Underreported terrorism

Sehwan, not Sweden: The terrorist attack Trump ignored

Bombing of shrine just one of a string of incidents over the past week in Pakistan
Photo: Saqib Qayyum

Whether in Quebec or Pakistan, Donald Trump doesn’t like to mention terrorist attacks in which Muslims are killed. Even though, worldwide, Muslims are the primary victims of so-called jihadi terrorist groups, Trump only tweets or talks about attacks that victimize non-Muslims.

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The U.S. president’s bigoted double-standard was on full display again last week as he referenced a non-existent incident in Sweden while ignoring an all-too-real attack in Sehwan, Pakistan in which dozens were murdered. The victims in Sehwan, and in the string of attacks across Pakistan over the past week, received only a small fraction of the media attention given to the make-believe attentat in Sweden. They deserve more coverage than Trump’s latest rants and inventions.

Here’s what you might have missed.

On Feb. 16 a suicide bomber blew himself up inside the shrine of one of South Asia’s most important saints, killing around 80 people and injuring many more.

Located in the town of Sehwan in the Pakistani province of Sindh, the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, a 12th century Shia Muslim saint, is visited by millions every year from all over the world.

The Sehwan bombing was one of four major attacks in Pakistan in recent days.

In a region where such figures have played a historical role in weaving syncretism into the social fabric of the land, Lal Shahbaz stands as a symbol who is not only revered by people of different faiths but whose legacy and message is also that of rebelling against established orders including religious orthodoxies. It is no surprise, then, that such a significant place was so mercilessly targeted by ISIS.

Sectarian carnage

In 2006, a bomb went off in the Al-Askari mosque in Samara, Iraq. A 10th century mosque, Al-Askari is one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam, containing the remains of two Shia imams. Retaliatory attacks targeted Sunni mosques and left hundreds killed. This marked the start of the bloody sectarian conflict in Iraq. Its mastermind was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the father figure of radical sunni militancy in Iraq and an inspiration for ISIS affiliates in Pakistan who also wish to tear Muslim societies apart from their very roots by instigating sectarian conflicts.

If ISIS’s history in Iraq is any clue, it is time that the Pakistani state started taking seriously the challenges posed by ISIS in Pakistan.

The Sehwan bombing was one of four major attacks in Pakistan in recent days. The attacks took place in all four of the country’s provinces, in what was the bloodiest week in Pakistan in a very long time.

After a relative lull in terrorist activities since the start of a military operation against the Taliban in 2013, it seems that some militant groups are making a comeback. As much as the Pakistani state is still to blame for continued religious militancy in the country, these attacks are also a pushback by the Taliban following a relentless crackdown on them by the Pakistani army. As the Pakistani Taliban were weakened, some splinter groups looked to ISIS for support (more symbolic than operational) in order to stay relevant.

On the other side of the border in Afghanistan, some militant groups formed wilayat-e-Khorasan (Province of Khorasan) — much like the wilayat-e-Sinia in Egypt — and officially pledged allegiance to ISIS. Indeed, ISIS is increasingly becoming a security threat in the region. Given that the group is losing territory in Iraq and Syria, these attacks might be an indication that it is looking to expand in other parts of the Muslim world.

History of anti-Shia militancy

The threat is real, to the point that Iran is reportedly looking to support the Afghan Taliban (not particularly known for their love for Iran or for Shias) as a hedge against ISIS in Afghanistan. If ISIS’s history in Iraq is any clue, it is time that the Pakistani state started taking seriously the challenges posed by ISIS in Pakistan. The Sehwan attack looks like an ominous sign.

Despite the risk of increasing sectarianism in Pakistan, it would be a mistake to blame ISIS for sectarianism in the country as such. Anti-Shia militancy in Pakistan is a very local phenomena, dating back to the early 1980s. The country has various terrorist groups who have showed their potency over and over again with continued attacks against Shias. In fact, Pakistani anti-Shia groups were among the founding members of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which later on became ISIS.

If anything remotely akin to the Iraq-style sectarian war comes to Pakistan, it would not be an imported conflict with foreign inspirations, but an exacerbation of local anti-Shia militancy. Given how embedded it is in Pakistan, the task of the security forces is that much harder. But combating militancy isn’t impossible.

If the Pakistani state shows a willingness to fight, it can succeed. But that is a big if, since many elements in the Pakistan state, especially the deep state, still maintain links with terrorist groups for various political and geostrategic reasons.

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