Yesterday, October 7th, two people were killed in a terrorist attack on a polio vaccination campaign in the troubled frontier city of Peshawar in Pakistan. Despite being one of the few nations in the world were polio remains endemic, attacks on vaccination workers are not uncommon. Rumours and distrust of the vaccines are spread by fundamentalist clerics in the country, and large swathes of the country remain unvaccinated despite the authorities’ desire to eradicate the disease and amidst continuing warnings from the World Health Organisation. Recent weeks have seen numerous serious terrorist attacks in Pakistan, raising fears of further destabilisation surrounding the nation’s already acute security challenges. In particular, further moves to attack aid organisations and ethnic minority groups are particularly concerning.
The blast happened outside a health clinic in Sulemankhen, on the outskirts of Peshawar, yesterday. Two people were killed, one a police officer and the other a local member of a ‘volunteer peace committee’. 20 people, mainly members of the police, were also injured in the attack. A second, larger, device was found at the scene and diffused. Monday was the third and final day of a campaign aiming to vaccinate 10’000 children through Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, and the bomb was detonated remotely when police gathered to protect the vaccination teams.
A faction of the Pakistani Taliban, Jundullah, has claimed responsibility for the attack, releasing a statement saying “Jews and the United States want to stamp out Islamic beliefs through these drops”. Jundullah is a prolific terrorist organisation, and has been connected with numerous attacks throughout Pakistan in recent months, including the murder of climbers in Gilget-Baltistan in June and last month’s attack on the Christian community in Peshawar.
Vaccination campaigns have come under attack in Pakistan before. Earlier this year, also in Peshawar, two female aid workers were shot dead, while another 8 vaccination workers were murdered in December last year. The use by the CIA of a fake hepatitis vaccination program to gather intelligence about the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden in 2011 has reportedly damaged the reputation of aid and vaccination programs in Pakistan. However, issues with vaccinations have been fermenting for several years outside of this, with Islamist propaganda in Pakistan often claiming vaccination programs are attempts by the West to sterilise Muslim populations, or that the vaccines are ‘un-Islamic’ as they supposedly contain pork derivatives. This phenomenon has manifested in other countries with similar strains of Islamist militancy such as Nigeria, which saw the murder of nine vaccination workers earlier this year.
Largely seen as an anachronism in the West, polio remains endemic in only three countries worldwide – Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Amidst increasing rates of the disease in Pakistan and the warnings of international health organisations, the Pakistani authorities have launched campaigns in attempts to eradicate the disease in recent years, but have faced widespread resistance in the fractious and restive border and tribal areas.
This recent attack comes amidst a spate of serious attacks throughout the country in recent weeks that have killed over 150 people. Despite the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif making overtures to militants late in August, the security situation in Pakistan appears to be becoming increasing unstable, with the country’s regular terrorist attacks showing no sign of abating. The Pakistani authorities have been criticised in the past for the lack of a coherent or robust national security strategy, and with elements of the Pakistani state widely seen as collaborating with some terrorist movements, serious doubts remain about their ability to contain the violence. Currently, all the indications are that the security situation in Pakistan is only likely to deteriorate further in the foreseeable future.
A particularly concerning trend is a diversification of the victims targeted in terrorist attacks, as opposed to the traditional targets of Shia Muslims or the Pakistani security forces. Recent months have seen the murder of foreign mountaineers at the base of Nanga Parbat, attacks on Pakistan’s tiny Christian minority and yesterday’s targeting of an UN-backed health campaign. As such, the security risks for foreigners in Pakistan remain severe and are only set to increase if, as seems likely, this trend continues.