no qualms about accepting casualties among children, but did not engage in the deliberate and premeditated slaughter of children. Such incidents prominently included the Ma'alot massacre in Israel, where terrorists of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine took 115 persons hostage at the Netiv Meir Elementary School on May 15, 1974. After a protracted standoff, 25 hostages, including 22 children, were killed and another 68 were injured, when Security Forces (SF) sought to mount a rescue on the second day of the crisis.
The worst such incident, of course, was at Beslan in Russia, where over 1,100 persons, including 777 children, were held hostage by Chechen separatists loyal to the warlord Shamil Basayev. The incident commenced on September 1, 2004, and on the third day of the standoff, SFs stormed the building. 385 hostages were killed, including 186 children.
At Peshawar, however, the terrorists initiated the attack with a clear objective of killing as many children as possible. Indeed, Muhammad Khorasani, spokesperson for the Maulana Fazlullah-led faction of the TTP, declared, in the immediate wake of the Peshawar incident, “Our six fighters successfully entered the army school and we are giving them instructions from outside. The suicide bombers had been given orders to allow the youngest students to leave but to kill the rest." Children as young as five-years were killed in the attack.
The first and natural response in Pakistan, and, indeed, across the world, at the utter brutality of the attack, and the systematic, intentional and cold blooded execution of children, was shock and horror. In the immediate aftermath of the incident, many commentators concluded that this tragedy would be a watershed in Pakistan's history of complicity in Islamist terrorism, a turning point where the fiction of a distinction between the 'good Taliban and bad Taliban' would finally be abandoned. Indeed, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif declared, the day after the Peshawar attack, "We announce that there will be no differentiation between 'good' and 'bad' Taliban and have resolved to continue the war against terrorism till the last terrorist is eliminated."
This aroused immediate and great hope among the naive, but evidence of denial and deceit was quickly at hand. On the evening of the attack itself, Pakistani commentators clarified that the distinction between the 'good' and 'bad' Taliban was only within factions of the TTP, and did not refer to any other 'militants'; the former category was of those who sought negotiations with the state, while the latter rejected any settlement with Islamabad.
Very quickly the terrible tragedy of Peshawar was harnessed to the old mythologies of hatred that have long dominated Pakistan, and that lie at the heart of the endless violence within and emanating from that country. Within 24 hours of the Army School attack, surprisingly similar statements were made by former President and General Pervez Musharraf and by the 'ameer' of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), Hafiz Mohammad Saeed that India was 'responsible for' the Peshawar massacre.
In an interview on National TV on December 17, Saeed argued, further, "If India can send troops to Afghanistan to help the US, then Mujahideen have every right to go to Kashmir and help their brethren. Kashmiris are clamouring for help and it is our duty to respond to their call." Significantly, with a 10 million dollar US bounty on his head, declared a terrorist by several countries, and by the United Nations since 2008, Saeed not only operates freely across Pakistan, he continues to enjoy Islamabad's open support, evident most recently during the two day (December 4-5, 2014) “National Conference” organized by him in Lahore, with special trains operated by the state-owned Railways to bring his 'followers' to the venue. Other commentators pointed to the significance of the day of the Peshawar attack, December 16, the date on which, Bangladesh separated from Pakistan forty three years ago, to fortify arguments that India was to blame.
It is abundantly clear, less than a week after the Peshawar attack, that the focus of Pakistan's counter-terrorism response will be restricted to domestic terrorism, particularly TTP, and that the Afghanistan- and India-oriented terrorist groups that flourish on Pakistani soil with abundant state support, will remain untouched. Pakistan will milk the tragedy at the Army Public School to secure international sympathy and possibly corner some additional aid to 'fight terrorism and radicalization', but will do nothing to end its long-held policy of maintaining terrorist formations as 'strategic assets' of the state against its neighbours. Pakistan's good faith in its counter-terrorism campaigns can only be demonstrated if it expels or hands over all elements of the Afghan Taliban, including its leadership, to Afghanistan; acts, not only against LeT, but against the entire array of India-oriented terrorist formations, including all 16 listed members of the present Muttahida Jihad Council (MJC) based in Muzaffarabad, with a vigour that is at least comparable to its agitation against TTP; and cooperates with the world in eliminating all factions of international terrorist formations that currently find safe haven and support on its soil. Such initiatives remain entirely unlikely.
Of course, the Peshawar incident has pushed domestic terrorism to the top of the agenda, both of the civil Government and the Army. In a dramatic demonstration of intent, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif lifted the 2008 moratorium on the execution of death penalties in terrorism-related cases, and six condemned terrorists were quickly executed, while at least 812 other 'terrorists' await the hangman's noose. Significantly, Aqeel aka Dr. Usman, who was one of the first two terrorists to be executed after the lifting of the moratorium, had been convicted as the 'mastermind' of the October 10, 2009, terrorist attack on the Army Headquarters in Rawalpindi. His trial and appeals process had long been exhausted, and he had survived only as a result of the moratorium.
