For the second day yesterday, thousands of Christians protested in the major cities of Pakistan following the twin suicide attack that targeted the All Saints Church in Peshawar on Sunday, 22 September. The attack is the deadliest one ever conducted against the Christian community in a country where 95% of the population is Muslim.
By the evening of 23 September, the death toll had risen to 85. “We want answers for the blood we shed,” shouted a group of women protesting in Islamabad. One thousand Christians gathered outside the Parliament to demand answers, better protection of churches and the arrest of those who carried out the attack. Most of them were activists of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance. This Christian political party is led by former minister for national harmony Paul Bhatti.
Junood ul-Hifsa, a terrorist group which is part of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), has claimed responsibility for the attack. “We will continue to target foreigners and non-Muslims until the drone strikes stop,” their spokesman Ahmed Marwat stated. However a few hours later, TTP spokesperson Shahidullah Shahid denied any involvement in the blast. “We haven’t done this. We don’t attack innocent people,” Shahid said. TTP is a coalition of various militant groups and it usually doesn’t claim responsibility for attacks that kill civilians. Yet, Junnod ul-Hifsa is very much a part of the TTP.
On 22 June this year, Junood ul-Hifsa claimed responsibility for the murders of nine foreign tourists and their Pakistani guide. The climbers were staying in the Gilgit region near the Nanga Parbat. At that time, the then-TTP spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan told the AFP news agency that Junood ul-Hifsa was a new wing set up by the Taliban “to attack foreigners and convey a message to the world against drone strikes.”
“Junood ul-Hifsa is close to the TTP and has links with the Al Qaeda. They are trying to deter the government from negotiating with the TTP. That is the reason why they have been conducting attacks in different parts of the country over the last few months,” says Muhammad Amir Rana, director of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies.
The suicide blast in the All Saints Church is different from any other attack that sectarian groups usually carry out against the Christian community. Christian neighbourhoods were torched in Gojra in 2009 and in Lahore last March. But this time, the twin suicide attacks used a different modus operandi. “The attackers knew the area very well. It is obvious that they made a detailed reconnaissance before acting. Furthermore, the two suicide bombers used a powerful military explosive – probably C-4 that is not easily available here. The explosive was mixed with ball bearings to kill as many people as possible,” says Shafqat Malik, senior official of the bomb disposal squad in Peshawar.
Meanwhile, pressure is mounting on Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to stop any attempt of dialogue with the TTP. During the general election last spring, Nawaz Sharif proposed talks with the militants while Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf chief Imran Khan was claiming that a peace process was the only way to stop a civil war that has been going on for the last 10 years. On 9 September, Sharif summoned an all party conference in Islamabad which issued a declaration. The text stated that the government should engage in talks with the militants as it is the best way to tackle terrorism.
But on 15 September, the TTP put two conditions before engaging in any talks. First, that the army must pull out from the tribal areas. If agreed upon, this move would place the region under the authority of the TTP and it is very unlikely that the army will ever accept this. Secondly, the TTP asked for the release of their prisoners, another condition that the army will never accept. In the meantime, the TTP killed Major General Sanaullah, the commanding officer of the Pakistani troops in the north-west of the country. Sanaullah was inspecting outposts in the Upper Dir district on the Afghan border when his car was blown up by an IED. The army believes that the group responsible for the blast is led by Maulanna Fazl Ullah. Fazl Ullah took control of the Swat district in 2008 before an army operation in 2009 forced him to flee to Afghanistan. His group is part of the TTP and is said to be based in the Afghan province of Nuristan.
Thus, the prospect of talks with the TTP looks more distant than ever. When asked about the negotiation, Nawaz Sharif looked hesitant on the evening of the attack. In the current situation, “the government will be unable to proceed as it intended,” he said to journalists while on his way to New York for the UN general assembly.