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Here’s what led to the Lahore terrorist bombing — and what to do next

- March 31, 2016
Relatives of the victims of Sunday’s suicide bomb blast in Lahore, Pakistan, cry outside a hospital. Pakistani Christians, especially women and children were specifically targeted, with 74 people killed and more than 300 wounded. (Rahat Dar/European Pressphoto Agency)

This past Sunday, a suicide bomber exploded his vest, targeting an Easter picnic by a children’s playground in the popular Gulshan-i-Iqbal park in a middle-class neighborhood of Lahore. Flames reached to the treetops. The militant murdered 74 people and injured more than 300, turning a family holiday celebration into scenes involving pools of blood and scattered body parts.

The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan splinter group, Jamaat ul Ahrar, claimed responsibility for targeting Pakistan’s Christian minority celebrating Easter, even though both Muslims and Christians died in the attack. Pakistan’s law enforcement and security services say they have launched a dramatic military crackdown on militant extremists, in operations that span Punjab province.

To understand what happened and why, we need some background on Pakistan’s terrorist insurgency. Sunday’s attack reveals the sectarian, religious and, above all, class fractures that led members of one of Pakistan’s most marginal groups to be targeted so viciously and effectively.

A brief history of insurgency and terrorism in Pakistan

Since President Pervez Musharraf decided to ally with the United States in its war in Afghanistan, terrorist and insurgent violence has surged. By one estimate, such violence has killed as many as 21,000 civilians since 2003.

In the mid-2000s, groups allied with the Taliban challenged the Pakistani army in and near the Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. These groups formed the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) coalition in 2007.

The members of the TTP are mostly ethnic Pashtun militants who have taken up arms against the Pakistani state, with the goal, they say, of creating a new Taliban emirate in Pakistan’s northwest. Their constituencies, goals and tactics differ dramatically from the Afghan Taliban, who seek political power in bordering Afghanistan.

From the mid-2000s until the early 2010s, the TTP waged in a territorial insurgency in Pakistan’s northwest and a terror campaign throughout the country. Militants killed political leaders, government ministers, military officers and health workers. Malala Yusufzai, a 14-year old activist and now Nobel laureate, barely escaped assassination.

The TTP killed Pakistanis when it bombed the Federal Investigation Agency in Lahore in March 2008 and the Islamabad Marriott Hotel in September 2008; attacked and occupied the Manawar Police Academy near Lahore in March 2009; attacked Army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi in October 2009; and launched a military-style attack on the U.S. Consulate in Peshawar in April 2010, to name just a few incidents.

From the early 2010s, however, the TTP campaign against the Pakistani state has been losing military recruits to Sunni militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Jangvi and the Islamic State-affiliated Jundullah, both of which target the Shiite minority, which constitutions approximately a fifth to a tenth of the Pakistani population. These violent groups have launched devastating attacks in Pakistan’s south, in rural Sindh and southern Punjab and the cities of Quetta and Karachi. Sunni militant groups believe that the Shiite are apostates, and they use violence to challenge the economic power and political patronage of southern Pakistan’s Shiite landowning families.

As the government defeated the insurgency, the Pakistani Taliban splintered — dangerously

Negotiations on a cease-fire between the TTP and Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif government began in 2013, but stalled within a year. Following their failure, the Pakistani military launched a successful campaign against insurgents in the northwest. From the middle of 2014, Operation Zarb-e-Azb deployed more than 20,000 soldiers in an effort to wipe out militant strongholds from North Waziristan. The campaign killed more than 3,000 militants and security services arrested thousands more. Hundreds of security personnel died in action. Subsequent operations destroyed militant strongholds in other parts of FATA and beyond.

In response, the TTP attacked the Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014, killing 132 school children and 18 others. As I argued in these pages, by choosing such a soft target, the TTP revealed that it had weakened dramatically. The commander responsible for coordinating this attack, Omar Khalid Khorasani, now heads the group claiming responsibility for the Gulshan-i-Iqbal suicide bombing.

After the school attack, the National Assembly passed the 21st Amendment, which established military courts to try terrorist suspects. The government also formulated a 20-point National Action Plan for countering militancy. These policy changes have been criticized for dramatically limiting civil liberties and due process, and, for liberal commentators, reaffirm the military’s non-democratic dominance over internal security policy.

