A New Wave of Terrorism in Pakistan

The Pakistan Stock Exchange (PSE) attack in Karachi and a series of terrorist attacks in Ghotki, Hyderabad and Rawalpindi coupled with the assaults on Pakistani patrolling troops at Iran’s bordering areas marks a new wave of terrorism in Pakistan. The Baloch, Sindhi and MQM-London linked ethno-separatist groups have forged a new alliance under the Indian patronage. Pakistan’s top political and military leadership has blamed India for the PSE attack.

This new wave of terrorism in Pakistan should be seen in the broader context of the evolving regional security situation, particularly the intra-Afghan peace process and the India-China border dispute in the Himalayan region. The shifting geopolitical sands in South Asia are throwing up new opportunities to a plethora of anti-Pakistan militant groups, particularly the ethno-separatist outfits. Of the 73 terrorist groups banned by the National Counter Terrorism Authority, 13 are ethno-nationalist outfits.

Unable to match China’s conventional military superiority, India has chosen the asymmetric option of targeting the Chinese economic interests and projects in Pakistan. The Baloch Liberation Army (BLA)’s responsibility claim for the PSE attack mentions, “This attack is not just on Pakistan’s economic interests but also a warning to China and an attack on Chinese economic interests.” In 2016, a Chinese-led consortium, comprising of China Financial Futures Exchange Company Limited, Shanghai Stock Exchange and Shenzhen Stock Exchange, together with Pak-China Investment Company Limited and Habib Bank Limited bought 40 percent shares in PSE. The BLA’s suicide squad, the Majid Brigade, has been specifically tasked to target the Chinese economic interests and projects in Pakistan. The 2018 Chinese consulate attack in Karachi and the 2019 Pearl Continental hotel attack in Gwadar were also carried out by BLA. In September 2019, four Baloch insurgent groups—BLA, the Balochistan Liberation Front, the Baloch Republican Army and the Baloch Republican Guard—formed the Baloch Raaji Ajoi Sangar (BRAS) to pool their manpower and resources to expand geographical reach and diversify attack targets. Subsequently, the BRAS targeted Pakistani security troops patrolling the Pak-Iran border areas.

Similarly, three separate attacks on June 19 by a little known Sindhi separatist group, the Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army (SRA), in Ghokti, Larkana and Karachi also fit into the broader patterns of reviving ethno-separatist terrorism in Pakistan. The SRA is a breakaway faction of the Sindhudesh Liberation Army and is currently headed by Syed Asghar Shah.

Likewise, the resurfacing of the MQM-L’s militant wing under a new name, the Mohajir Freedom Fighters (MFF), in Karachi and its involvement in various criminal and terrorist activities should be seen in this evolving geopolitical context. On June 26, the Sindh Rangers and Karachi police arrested three MFF militants who were planning low intensity attacks in different parts of the port city. The post-arrest investigations also revealed that MFF is organising several small cells to carry out terrorist attacks in Karachi.

The expected US exit from Afghanistan and the intra-Afghan peace process will also have far-reaching implications of Pakistan’s threat landscape. If the US exit is gradual and responsible, ensuring a stable political order through a negotiated settlement, it will further consolidate Pakistan’s counter-terrorism gains. On the contrary, if the US pullout does not deliver sustainable peace and a viable political structure in Afghanistan, it will have negative implications for Pakistan’s security environment. Another enduring threat to Pakistan’s internal security in the future would come from sectarian terrorism. Alarmingly, notorious Pakistani anti-Shia militant groups, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Jundullah and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al-Almi have been absorbed by the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP). In a way, ISKP, now claims the turf of anti-Shia militancy in Pakistan. ISKP has also targeted Sufi practices of Islam and other religious minorities in Pakistan. Though ISKP has a minimal footprint in the country, it is capable of mounting large-scale terrorist attacks.

Against the evolving geopolitical situation in the region, a new assessment of the existing threat landscape is necessary. Notwithstanding the decline in terrorist incidents and casualties, the terrorist threat in Pakistan is far from over. Despite dismantling the major terrorist networks and their sanctuaries across Pakistan, the structural factors of violence —religious intolerance, abysmal socio-economic conditions and ethno-nationalist grievances —not only remain unaddressed but they have exacerbated further in recent years. India has exploited ethnic grievances and alienation in Balochistan by extending support to various ethno-separatist factions. Currently, the National Action Plan (NAP) devised after the Peshawar Army Public School attack in December 2014 lies in the doldrums. A re-evaluation of NAP in the light of the recent wave of terrorism is needed. The existing counter-terrorism framework relies heavily on kinetic measures, while the few and far between non-kinetic aspects exist only on paper. Restoring the balance of hard and soft counter-terrorism measures is pivotal to sustain counter-terrorism success. The National Internal National Security Policy (2019-2023) —which built on NAP — can be adopted with some amendments because of existing security requirements. It is important to give political ownership to future counter-terrorism policies. The intersection of geopolitical developments in the region and the evolving terrorist trends in Pakistan is unmistaken. A new internal security framework based on the understanding of this new threat landscape, its actors and their agendas is needed to ensure internal peace and stability.