A terrorist strike in the heart of Lahore may have exposed the state’s vulnerabilities but it must now alert us to how exposed the police is in such situations
Ijaz Butt finished his work day and lit a cigarette in celebration, when across the road from him, the suicide bomber detonated at Charing Cross, Lahore. He remembers that it was the heat of the fire from the explosion that unconsciously propelled him to run back into his shop for cover. The next time he dared to peek outside all he saw was chaos, blood and body parts. "The media is reporting 13 dead, but the bodies I saw," he says and pauses and then adds, "It felt like at least 50 people were dead." Over a 100 people were injured in the blast, and watching that many men, women and children limping around does have a chilling effect.
Amidst that chaos 13 lives were lost, including senior police officers Syed Ahmed Mobin and Zahid Gondal and four other police officials. The bomber had targeted a protest by members of the pharmaceutical industry who were refusing to accept the Punjab government’s Drug Act, and Mobin as chief traffic officer was persuading the protesters to shift their demonstration to a location that would not choke the traffic on the Mall.
"The target of the attack was the police. They died in the line of duty," said Rana Sanaullah, the Punjab law minister. Witnesses saw the bomber blew himself merely yards from where Mobin was standing. The minister went on to praise Pakistan’s policemen for their courage.
In the last week alone, militant attacks across the country have taken the lives of many policemen, amongst others. The Lahore attack is one among the series of attacks claimed by Jamaatul Ahrar (JuA), a splinter group of Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), active in the country from Afghanistan, according to Pakistani officials.
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A week before the blast at Charing Cross, a security threat-alert to Lahore was issued by the National Counterterrorism Authority (Nacta). The alert, issued on Feb 7 to be precise, urged the local administration to take extensive security measures. Many believe that the prevalence of such attacks, despite warnings and alerts, shows weaknesses in the anti-terror strategy.
However, preventing terror attacks is not just a matter of putting up security barricades or evacuating areas. As Michael Kugelmen, the South Asia associate at the Wilson Center, says: "It’s about tackling the narratives of hate that drive terror. And that’s so much harder, and yet so much more important, than taking preemptive physical actions to avert the possibility of a blast."
There is no doubt the police are the main law enforcement agency on the front line to tackle militant actions and they appear to be the most vulnerable force in the war on terror. According to Nacta’s records, at least 3,700 police personnel have died in the line of duty in nearly 450 suicide attacks since 2002.
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The blast at Charing Cross was not the first time police and other law enforcement agencies have been targeted by terrorist groups in this capital city of Punjab province. In 2015, there was a blast outside Police Lines Lahore when a suicide bomber attempted to enter the police garrison. Although the attacker failed, he still took at least five lives and injured many more.
Moreover, terrorists have previously also targeted police stations, training academies, elite force training schools, armed forces, offices of Inter-Services Intelligence and Federal Investigation Agency killing dozens of law enforcement personnel mainly policemen.
"All anti-state terror groups in Pakistan see the police as an attractive target because they are an embodiment of the state that the terrorists wish to destroy," says Kugelmen. "The fact that the police are out in the open and that they are protecting those threatened by terror also makes them vulnerable and attractive targets."
And since JuA has threatened more attacks in coming days, the police force wants the government to revise the Standing Operating Procedures (SOPs) of the force’s functioning, especially the SOPs of senior cops. The force is demanding a focus on capacity building and a larger allocation of resources to better fight with militants and terrorists. They also call for more independence in functioning, along with decreased political pressures. If fulfilled, these demands will increase the security of the force and allow it to better implement the National Action Plan (NAP).
"What can be the morale of the policemen when they see senior level officials in a vulnerable situation in front of them?" questions a senior serving cop. "Such senior rank officials are forced to expose themselves for political reasons. The political hierarchy wants policemen to be seen on the roads, despite threats."
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The senior cop views the pharmacists’ protest as a political issue that the ministry could have handled earlier with the help of the local administration. He further adds that Mobin and Gondal were only sent to relocate the demonstration because the chief minister had to attend a meeting for which he needed to cross Charring Cross. "Every responsibility is shifted to police and every credit is taken by the political elite. Are we here only to politically serve them and die?" he asks.
Khawaja Khalid Farooq, the former director general Nacta and former Punjab police chief, is also concerned about the protests such as the one held by the pharmacists.
"There should not have been protest at all first amid this threat-alert. The government and administration should have negotiated with the protestors much earlier," says Farooq. Even if the protest had begun, they should have rather used force to rapidly disperse it, he says. Farooq too is surprised that Mobin and Gondal, both senior rank officials, went to the demonstration despite the threat alert, instead of handling the situation through better administration.
Farooq explains that policemen often play the role of first responders when terror groups target big cities to create a heightened element of fear. There is no doubt that the police play a big role in protecting the crime scene, evacuation, collecting evidence and investigation, and this increases their vulnerability.
So, the question remains, how can the police be better equipped to deal with terror attacks in big cities? "The Standing Operating Procedures (SOPs) for the police must be revised. They also need more resources such as bullet proof jackets and armoured cars etc," says Tariq Pervez, another former senior cop and ex-DG Nacta. He urges the government to give this front-line force administrative independence rather than using the force for their own political motives.
He says "attacks targeting the police definitely demoralise the force but it is a temporary phase and in the long run with focus and commitment it creates better and stronger resolve".
JuA, in its latest online video message, has warned Pakistan of further attacks that may target state forces and installations. The JuA is considered an alliance of local and international Islamic militant groups with facilitators across Pakistan. The group came to the forefront after the emergence of the NAP two years ago.
The Interior Ministry believes JuA is a pseudonym used by terrorist outfits Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and TTP’s Mohmand Agency chapter, two banned outfits. The ministry also proscribed JuA in November 2016. Experts blame the government’s lack of political will for failing to producing a counter narrative, it is this failure that allows such groups to nurture.
In fact, we are increasingly seeing social welfare workers from Jamaat ud Dawa (Falah-i-Insaniyat Foundation) to respond to emergencies, including terror attacks. "How telling that you have members of a militant organisation enjoying enough freedom of movement to provide emergency response services -- and how telling that people depend on this organisation to provide the types of basic services that the government is unwilling or unable to provide," says Kugelman.
"Attacks in places like Lahore should not be seen in isolation. Such attacks are coordinated efforts of terrorist groups with greater unity under the banner of Daesh with JuA leading the way in Pakistan," says Pervez.
Previously such groups worked under the umbrella of al-Qaeda, and now they are working for Daesh, and possibly other terror organisations. This has strengthened JuA as it has gained the support of elements that refused dialogue with the Pakistani state following the implementation of the National Action Plan.
"It’s possible that JuA is receiving funds from sources that wish to destabilise Pakistan, and in the coming days we may receive news of different terror factions uniting and reuniting, hence increasing the threats in the country," says Farooq. He believes the state needs to do more to stop extremism: prevent terrorists access to facilitators and sympathisers and focus more on cybercrime to reduce their online presence.
At the time of filing this report, the news of more attacks in Sehwan and Awaran pour in.
The article was published under the title The return to terror in The News on Sunday on February 19, 2017.