Yet this new approach began defeating the TTP on the battlefield, and the coalition has significantly fragmented. Khorasani formed Jamaat ul Ahrar as a breakaway faction in 2014 when the TTP Amir, Mulana Fazlullah, began negotiating with the government. The more recent splintering of the TTP follows a predictable trajectory for an inherently fragmented and parochial set of militant actors with shallow roots and conflicting objectives. And the new splinter groups have tremendous incentive to prove their strength.

But knowing all that isn’t enough to fully understand the cruelty of the Easter attack in Lahore. For that we need to know more about who was targeted – and who wasn’t.

Pakistani Christians, a poor, marginalized minority, have been left unprotected while Pakistan’s elites take refuge in private enclaves

On Easter Sunday, Pakistani Christians – like Christians throughout the world – went to church services and gathered with their families and as a community.

Most Christians in Pakistan are poor or lower middle class. Many come from lower caste Hindu communities, with their ancestors converting to Christianity during the British colonial period to try to escape the inflexible social hierarchies that pervade South Asian societies. They are nurses, nannies, teachers, janitors, street sweepers, petty clerks, tinkerers and farm laborers. As a small and marginalized minority, constituting just 1.4 percent of the population, they face everyday discrimination in employment and education.

For Easter, many would have traveled to the city from surrounding villages, saving up to buy new clothes and spend money on carnival treats and rides. The public openness of Gulshan-i-Iqbal Park made it inviting for poorer families of either faith.

This public openness contrasts markedly with the privacy and exclusiveness of the five-star hotels, restaurants, offices and gated communities in which Pakistan’s elite live, work and play. Over the past decade, the Pakistani elite have barricaded themselves – at times literally – from threats. These segregated spaces are protected from attack by legions of private guards – and, at times, the police and paramilitaries – as well as by concrete bollards, roadblocks and security cameras.

As a result, public space has been increasingly abandoned by the elites who dominate policymaking. As a result, those public areas have become more exposed to attack. Pakistan has stopped investing in local policing in order to focus on paramilitary and national security efforts. Those who can’t hire private security – not just Pakistan’s poorer Christian population but anyone who might use public parks and amenities on holidays – are the ones left to suffer from terrorist attacks.

Pakistan’s extremists are targeting all religious minorities

On top of this economic exclusion, militants target religious minorities. Shiite communities have been the most at risk: More than 4,000 have been killed by bombs and attacks on Shiite communities and places of worship in more than a thousand separate incidents since 2003. But Christians have specifically found themselves trapped in increasingly raucous and even violent debates about how much Sunni Islamic ultra-orthodoxy should define Pakistani national identity, social mores and even the law.

These debates became nationally prominent when of Asiya Bibi, a Christian woman, had a public fight with rivals in her village, who accused her of blasphemy, which is a capital crime in Pakistan. Local prosecutors brought charges, and Bibi was convicted and sentenced to death in 2010. The governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, suggested that Asiya had been unfairly convicted, a point of view held by many human rights groups who see the blasphemy laws as tools of violence and retribution against minority communities.

Because of his criticisms, Taseer was assassinated by his bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, in broad daylight outside a popular café in Islamabad in January 2011. Qadri became a folk hero to religious conservatives. He was showered by petals as he entered and left court. He was convicted of Taseer’s murder and executed earlier this year, becoming a martyr to many.

In fact, at the same time as suicide bombers were entering Gulshan-i-Iqbal Park in Lahore, thousands of Qadri’s supporters had marched on Islamabad, clashed with police, destroyed metro stations and occupied a square in front of parliament, demanding that Asiya Bibi and others convicted of blasphemy be executed and that Qadri be heralded as a national martyr. The symbol of Qadri as a rallying point for militant activists highlights the broader threat faced by minority communities and those who stand up for their protection.

What is to be done?

For Pakistani citizens to be protected from terrorism, policymakers among Pakistan’s elite must understand the threats that face communities socially and economically distant from themselves. At a 2015 Macarthur Foundation-funded workshop on redefining Pakistan’s security, participants stressed the vital importance of creating an inclusive public sphere, a civil society that welcomes rather than ignores minorities. This project is both more difficult and more contentious than launching security operations against extremists, but it is as at least as vital. Sunday’s attack on Gulshan-i-Iqbal Park showed what happens to those who are excluded.

Adnan A. Naseemullah is lecturer in international relations and South Asia at King’s College London. Details of his research may be found at www.naseemullah.com.