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.
In the early hours of this morning, Tuesday, 30th July, the Pakistani Taliban (the TTP) launched an assault on a prison in north-west Pakistan, freeing nearly 250 militants. This incident comes on the day the Pakistani parliament is electing a new president and on top of severe violence throughout the country in the past month following the election of new Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. An extremely high level of caution and security awareness should be maintained at all times throughout the country.
Today’s attack occurred in the town of Dera Ismail Kahn, in the Khyber Paktunkhwa province which borders the notorious Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA), a haven for militant activity. Up to 100 militants, some dressed in police uniforms, bombarded the prison with mortars and RPGs before launching an assault that lasted for 3 or 4 hours and left at least 13 dead, including 6 police officers. The attackers reportedly used a loudhailer to call the names of specific inmates, set ambushes for the authority’s reinforcements, and then booby trapped the prison – all of which suggests a complex attack planned in advance.
The town’s prison is a century old, and was not designed to hold high security prisoners. Nevertheless, at the time of the attack it contained hundreds of militants from the TTP and other banned groups. Among the fugitives there are reportedly around 30 “hardened militants” who had been jailed for their involvement in major attacks and suicide bombings. As of writing, 14 of the escapees have been recaptured, while the rest are almost certainly fleeing into the FATA – something that will almost certainly make any future apprehension by the state authorities extremely difficult.
The attack is a major embarrassment for the Pakistani state authorities, particularly in light of reports that suggest intelligence was received over a fortnight ago about a planned assault on the jail. The attack is also remarkably similar to an incident in April, 2012 in nearby Bannu, which freed over 400 inmates – questions will likely be asked about how militants successfully executed an almost identical raid over a year later. The TTP also said one of its key leaders freed in the 2012 raid was behind the planning of this most recent incident.
Today’s incident comes in the wake of numerous violent attacks across Pakistan in recent weeks. On Saturday, July 27th, 57 people were killed in an attack on a market in Parachinar, Kurram province, which borders Afghanistan to the west. On the same day, nine people were killed in attacks on security force check points, including in the western city of Gwador on the border with Iran. On Wednesday, July 24th, militants stormed the regional headquarters in Sukkur of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), killing 9, including police and intelligence officials. On the 30th June, 56 were killed in bomb attacks in Quetta and Peshawar, while another attack earlier that month killed 11 foreign mountaineers.
Pakistan has been in the grip of a domestic insurgency led by the TTP since 2007, which has killed thousands of civilians and members of the security forces, and terrorism is endemic to the country as a whole. The TTP in particular has strong connections with other Sunni jihadist organisations such as Al Qaeda, but tends to focus its attacks normally on organs of the Pakistani state and government.
However, the Pakistani state’s response to the TTP and other militant organisations has been extremely flawed, with few notable successes. There are also seemingly justified accusations that elements of the security forces, particularly within the ISI, provide major support to militants. Aside from attacks against state institutions, civilian members of Pakistan’s Shia minority tend to be the most frequent targets of attacks by the Sunni militant groups.
The continuing violence throughout the country in the past months is already becoming a particular problem for the new government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in power since May this year. He is under extreme pressure to outline how he plans to bring the security situation under control, but many observers believe he currently lacks a coherent strategy, choosing instead to prioritise economic development. The BBC recently obtained a leaked copy of a ‘Draft National Counter-terrorism and Extremism Policy’ which lambasted the political leadership of Pakistan for allowing the security situation to deteriorate to its current level, and argued the activities of militants where “the most serious crisis face by the country since independence”. While it is unclear whether the authors of the document were referring to the new government or the previous, new Prime Minister Sharif is certainly yet to take major steps to counter militant activity.
While the death of foreigners in terrorist attacks still remains relatively rare, visitors to Pakistan should be aware of the extremely high risk of terrorist activity throughout the entire country. Common targets include government buildings, markets, holy sites and ‘Western’ areas. An extremely high degree of security awareness should be maintained at all times. In addition, all travel to the remote tribal regions in the North and West should be avoided.