The scenes of horror pictured on Friday have become all too familiar in Pakistan. This time it was a twin attack. A procession to mark the birthday of the prophet Muhammad and a police station were both targeted by suicide bombers, killing almost 60 people and injuring hundreds more.
No one has yet claimed responsibility, but suspicion among officials and analysts was directed towards Islamic State – Khorasan (IS-K), which has recently regrouped and revived its militant activities in Pakistan to devastating effect, and with little sign of being contained. Alongside a recent resurgence of its rival, the Pakistan Taliban, which has been behind dozens of deadly attacks over the past few months, the country’s security situation continues to deteriorate to its worst in years.
IS-K claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing of a political rally in July that targeted a party known for its close ties to the Taliban in Afghanistan, killing 54 people. IS-K has positioned itself as an Islamist group even more hardline than the Taliban, and has targeted its rival in both Afghanistan and Pakistan for not enforcing sharia law strictly enough. It also vehemently opposes the kind of religious procession that was taking place on Friday morning before it was devastated by the suicide blast.
Mastung, in Pakistan’s troubled region of Balochistan where the blast took place, has long been a hub for radical madrassas and extremist Islamic groups. It is where many violent attacks have been traced back to. Balochistan has been plagued by a long-running separatist insurgency and as part of its crackdown, Pakistan’s military is alleged to have both tolerated and sponsored many of the local Islamist militant groups in Mastung in order to use them as weapons against Baloch separatists. It is a strategy that has since proved deadly, after many fighters from these groups then went on to join al-Qaida and later IS-K.
In 2018, just before the country’s last elections, one of Pakistan’s worst ever militant attacks took place in Mastung, where IS-K militants targeted a political rally and killed almost 150 people, including a prominent Baloch politician.
“After years of a lull, we are now seeing a fully fledged return of latent violence and militancy,” said Zahid Hussain, an author who has written about Islamist extremism. “The problem is that Pakistan has no holistic policy to counter extremism, and no way to deal with this violence in these areas now under militant control. They knew this area had become a centre for Islamic extremist groups, yet no action was taken.”
As Pakistan gears up for its next general election at the end of January, analysts and politicians fear more bloodshed is on the horizon. Friday’s bombings are unlikely to be directly linked to the election, but there are concerns that as the violent rivalry between the Pakistan Taliban and IS-K continues to escalate and both groups seek to assert and gain influence, attacks will continue and be hard for the military to suppress.
Large areas of the north-west province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa already have a heavy Pakistan Taliban presence after misguided efforts by the former prime minister Imran Khan – after the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan – to repatriate thousands of Taliban fighters back to Pakistan instead left the border regions in the grip of militants.
The surge in homegrown terrorist activity, fuelled heavily by the takeover of the Taliban in Afghanistan, comes at a disastrous time for Pakistan. It is already going through one of its worst economic crises on record and is highly politically unstable. A powerless caretaker government is running the country, its most popular political leader, Khan, is behind bars and the date of the general election has continually been pushed back. The anticipated return of the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif in October from the UK, where he had been hiding for the past three years – ostensibly for medical treatment but in reality to avoid jail – is only likely to deepen the political turmoil.
“First it was an economic crisis, then a political crisis and now a militancy crisis,” said Hussain. “Even if this election does go ahead, it will be a troubling time for Pakistan.”