Pakistan’s heightened terror threat reawakens concerns for regional stability
After several bombings in Pakistan since late January, terrorism has come back to the forefront of the political debate. The recent spate of attacks raises fresh questions about Pakistan’s ability to respond to the terrorist threat and concerns about wider regional security.
On 17 February a suicide bombing in Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, a Sufi shrine in the southern province of Sindh, killed over 80 people and injured dozens in what was the country’s deadliest attack in months. Days later on 23 February, a bomb blast in a shopping centre in Lahore – the second in two weeks – left a dozen victims.
Recent weeks have seen a dramatic uptick in terrorist violence in Pakistan, leading to renewed criticism at home against the government and military’s response to the ongoing risk of terror attacks. Terrorism continues to pose a major threat to the population’s safety and could have broader repercussions on Pakistan’s relationship with neighbouring countries.
Pakistan faces a multi-faceted terror threat
Pakistan’s complex terror threat results from the activities of several militant groups, mainly the Islamic State (IS), the Pakistani Taliban and Al-Qaeda. These organisations frequently overlap in Pakistan as militant factions switch allegiance or cooperate to carry out attacks.
IS has significantly extended its footprint in the country and perpetrated a number of high-profile attacks since mid-2016. The pattern of IS’s attacks in Pakistan is consistent with the organisation’s choice of soft targets including markets, open spaces and religious sites. IS claimed the suicide attack in Lal Shahbaz as well as the bombing of a shrine in Baluchistan in November. Recently, IS managed to launch successful assaults on security-sensitive targets, including a police training centre in the city of Quetta in October.
The country faces a continued threat from Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP, or the Pakistani Taliban), a terror group comprising several tribal factions, some of which have associated themselves with IS. Jamaat-ul-Ahrar – one of the Taliban’s most active jihadist factions and a former IS affiliate, – claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in a market in Lahore on 13 February. In recent weeks, Islamist militants linked to IS or the Taliban targeted all four of Pakistan’s administrative provinces. The estimated death toll since the beginning of the month has reached over 130 victims.
Al Qaeda has also proved resilient in Pakistan and poses a renewed security threat as the organisation rebuilds its international profile. Al-Qaeda’s branch in the Indian subcontinent (AQIS), represents the organisation’s most successful franchise and is headed by a former member of the Pakistani Taliban. While AQIS has so far failed to carry out a mass attack in Pakistan, it has gained ground in the porous border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan and has perpetrated assassinations, targeting journalists and bloggers in Pakistan. More sophisticated attacks could happen in the country as Al-Qaeda builds up its capabilities.
The attacks underscore the failings of Pakistan’s counterterrorism strategy
As a response to the latest wave of attacks, the Pakistani military launched operation ‘Radd-ul-Fasaad’ (Elimination of Discord), a nation-wide antiterrorism raid to eliminate jihadist cells. Over 100 militants were killed and security forces arrested a number of IS, Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters. The crackdown is the latest security operation in Pakistan’s years-long battle against terrorism.
Pakistan has vowed to defeat the Taliban since 2001 and has launched regular raids across the country in a bid to clear militant sanctuaries, including Operation Zarb-e-Azb along the Pakistani-Afghan border (from June 2014). The recent series of attacks highlights the deterioration of Pakistan’s security environment and the shortcomings of its counterterrorism strategy.
The military and the government now face growing criticism at home about their inability to stop the spiral of terrorist violence. With a terror-weary population, there is a risk that ongoing violence could erode confidence in the government. Tensions could also deepen between Pakistan’s civilian government and the military over the handling of domestic security.
Renewed geopolitical risks
The upsurge in violence could have also have a wider geopolitical impact and further complicate the country’s already fraught relations with Afghanistan. As a result of the bombings, Pakistan closed all border crossings with Afghanistan and began firing artillery on both sides of the border, targeting suspected IS training camps – a move that has proved controversial in Afghanistan. Relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have been marked for years by mutual accusations that each side is providing safe haven to militant groups responsible for attacks across the border. The recent shelling of Islamist hideouts and the warning sent by Pakistan to the Afghan government is likely to sour relations between the two countries, hamper joint counterterrorism efforts and delay already protracted peace talks with the Taliban.
Internationally, the increase in violence reinforces Pakistan’s image as the hotbed of regional jihadism and could affect the country’s relations with the new American administration. The Obama administration spoke out against Pakistan’s handling of terrorism, regularly calling on the Pakistani government to fight safe havens. A particular concern has also been Pakistan’s weak response to radicalisation at all levels in society, for example in the madrassas or Islamic seminaries. The Trump administration’s future relations with Pakistan are yet to be defined. While it is unlikely that the US will cut aid to Pakistan and stop supporting the government, the timing of the attacks is sensitive given the focus of American policymakers on the terrorist threat at home and abroad.