Apparently, the act of suicide bombing reflects the mindlessness of the bomber. The suicide bomber takes his own life – a life which represents the fundamental material interest of any thinking and living being. In this way, the bomber goes against their own interest in an inherently mindless manner. It may appear foolish to take one’s own life. But at the same time security experts describe suicide bombing as a strategic weapon in the hands of those who use suicide bombers in a war of nerves with state authorities.
Between 2007 and 2011, the Pakistani Taliban carried out a ghastly wave of suicide attacks against those they wanted to unnerve in the War against Terror – this included Pakistani security forces, foreign diplomats, the Shia community, peace loving tribal elders and political leaders. Between 2014 and 2018, successive military operations in North and South Waziristan destroyed the Taliban’s infrastructure and network of suicide bombings in tribal areas, according to claims made by the military.
Pakistani society is again however, in the grip of a wave of suicide attacks, as there has been more suicide attacks in the first seven months of 2023 than in the whole of 2022. “The country has already experienced 18 suicide attacks in the first seven months of 2023, resulting in the loss of more than 200 lives and leaving over 450 others injured,” says a report by Pakistani think-tank, Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies. According to the report, this figure has surpassed the total number of suicide attacks recorded in the entirety of 2022, which stood at 15. More than half of suicide bombings in 2023 took place in the tribal districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The nine attacks in tribal districts claimed around 60 lives, while over 150 others sustained injuries.
However, the recent attack during a JUI-F rally on July 30 was the deadliest in the tribal belt this year so far. Security experts are apprehensive that this could be the start of a larger wave of suicide attacks, a repeat of the kind of wave that Pakistani society witnessed between 2007-2011. The wave of suicide bombings that started in Pakistan in the wake of the July 2007 military operation against militants sheltered in Islamabad’s Lal Masjid was clearly aimed at destabilizing the country. This wave picked up pace in terms of the numbers of attacks in the period between 2007 and 2011. Several media and official sources had then pointed out that multiple groups were engaged in suicide blasts.
Even the Pakistani Taliban was not a monolithic entity, and it comprised several different groups, which were then being targeted in military operations, mainly in erstwhile FATA. Some say that this wave was intended to weaken the resolve of the Pakistani state and military leaders, so that they would retreat from the advanced stage of military operations against tribal militants in Pakistani tribal areas. Some western analysts have also described suicide bombings as a strategic tool militants deploy to extract concessions from democratic governments. According to one account, “law enforcement investigations indicate that suicide bombings are the work of multiple militant and terrorist outfits like the local Taliban, Al Qaeda, and groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda such as Jamiat al-Furqan and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. The evidence they have collected shows that Al Qaeda and its affiliated groups in Pakistan have used suicide terrorism to obtain specific strategic goals against the government.
Sunday’s attack on JUI’s religious convention was one of the deadliest in recent months. The Islamic State in Khorasan has so far claimed responsibility for the Sunday attack on the JUI convention, which confirmed Pakistani security officials’ suspicions that the attack was the handiwork of the Islamic State splinter group. “The Sunday suicide attack was the handiwork of ISIS-Khorasan… there is no doubt about it,” said a senior police official posted in the area.
The Islamic State in Khorasan has been active in the Pakistan-Afghan border areas since the last year and their particular target has been local leaders of the Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam (JUI). The Islamic State in Khorasan has claimed responsibility for the assassination of at least three JUI local leaders in Bajaur—the district where the Sunday suicide bombing took place. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has condemned the suicide attack, and emphatically stated that they had nothing to do with it.
The JUI is considered a mother organization of the Taliban movement. A religious reformist movement, inspired by Deobandi school of thought, the JUI traces its origins to a 19th century reformist movement in British India that first spawned the political party and religious seminaries in South Asia. It was only during the Afghan Jihad in 1980s that the radicalization of the JUI and religious seminaries took place in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Most first-generation Taliban leaders were the students of religious scholars associated with the JUI who used to teach in religious Deobandi seminaries.
The Afghan Taliban have a deep-rooted rivalry with Islamic State-Khorasan and of late the Pakistani Taliban has also entered into a fight with them, especially over recruitment issues. Ironically, all terror organizations including Al-Qaeda, TTP, Afghan Taliban and ISIS-Khorasan draw from the same pool of fighters and militants. This has intensified the conflict between these groups. The Islamic State-Khorasan in the recent past has hurled the accusation of hypocrisy on the leadership of JUI, whose leaders live in the cozy atmosphere of the Islamabad power corridors, away from the rugged terrains of the Pak-Afghan border areas, where these groups and their leaders operate.
Pakistani officials investigating the suicide attack are keeping this fact in mind that the Islamic State-Khorasan has shown hostility towards JUI leaders in local politics of Pak-Afghan border towns. Pakistan has witnessed an increase in terror attacks since the Taliban took over Kabul in August 2021. A report by a local think-tank stated that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Balochistan have witnessed a marked impact of the Afghan situation in terms of terrorist violence, where the number of attacks during these 21 months has surged by 92% and 81%, respectively.
Last year, IS said it was behind violent attacks against religious scholars affiliated with JUI, which has a huge network of mosques and madrassas in the north and the west of the country. It may be noted that reports had earlier indicated the presence of Islamic State-Khorasan in the Bajaur district. In June, the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) had neutralized three Islamic State-Khorasan men in the tribal district, officials said.
Let there be no doubt that the recent wave of suicide bombings in Pakistan is part of a strategic decision by the perpetuators of violence to destabilize Pakistan. It is not a mindless act of violence by some delinquent teenagers. It is a strategic decision. If the Pakistani military is to be believed that they destroyed the infrastructure of suicide bombing networks in the tribal areas, then perhaps terror organizations have revamped their infrastructure and network.
A recent UN report has stated that the distinction between militant groups on the grassroot level blurs in the battlefield. TTP, for instance, is using the training facilities of Al-Qaeda in the Kunar province of Afghanistan. You don’t know whether a fighter is working for TTP or Islamic State-Khorasan or both. TTP and Al-Qaeda might be planning to merge their organizations. Ironically, we have started to feel the negative effects of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. All these terror groups are now focused on attacking Pakistan, while Afghanistan continues on like a rudderless ship.
The fact that suicide bombing took place on the day that the Chinese vice-premier landed in Islamabad adds a strategic dimension to the situation. Stability in the region is now no longer an American concern. It is China’s prime interest to have a stable Pakistan. An increase in violence will go against China’s prime strategic interests in the region. A fresh wave of suicide bombings could be deeply destabilizing for Pakistan’s political system as well as for the economy.