On December 16, 2014, the Taliban launched the deadliest attack in Pakistan’s history, killing at least 148 people, including 132 schoolchildren, at the Army Public School in Peshawar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Mohammad Khorasani, also known as Omer Khorasan, who heads the Jamatul Ahrar, a faction of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) led by Maulana Fazllula, quickly accepted responsibility for the attack. A spokesperson for the Jamatul Ahrar said the assault was in retaliation for the ongoing Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan. He further claimed that the school had been targeted because “almost all students are the children of army personnel.”
The attack on the Army Public School was unequivocally condemned, nationally and internationally. Even the Afghan Taliban weighed in, calling it “un-Islamic.” Hafiz Saeed chief of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, whom India accuses of masterminding the 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai, also expressed outrage. He called the murder of children “cowardly behavior” and said that Islam “never taught us to kill innocent children and women even in war.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Incidentally, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was also home to Malala Yousafzai, the youngest-ever Nobel Prize Laureate. She was reportedly singled out and shot in the head on October 9, 2012 by the TTP as she rode to school in a van with other girls. Malala luckily survived. The TTP was founded in 2007 in the tribal areas of Pakistan, and has links with the Afghan Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
“I could not control my tears. I cannot explain but I wept. I know it was against the rules of our profession but it was the moment to break the rules.” One of the gravediggers, Mr. Taj Muhammad, at Peshawar’s largest graveyard was speaking to the Associated Press. He added, “I have buried bodies of the deceased of different ages, sizes, and weights,” He told AP. “Those small bodies I have been burying since yesterday felt much heavier than any of the big ones I have buried before.”
In the 2013 general elections, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), led by former cricket star Imran Khan, won a majority of seats in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Given Khan’s pro-Taliban stance, analysts say, militancy increased. In 2014, newspaper reports had 39 militant outfits operating in the province, with 20 other groups functioning in the garb of Pakistani Taliban. As for Khan, his critics say he has not changed his pro-Taliban stance, citing three reasons for their believe: First, he did not condemn the Taliban when they attacked the All Saints Church of Peshawar in 2013, killing 81 Christian worshippers. Second, while he did criticize the Peshawar school incident, he neither named the Taliban nor did he condemn them. Third, Khan was quoted by a national newspaper in 2014 as saying: “The Taliban did not want to enforce sharia in the country at gunpoint but wanted to liberate it from the U.S. war.” The PTI leaders vehemently rebuff the claims, calling them propaganda against their party leader.
“The APC Peshawar massacre led to a supposed shift in the country’s security paradigm,” Umer Ali, who is a journalist based in Rawalpindi, told The Diplomat, “Progress against the TTP militants is commendable, but the likes of Jamaatud Dawa (JuD) still remain at large – not to forget Maulana Abdul Aziz, the cleric of Lal Masjid (mosque), who vows to resume his venomous campaign as the ISIS threat looms over our heads.”
Ali adds that dark times are ahead unless the security establishment stops patronizing non-state actors.
After coming to power, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan also urged peace talks with the TTP. Following the attack on the APC, however, Sharif said in a televised address, “The Peshawar atrocity has changed Pakistan. We need to eradicate the mindset of terrorism to defeat extremism and sectarianism.” He added, “This horrendous attack has shaken the nation as the terrorists attacked the future of this country.”
The Peshawar tragedy united both the civilian and military leadership of the country, resulting in a National Action Plan (NAP) to eradicate terrorism. To execute the plan, the government subsequently presented the 21st constitutional amendment and the Pakistan Army (Amendment) Bill 2015. Both bills passed, among other things allowing for the establishment of military courts for terrorists, for speedy trials.
The Washington Post has reported that after years of terrorist attacks, military coups and political upheaval, Pakistan has for now settled into a period of relative calm. Over the past nine months, government statistics show, major terrorist attacks have declined 70 percent, and Pakistanis are flocking back to shopping malls, resorts and restaurants.
However, Marvi Sirmed, a columnist with The Nation, writes, “One important factor in NAP’s ineffectiveness has been continuous problem of ownership and responsibility among various tiers of the state. Whereas the military institutions have been eager to claim credit of successes, the blame of failures and inaction has been invariably put on civilian security machinery. The civilian leadership and institutions on the other hand have largely been appearing as lame ducks.”
In Punjab province, Punjab Home Minister Shuja Khanzada was at the forefront in cracking down on banned outfits under the NAP. He was killed in a suicide attack along with 19 other people at his political office in Shadi Khan village, Attock District. One of the Taliban-affiliated militant groups, Lashkar-e-Islam, claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was retaliation for military operations against them.
A Lahore-based journalist told The Diplomat that counterterrorism efforts had traditionally been directed at the tribal areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, with the government ignoring Punjab, where sectarian and religious extremist groups are based. As a consequence, Punjab is now a major source of terrorism. However, the journalist agrees that since the attack on the APS in Peshawar, the government had been much more aggressive in tackling terrorism.
