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.
Following a devastating terrorist attack on members of Pakistan’s small Christian minority at the weekend, leading community figures are expressing concerns both about the reaction of major political figures and despair about the government’s apparent inability to prevent such attacks, along with fear about the possibility the community may be targeted again. Pakistan has seen widespread demonstrations and unrest as a result of the bombing, attributed to factions of the Pakistani Taliban and widely seen as likely torpedoing recent government overtures to the militants controlling large parts of the country.
The attack happened on Sunday, 22nd September. Two suicide bombers attacked the congregation at the 100 year old All Saints church in Peshawar just after the Sunday service had finished. 85 people were killed in the blasts, which left over 120 injured. This was Pakistan’s worst ever attack on the Christian minority, and it bore the hallmarks of many similar incidents targeting Pakistan’s Shia population.
Junood ul-Hifsa, a branch of Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP, the ‘Pakistani Taliban)’, claimed responsibility for the attack. This is the same group that reportedly murdered 11 foreign climbers at the base of the mountain Nanga Parbat in June this year. Junood ul-Hifsa was reportedly established to target foreigners and non-Muslims in retaliation for American drone strikes against militants. Another terrorist group with links to the TTP, Jandullah, also claimed responsibility for the attack, and it remains unclear who exactly perpetrated the bombing as yet. The TTP’s main spokesman officially denounced the bombing; however the TTP’s usual practice is to deny involvement in bombings with large civilian casualties.
The attack led to widespread protests and community anger throughout the country. Crowds took to the streets in Peshawar, Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi to demonstrate against the Government’s apparent failure to protect minority groups, with the police being forced to use tear gas in some cases. Increasing ethnic homogenisation has seen Pakistan’s ethnic minority population decrease from 15% to 4% currently. Christians make up only 1.8% of Pakistan’s population, and are an extremely politically weak ethnic group as a result.
While this is the first major terrorist attack on Christians (with past attacks often focusing on Shia Muslims instead), the Christian minority has for many years suffered from persecution in the country. Largely poor and impoverished, they have been a common target for vindictive prosecutions under blasphemy laws, which are largely used to settle scores. In March of this year, communal violence erupted after blasphemy accusations and saw the torching of dozens of Christians homes by a Muslim mob, while in 2010 a prominent politician who defended a Christian accused of blasphemy was murdered by his own police bodyguard. Members of Pakistan’s Christian community worry that the country’s spiralling Sunni/Shia violence will begin to spill over and target them in future after this latest attack.
The incident is also a blow for the Pakistani government’s hope to begin some form of peace talks with the TTP. The government of Nawaz Sharif had been criticised in the past for focusing on economic issues and lacking any clear political will to tackle Pakistan’s deteriorating security situation. However, late last month they made a controversial overture to the TTP regarding the possibility of negotiations. These talks divided the Taliban movement, with some rejecting any possibility of talks and others cautiously welcoming the possibility. The chances of success are now low, after both this attack and the murder of a senior army commander last week. Some analysts believe the offer of talks by the government is in fact a ploy – by offering seemingly impossible negotiations to an extremely fragmentary coalition of terrorists, the subsequent breakdown of talks may allow the government to build public support for a harsh military crackdown to restore some semblance of order.
While in the past foreigners were rarely targeted in the country’s endemic terrorist violence, the attack on Nanga Parbat on June and this recent bombing of Christian’s suggests attacks may be broadening in scope from their traditional targets of security forces or Shia Muslims. An extremely high degree of security awareness should be maintained at all times while in Pakistan.
In response to a “credible threat,” the United States has ordered that all non-essential government personnel leave its consulate in the Pakistani city of Lahore amidst a worldwide alert over al-Qaeda intercepts. A senior State Department official has stated that intelligence indicates that there is currently “credible threat” to the consulate and that all US personnel remaining in Lahore should limit non-essential travel within the country. The move comes as Pakistan’s troubled south-western city of Quetta was hit by a second attack in two days as gunmen shot dead at least nine people outside a mosque on Friday.
Officials in Washington have urged that they have received intelligence of a specific threat to its diplomatic mission in Pakistan’s second-largest city, ordering all non-essential staff to leave. The warning comes just one day after the United States reiterated a travel warning, advising all US citizens to defer non-essential travel to Pakistan. US officials have stated that “we are undertaking the drawdown due to concerns about credible threat information specific to the US Consulate in Lahore,” further noting that “an updated travel warning has also been issued,” adding that “US citizens remaining in Lahore…should limit non-essential travel within the country and be aware of their surroundings whether in their residences or moving about, and make their own contingency emergency plans.” The travel warning also indicates that “the presence of several foreign and indigenous terrorist groups poses a potential danger to US citizens throughout Pakistan.”
It currently remains unclear when the consulate in Lahore will open again. The US embassy and consulates in Karachi and Peshawar were closed Friday for the Eid public holiday however they are expected to open again on Monday. Earlier this week, the US closed nineteen other diplomatic missions throughout the Middle East and Africa in response to what it said was a threat of a terrorist attack. The diplomatic outposts are expected to be closed to the public until Saturday. Non-essential personnel were also evacuated from the US embassy in Yemen after US intelligence officials stated that they had intercepted a recent message from al-Qaeda’s top leader about plans for a major terror attack. None of the consulates in Pakistan, nor the US embassy in Islamabad, were affected by the earlier closures. Consequently it seems that the most recent evacuation in Lahore was undertaken as a precautionary measure and is not related to the closure of the other diplomatic missions.
Meanwhile authorities in Pakistan have placed the capital city on a state of high alert, with extra precautionary measures being placed on key Pakistan government installations. Britain has also placed travel warnings for Pakistan, however these are for specific locations and do not include Lahore or the capital. The UK Foreign Office has stated that it had yet to decide whether staff would be withdrawn from the British Council Office in Lahore however it did note that it was closely monitoring the current situation, stating that “we keep security measures and travel advice under constant review.”
In Quetta, Pakistan on Friday, worshippers were gunned down as they left prayers for Eid al-Fitr, the festival marking the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. The month of Ramadan was marred this year by at least eleven attacks which killed some 120 people. The day before, a suicide bomber struck at a police funeral in the city on Thursday, killing thirty eight people in an attack that was claimed by the Taliban.