ISLAMABAD – A brutal attack on a beloved Sufi shrine that killed 88 people raised fears that the Islamic State group has become emboldened in Pakistan, aided by an army of homegrown militants benefiting from hideouts in neighbouring Afghanistan, analysts and officials said Friday.
Pakistani security forces have carried out sweeping country-wide raids following Thursday’s bombing of the shrine in Pakistan’s southern Sindh province that also wounded 343 people. The military’s public relations wing reported on its official twitter account that more than 100 suspected “terrorists” were killed in the raids, while government officials lashed out at Kabul accusing the Afghan government of ignoring earlier pleas to crackdown on militant hideouts.
Zahid Hussain, an expert on militants in the region, said a toxic mix of violent Sunni militant groups, many belonging to banned groups that are flourishing under new names, have wrapped themselves in the banner of the Islamic State group.
“The Islamic State (group) might not have a strong organizational structure in Pakistan but we have thousands of members of banned groups sympathetic to the (their) ideology,” Hussain said in an interview. “They subscribe to the Islamic State (group) world view.”
Thursday’s terror attack — Pakistan’s deadliest in years — stunned the nation and raised questions about the authorities’ ability to rein in militant groups despite several military offensives targeting militant hideouts.
It also threatened to drive a deeper wedge between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Islamabad quickly lashed out at Kabul, saying the bombing was masterminded in militant sanctuaries across the border in Afghanistan, whose own security forces have been assaulted by Islamic State fighters. Overnight Thursday, Afghan authorities said 17 Afghan soldiers were killed by IS insurgents.
Pakistan’s Army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa spoke by phone with U.S. Gen John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, to protest militant sanctuaries on Afghan soil, according to a statement carried on the military’s official twitter account. Bajwa said the Afghan government was not taking action against the hideouts and warned that its “inaction” was testing “our current policy of cross border restraint,” without further elaborating.
Underscoring tensions between the two neighbours, Pakistan fired blistering rounds of artillery shells into Afghan territory on Friday and shut down the Torkham border crossing — a key commercial artery between the two neighbours. Pakistan said the barrage was in response to a militant attack on one of its border posts in its Khyber tribal region.
Pakistan TV, quoting unnamed military sources, said Pakistan targeted camps belonging to Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a breakaway faction of the Pakistani Taliban. Pakistan blames Jammat-ul Ahrar for the shrine attack although IS claimed responsibility. Jamaat-ul-Ahrar has claimed to have carried out a number of attacks, including the Feb. 13 suicide assault in Lahore that killed 13 people, including three senior police officials.
According to local TV reports the Pakistani shelling destroyed one militant camp in Afghanistan.
Afghan officials said scores of families have been displaced by the Pakistani shelling. Attaullah Khogyani, the spokesman for Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar provincial governor, said he welcomed any operation, including the one carried out by Pakistan, against terrorist camps but told AP Television that “on a provincial level there wasn’t any kind of co-ordination with us.”
In a telephone call Friday to Afghanistan’s National Security Adviser, Pakistan’s senior foreign ministry official, Sartj Aziz accused Afghan President Ashraf Ghani of ignoring Islamabad’s earlier request to put an end to the sanctuaries in its territory. Pakistan also handed over a list of 76 militants it says are hiding in Afghanistan, demanding they be arrested and extradited to Pakistan.
Pakistan’s military did not specify who was on the list, but it has long claimed that the head of the Pakistani Taliban, Mullah Fazlullah, and other militants are hiding on Afghan soil with the purpose of fomenting violence inside Pakistan.
Ghani, meanwhile, condemned the shrine attack. “Terrorists once again proved that they have no respect for Islamic values,” he said in a statement.
In Thursday’s attack, the suicide bomber walked into the main hall at the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine in Sehwan in southern Sindh province, and detonated his explosives among a crowd of attendees. At least 20 women and nine children were among the dead.
The Islamic State group, claiming responsibility for the attack in a statement circulated by its Aamaq news agency, said it targeted a “Shiite gathering.” The Sunni extremist group views Shiites as apostates and has targeted Pakistan’s Shiite minority in the past. It also views Sufi shrines as a form of idolatry.
The Sehwan shrine, which reveres a Muslim Sufi mystic, is frequented by the faithful of many sects of Islam but the majority of the faithful attendees are usually Shiite Muslims.
Raja Somro, who witnessed the attack, told a local TV network that hundreds of people were performing a devotional dance known as the “dhamal” when the bomber struck.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif vowed that security forces would track down the perpetrators, according to Pakistani state TV.
But Hussain, who has authored two books on Pakistan’s militancy, said the government’s counterterrorism strategy has been inept, allowing groups that have been banned to remerge, individuals on international terrorist lists to operate freely, and ignoring funding of these groups arriving from radical Sunni Muslim charities in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
“The government has no clear strategy. They don’t have a clear policy to deal with it,” said Hussain. “They have to strike the source of the militancy, the institutions where they are brainwashed,” a reference to those madrassahs or religious schools that teach a radical version of Islam that reviles Shiite Muslims as well as adherents of all other beliefs other than their own. He also said Pakistan’s promised judicial reform has not occurred nor has the government choked the sources of funding to those radical religious schools operating in Pakistan.
Yet Pakistan has been at war with the Taliban and other extremist groups for more than a decade. In recent years it has launched major offensives against militant strongholds in the tribal regions along the border with Afghanistan, but insurgents have continued to carry out attacks elsewhere in the country.
Still the Islamic State group has been expanding its presence in Pakistan and has claimed a number of deadly attacks, including a suicide bombing at another Sufi shrine in November 2016 that killed more than 50 people.
The government has downplayed the IS affiliate, insisting that only a small number of militants have pledged allegiance to the group.
“Either the entire government is in a state of denial, or they know it well but don’t want to do anything about it,” said Hussain.
Afghanistan and Pakistan have long accused each other of failing to crack down on militants who operate along their porous border. Pressed on whether this would strain relations between the two countries, U.N. Deputy Spokesman for the Secretary-General Farhan Haq said Friday, “This is a challenge that has crossed borders, in terms of the presence of different terrorist entities, and we have tried to make sure that the countries can co-operate in their efforts to deal with their mutual threat.”
Later in Sehwan on Friday, police fired tear gas and swung batons to disperse a rally of several hundred demonstrators who demanded justice for the victims and more effective security measures from the government. Some protesters set fire to a car before the police broke up the rally.
At one of the funerals held Friday, relatives consoled the wailing mother of Zeeshan Ali, a 13-year-old who died in the shrine blast. Ali’s uncle, Shoukat Ali, said he was devoted to his nephew and had raised him since he had no children of his own.
“I raised him like my own child… and they took him from me,” he said.
Associated Press writers Munir Ahmed and Zarar Khan in Islamabad, Jawad Adil in Karachi and Amir Shah in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.