The Pakistan Institute for Parliamentary Services (PIPS), set up to provide quality research and capacity building services for parliamentarians and parliamentary functionaries, recently noted that the National Action Plan is a stop-gap arrangement for tackling the menace of terrorism. It can be termed a short-term strategy – but even based on that understanding it has serious challenges. The country still needs a comprehensive antiterrorism strategy with short-, medium-, and long-term goals. It also needs different strategies for different types of terrorist groups, such as religious and nationalist separatists. The national consensus that formed in the wake of the tragedy in Peshawar has created the conditions for developing just such a comprehensive strategy. The government need only seize the opportunity.
Muhammad Akbar Notezaiis a columnist at the Daily Times. Visit his blog or follow him on Twitter @Akbar_notezai. He can be reached at [email protected].
It only takes the crash from nearby building work to send the teenage survivors of one of Pakistan’s worst ever terrorist attacks diving for cover.
“Everyone is traumatised inside the school,” said Mehran Khan, a 14-year-old student at the Army public school in Peshawar. “We are all thinking that there will be another attack.”
A year ago on Wednesday, Khan was shot three times when gunmen armed with suicide bombs stormed into the school auditorium where several year groups were watching a first-aid lecture. Most of the boys were unable to get to the exits, turning the hall into a scene of particular horror. The following day, when television crews were allowed in, the hard floors were still wet with blood.
More than 140 students and staff were killed, many of them executed at point-blank range by gunmen who also detonated bombs around the school buildings.
APS reopened just one month after the attack. But pupils and parents complain of ongoing trauma for which many are still receiving psychological help.
The auditorium where Khan almost died has been converted into a basketball court, and a new hall has been built elsewhere on the school’s neat campus. Security is extremely tight with armed guards and metal detectors at the school gate.
“There are new buildings, my friends are gone and some of the teachers are different,” said Khan, who took eight months to recover from his bullet wounds and a broken leg. “Everything has changed.”
Many say Pakistan itself has changed. After the attack all schools were ordered to rapidly build walls and extra defences. To the consternation of some of Pakistan’s European donors the country abandoned an informal moratorium on the death penalty and has so far executed more than 300 death row prisoners.
Most observers credit the attacks with spurring the country into tackling domestic terrorism like never before. The prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, publicly recognised Pakistan’s longstanding ambivalence on the matter, vowing an end to the distinction between “good and bad Taliban”.
A year after the APS attack, the tide of violence has fallen dramatically. “There are no more bomb blasts, all the terrorists have left Pakistan now,” said Ajoon Khan, a lawyer whose 15 year-old son Asfand died in the auditorium. “The country is changed completely because of the sacrifice of our children.”
The army, already Pakistan’s most dominant institution, has become even more powerful in the wake of the APS attack. Constitutional changes established empowered military courts to try civilians, bypassing a glacially slow judicial system where judges are easily intimidated.
Those military courts have convicted some of the men said to be linked to the APS attack. Four were executed this month although little information has been given about their exact role in the plot.
Khan, who is chairman of a group of affected parents, said he would have preferred the executions to have happened in public. Like many other parents, he rushed straight from his workplace when he heard of the attack only to discover Asfand was trapped inside.
He later found the body of his football-mad son among more than 100 laid out in a hospital corridor. He buried him that night still wearing his bloodstained school uniform and with the mobile phone he had with him at the moment of death. “We are all still trapped on 16 December,” he said. “None of the parents have moved on.”
He is furious with the army, which he says has escaped censure over an attack in the middle of Peshawar’s military enclave. Despite the greater willingness to confront domestic militant groups, critics say not enough has been done to tackle the religious extremism that permeates society.
Scant progress has been made on regulating the country’s religious seminaries, one of the items on a much trumpeted “national action plan” drawn up in the wake of the APS killings.
Jibran Nasir, a lawyer and activist, led unprecedented protests outside Islamabad’s notorious Red Mosque following the school massacre to demand authorities arrest Abdul Aziz, the mullah who attempted to introduce Taliban-style moral policing in the capital in 2007.
“A year ago we were standing outside the Red Mosque and we forced the police to register a first investigation report against him,” he said referring to the preliminary stage of a police investigation. “But Aziz is still there. The government has lost all the momentum that civil society handed them.”
Supposedly banned sectarian groups are still finding ways to field candidates in local elections, he complained, while recent weeks saw the burning down by a mob of a factory owned by Ahmedi Muslims, a religious minority that is widely despised.
Khan, the 14-year-old survivor who hopes to join the army after finishing school, said Pakistan should have confronted its terrorist menace far sooner. “If the national action plan had been launched before then the attack would not have been possible,” he said.