The murder of 11 individuals at the base camp of Nanga Parbat late last week suggests new dangers may be emerging for foreign climbers and tourists in the remote but previously peaceful regions of northern Pakistan. Nanga Parbat is the ninth highest mountain in the world at 8126 metres and a popular destination for Himalayan mountaineers.
On the evening of Saturday, 22nd June, 16 individuals dressed in the uniform of the Gilget Scouts (a police paramilitary unit based in northern Pakistan) arrived at the base camp of Nanga Parbat. After stealing personal belongings and destroying mobile phones, they killed 11 of the people staying at the camp. 10 of these were foreigners – 3 Ukrainians, 2 Slovakians, 2 Chinese, a dual US-Chinese citizen, a Lithuanian, and a Nepalese. Also among the dead was a local guide, reportedly killed because of his Shia religion, while Sunnis at the camp were spared.
While initially the perpetrators of the attack were unknown, it now appears that the Pakistani Taliban (or TTP) were responsible, claiming responsibility in a press release late on Sunday, 23rd June. Despite the common name, the TTP share no direct affiliation (and indeed have an at times problematic relationship with) the Afghan Taliban.
Based largely in the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA) of northwest Pakistan, the TTP targets mainly the organs of the Pakistani state. It has been extremely active in terrorist incidents throughout the country – including being implicated in the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Moreover the group has been implicated by US Government officials as being behind the 2010 attempted car bomb in Times Square, New York, and been connected with the 2009 attack on CIA facilities at Camp Chapman in Afghanistan.
The TTP is extremely closely affiliated with Al-Qaeda, with current DCI John Brennan saying in 2010 “They train together, they plan together, they plot together. They are almost indistinguishable.” Nevertheless, for the most part the TTP acts mainly within Pakistan itself, and past attacks on foreigners have been rare. Indeed, despite the terrorism at times endemic to parts of the country, terrorist attacks on foreigners as a whole have remained unusual, with this incident reportedly the worst in over a decade.
However, in this instance foreigners were deliberately targeted. The attack was reportedly in retaliation for the death of Wali-ur Rehman, a senior TTP commander and spokesman killed with six associates by a US drone strike on 29th May. It appears that the TTP has recently established a subsidiary organisation, reportedly named Junood-ul Hifsa, with the goal of targeting foreigners in Pakistan in response to drone strikes. The attack at Nanga Parbat was explicitly connected with this new faction.
Reaching the base camp requires at least an 18 hour trek by foot or mule, suggesting this attack required a level of premeditation and planning as opposed to being an opportunistic or random incident. Despite mass detentions of porters and guides, and the apparent identification of the individuals responsible (local militants reportedly trained in the FATA), the perpetrators of this attack remain at large in the wilderness of northern Pakistan.
The region in which this occurred, Gilget-Baltistan, is a very remote self-governing province under the administrative control of Pakistan since the First Kashmir War in 1947 – 1948. Despite its connections with the on-going Kashmir dispute, and the activities of some militant nationalist groups, Gilget-Baltistan has remained broadly peaceful.
Nanga Parbat is an extremely popular destination for climbers, with upwards of 50 foreign mountaineers either preparing to ascend or on the mountain itself at the time of the attack, who have all now been evacuated. Multiple foreign tour operators have reportedly cancelled expeditions, with some commentators believing this incident could cripple Pakistan’s already weak tourism industry.
If, as claimed, this incident represents the beginning of a new strategy of targeting foreign citizens in Pakistan in response to drone strikes and other military action, it is extremely concerning indeed. With many foreign mountaineers and similar flocking to remote parts of the Himalayas in the summer months, they remain particularly exposed and vulnerable to any militant activity. In light of this incident, the British Foreign and Commonwealth office currently advises against all but essential travel to Gilget-Baltistan.