Interestingly, at this extraordinary juncture, a Special Anti-Terrorism Court in Rawalpindi saw fit to grant bail to Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi, 'military commander' of LeT and the 'mastermind' of the November 26, 2008, terrorist attacks in Mumbai, also known as 26/11 attacks, in a case that has gone nowhere over the intervening six years, despite overwhelming evidence provided by India and the US, including technical evidence, such as Lakhvi's voice recordings directing the terrorists in Mumbai through the 'operation'. Lakhvi was, however, re-arrested under other charges, and Islamabad has now announced that the prosecution will appeal the decision to grant bail in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks case.
At the same time, the Army declared an intensification of operations against TTP. Within days, the Ministry of Defence, claimed that, among scores killed in aerial attacks, was the 'chief' of the terrorist formation, Maulana Fazlullah, who had been 'taken out' by the Pakistan Air Force. The claim relating to Fazlullah was, however, quickly retracted, and it now appears that he is likely to have survived— it is not clear who has been killed. This continues with Islamabad's established 'counter-terrorism' paradigm of fighting the terrorists from the air, or with area weapons, including heavy artillery, that devastate the alleged 'support base' of terrorists and bomb out 'suspected militant hideouts', including sizeable human settlements. With the conflict areas excluded from media access, no independent confirmation of the identities of the targeted individuals is available. That the much vaunted Operation Zarb-e-Azb has been indiscriminate and has inflicted overwhelming civilian fatalities and massive displacement in the target regions is, however, obvious even from the trickle of evidence filtering through from the areas of conflict. Indeed, this was the motive ascribed by TTP spokesman Khorasani, for the Peshawar attack, "We selected the army's school for the attack because the government is targeting our families and females... We want them to feel the pain." As anti-TTP operations were intensified in the wake of the Army School attack, Khorasani warned again, on December 19, "Let us make it clear to Pakistan establishment that if any of our associates is harmed, we will avenge ourselves by targeting your children. We would ensure that houses of army generals and political leaders become centers of mourning."
Indeed, the attack in Peshawar is an index and manifestation of the wider radicalisation and brutalisation of large segments of the Pakistani population and society. According to partial data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management (ICM), since January 28, 2001, till December 18, 2014, at least 396 schools had been destroyed by terrorists in Pakistan. These attacks resulted in 31 killings, though these attacks were principally aimed at destroying school buildings and infrastructure. ICM data, however, grossly underestimates the magnitude of the problem. Significantly, Pakistan's Intelligence agencies on March 26, 2013, had informed the country's Supreme Court that, since 2008, 995 schools and 35 colleges had been destroyed in KP and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) alone.
An attempt to execute a suicide attack targeting school children in the Ibrahimzai area of Hangu District in KP on January 6, 2014 was, nevertheless, on record. On that day, Aitzaz Hasan, 15, a student of the school, confronted and grappled with the bomber, who then detonated his vest, killing both of them on the spot, but saving the lives of hundreds of others. There were some 2,000 students at the school at the time of the attack. Of course, on October 9, 2012, TTP terrorists, under Maulana Fazlullah's directives, had shot and critically injured Malala Yousafzai when she was going home from school. Several other children— particularly girls— have been subjected to acid attacks and shootings, to discourage them from going to school.
Despite the enormity of the Peshawar incident, the power elite in Pakistan are quickly returning to their default setting, seeking to externalize the threat, to 'manage' their terrorist assets to press on with their 'strategic objectives', or, at best, to narrowly target domestically active terrorist formations. This is a country that has recorded at least 55,878 terrorism related fatalities, including 19,917 civilians, since 2003 (with at least 5,362 deaths in 2014 alone, till December 21), and has consistently refused to alter its trajectory.
The standard state response to Peshawar has been to dismiss the atrocity as the 'desperate act' of terrorists 'under pressure' from Operation Zarb-e-Azb. It is, however, more likely a calculated act of escalation on the part of TTP, which seeks a widening and intensification of the conflict, with a clear assessment that overwhelming retaliation by the Pakistan military will follow. There is an increasing trend towards extreme and demonstrative brutality among Islamist terrorists worldwide, now led by the appalling viciousness of excesses by the Islamic State (formerly, Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham, ISIS). Indeed, support to such terrorist formations among radicalized populations appears to increase in proportion to their ruthlessness— and this may well be the space that the Fazlullah-led TTP is attempting to occupy in Pakistan. Of course, the immediate impact of the Peshawar attack seems to be the isolation of TTP-Fazlullah among the jihadis, with condemnations coming from its breakaway faction, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA, Assembly of Freedom), the Afghan Taliban and elements within al Qaeda, among others. The survival and future strength of the group, however, will depend on its capacity to engineer even greater atrocities, and to ensure that its top leadership is able to evade the clumsy and indiscriminate operations mounted by the Pakistan Army and Air Force.
Ajai Sahni is Editor, South Asia Intelligence Review (SAIR); Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management & South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP)
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