On 27 March 2016, a suicide attack by the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), a Tehreek-i-Taliban (TTP) faction, at Gulshan-i-Iqbal Park in Lahore killed 70 people and injured 250, The JuA spokesperson, Ehsanullah Ehsan, reportedly claimed that the target was Pakistan’s minority Christian community, many of whom had gathered in the park to observe Easter.
The TTP has been known to target religious minorities in Pakistan. Christians in Pakistan comprise less than two per cent of the total population and are the second largest minority community after Hindus. The Christian community lives primarily in Karachi, Punjab, Lahore, Faisalabad and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The Gulshan-i-Iqbal attack highlights the evolving and expanding strategy of the TTP. The Pakistani Taliban has always been a well networked organisation with huge manpower at its disposal. Ever since its formation in 2007, it has primarily been launching violent attacks at a steady frequency, targeting state establishments and law enforcement agencies. In the last few years, they seem to have expanded the scope of their targets. In the beginning, they did not target the public – their focus was on the military and associated establishments and personnel. Now, their strategy seems to be changing. In the recent past, mosques, tribal jirgas (councils), public spaces, and now, religious minorities, have been targeted as well.
The TTP is now going for soft targets that include schools and colleges – examples include the Peshawar school attack in 2015 and the Bacha Khan University attack in 2016. Does this show a weakness within the TTP? Or are they expanding their focus areas?
The leadership tussle within the TTP is also to be taken into account while trying to understand the target expansion. Mullah Fazlulah, formerly the leader of the Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM), assumed leadership of the TTP in 2013 and has been trying to consolidate his position. There have been a few splits within the TTP and Fazlullah is perhaps under pressure to carry out stronger attacks with greater magnitude to assert his control and the group’s ability to strike the state. There are Pakistani news reports that claim Fazlullah was killed in a drone strike in January 2016.
An obvious question that needs addressing also is the linkage between the TTP and the Afghan Taliban in some of these high profile attacks within Pakistan. Though the Afghan Taliban is believed to be on friendly terms with the Pakistani military, they seem to not have influence in controlling the TTP.
However, all these organisations active in the region have organic relations based on their shared history and ideology. The Taliban – whether Afghan or Pakistani – seem to have a common perspective when it comes to certain issues. These include their goal of complete ouster of the US’ presence, stopping drone attacks, withdrawal of Pakistani military personnel, and above all, the imposition of Sharia. Despite having different factions, there appears to be a larger umbrella understanding amongst the different groups within the Taliban fold. The state in Pakistan has not succeeded in challenging this, nor do they have a strategy to tackle it.
Finally, despite the factional differences within the TTP, Fazlullah appears to be calling the shots. It seems that the splits have not reduced the TTP’s lethality. Factional differences within the TTP emerged after Fazlullah assumed power in 2013, resulting in the emergence of four important groups – Ahrar-ul-Hind, TTP South Waziristan, the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar and the Sajna group. But this has not undermined the TTP’s reach.
The Lahore attack also shows the TTP’s strength in carrying out attacks in major Pakistani cities. Lahore has normally been more peaceful than the other, more volatile cities in Pakistan. Lahore has also remained truly cosmopolitan in its spirit when compared to the others.
The Lahore attack will also highlight the expanding profile of the TTP’s targets. In 2013, a suicide attack in a church killed 15 people. Jamaat-ul-Ahrar carried out another attack in Wagah in November 2014, where 60 people died and over a 100 were injured.
The current attack is also aimed at the political base of Punjab, and as a strike against the incumbent Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif. Ehsanullah Ehsan, spokesperson of the JuA, said, “We want to send this message to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that we have entered Lahore. He can do what he wants but he won’t be able to stop us. Our suicide bombers will continue these attacks.”
The Punjab government ordered the closure of all public parks and declared three days of mourning. But is this enough? There has to be a proactive strategy in all the provinces (and not just in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas) to fight the militancy, the TTP, and its supporters. The TTP is expanding its base, and the security forces must also expand their operations against them.