By Ahsan Butt
It’s perhaps a little ironic that just yesterday, as I woke up, I was thinking to myself: “You know, we haven’t seen a huge attack in a major Pakistani city in a while,” the term ‘quite a while’ being a relative one for most Pakistanis. It was a morbid thought, to be sure, but I must confess that I thought it. I instantly reprimanded myself, and told myself not to tempt fate. Well, there you go.
Last night in Lahore, two suicide bombers blew themselves up at the Data Ganj Baksh shrine in Lahore. Over 40 people died and over 170 have been injured. Here’s some CCTV footage of the incident.
(Video of bomber, bombing and aftermath)
The choice of target is painfully obvious in hindsight. The shrine is a place where huge numbers of people gather regularly, and practice a non-orthodox version of Islam suffused with local and historical cultural traditions that places it at odds with more orthodox — and puritanical — incarnations of the faith. Moreover, Lahore has become the epicenter of political violence in Pakistan over the last year or two.
It is this point which, for me anyway, is cause for the most angst and anger. If you picked a random person off the street from anywhere in Lahore, or even Pakistan, and asked them to name five potential sites for a terrorist attack in Lahore, Data Darbar would make most everyone’s list. In addition, given Lahore’s recent lapses in security — from the Ahmedi mosque attacks last month to the Moon Market attacks to assorted others — you would think that the shrine would be heavily protected, especially given the fact that just two days ago, the Interior Ministry had informed the Punjab government of intelligence on an impending attack. But you would be wrong.
It is, of course, an open question why Lahore has become such an easy and inviting target for militants in the recent past. It is probably some combination of (a) proximity (many militant outfits, particularly sectarian ones, are based in southern Punjab); (b) politics (many militant outfits have at least an indirect relationship with the PML-N, the main party in power in Punjab, and thus are afforded more logistical and physical space to manuever); and (c) policing (security arrangements in Punjab, on the face of it anyway, seem fairly inadequate when compared to other places in the country).
The footage reveals one heroic official chasing after one of the attackers before he blew himself up. But two uniformed policemen are seen to be sitting and chatting on their chairs as the attackers enter the shrine, a gross derlicition of duty. To be fair, picking on one or two officials is unfair and almost irrelevant. It’s the bigger picture that’s the problem here: the lack of viable and institutionalized mechanisms to protect the Pakistani people from militant attacks, the lack of political unity on the question of the war, the looking-the-other-way-wink-wink method of counterterrorism from the Punjab government — it goes on and on.
Of course, in the aftermath, the state has sprung into action. Karachi has been placed on red-alert status, and the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi was closed this morning before being opened to the public. Peshawar is seeing an increased police presence at mosques. And Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has ordered a probe into the attacks, sure to uncover earth-shattering details. Too little, too late I’m afraid.
Actually, there is something the authorities can do that’s useful, if they haven’t done it already, and that is place on high alert the hospital(s) where the survivors of the attack are being treated. A number of recent attacks have been double-whammies; terrorists first hit some public gathering like a market or a mosque, and then either the next day or some time soon, attack either the funerals of those killed, or the hospitals where the injured are. It may be dastardly, but it is brutally efficient from the terrorists’ point of view: what could be a softer target than those affected from the first attack? The Punjab government must ensure we do not see a repeat of that here. And it also must do its part to protect Ahmedis and other minority sects from mob violence, who are already being nonsensically blamed for this tragedy by some.