Six years after the deadliest terrorist attack in Pakistan’s history, the commission’s report has been made public
Nearly six years after the deadliest terrorist attack in Pakistan’s history, a judicial commission has shed some light on the incident that caused the martyrdom of 147 persons, including 132 schoolchildren, at the Army Public School in Peshawar.
It isn’t common in Pakistan for reports of judicial commissions formed to inquire into important incidents to be made public. Often such commissions are constituted to calm down the citizens. The government’s refusal to make public the Hamoodur Rahman Commission report on the 1971 debacle in East Pakistan that led to its separation and creation of Bangladesh is widely quoted as an example of hiding facts and keeping the people in the dark. Ironically, the report was leaked by unknown sources to the Indian media which broke the story.
However, in the case of the Army Public School (APS) carnage, the Supreme Court of Pakistan headed by Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed ordered the government to make the report of the judicial commission public and also give its copy to the parents of the victims along with the government’s response to it. The apex court under the then Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar had taken suo motu notice of the incident in response to the demand by the victims’ parents and asked the Peshawar High Court in October 2018 to set up the judicial commission.
The bereaved parents, who split into at least two groups owing to differences in their ranks, had been staging protests to demand a judicial probe as they believed that the real culprits involved in it had not yet been apprehended. Even now some of them are calling it an incident of “target-killing” rather than an act of terrorism. Though the government and the Pakistan Army have done their best to console and compensate the families of those martyred and wounded through cash payments, plots of land, special education facilities and overseas trips, most of the parents have maintained that their loss was huge and unforgettable. They wanted answers to their questions as to how the army-run school was left almost undefended on that fateful day, December 16, 2014, which was the anniversary of the fall of Dhaka.
Though the government managed to arrest four men based in Peshawar and Khyber, in December 2015 for their involvement in the attack as they had allegedly facilitated the six terrorists who stormed the school, their conviction by a military court and hanging did not satisfy the parents as they argued that the masterminds of the assault had yet to be nabbed and punished. They also wanted those guilty of neglect in protecting the school to be identified and taken to task.
Senior army officials at the time of the attack had pointed out that most of the available troops in Peshawar had been sent to North Waziristan to participate in the Zarb-e-Azb military operation, the biggest operation to-date against terrorists in Pakistan launched in June 2014, and the subsequent Khyber-1 action.
However, the one-man judicial commission of Peshawar High Court, consisting of Justice Mohammad Ibrahim Khan, noted that the security guards present in the school weren’t properly positioned to engage the attackers and buy time for the Quick Response Force and Rapid Response Force, both of whom were rushed to the site of the incident. Besides, it said, the security patrol present near the school was misled by the terrorists who set their vehicle on fire to distract its attention and enter the school premises from the rear to launch the attack. Though the commission in its report praised the armed forces for offering sacrifices and winning the battle against terrorists, it nevertheless noted that “the incident of APS plagued their success stories which deserved deification.” It admitted that terrorism in Pakistan had reached its peak in 2013-14, but it “doesn’t obligate us to hold that our sensitive installation(s) and soft target(s) could be forsaken as a prey to the terrorists’ attack.”
Senior army officials at the time of the attack had pointed out that most of the available troops in Peshawar had been sent to North Waziristan to participate in the Zarb-e-Azb military operation.
The commission, which compiled the 525-page report after recording the statements of 132 persons, including 31 army and police officials, during its nearly 20 months proceedings, had also mentioned the porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan and unrestrained movement of Afghan refugees as a reason for the entry of the terrorists who attacked the school. The report used strong words such as “infidels” for the facilitators of the attack. It also noted that some of those found guilty of negligence including army personnel had already been awarded punishment.
Concerning the widespread belief that the APS had not been properly protected despite a threat alert by the National Counter Terrorism Authority (Nacta), the commission argued that the alert was of a generic nature about terrorists seeking to target army families and academic institutions as retribution for the successful military operations, Zarb-e-Azb and Khyber-1.
Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmad made two important observations while hearing the case after submission of the judicial commission report in his court. He regretted that traditionally “lower-ranked officials” were held responsible for such incidents and those holding senior positions were spared. He made the remark when the attorney general representing the government said that every possible action was being taken against those involved in the carnage. The chief justice also observed that the militants were able to “achieve their objective”, adding that the security institutions “should have been aware of this conspiracy”.
The two masterminds of the APS attack, both based in Afghanistan and belonging to the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), were subsequently killed in US drone strikes. Khalifa Umar Mansoor aka Umar Naray, who had claimed responsibility for the attack and was seen in pictures with the six terrorists as they embarked on their journey to Pakistan, was killed on July 9, 2016, in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province. The TTP head Maulana Fazlullah, who must have been aware of the planning of the terrorist assault on APS and had defended it, was eliminated in another US drone strike on June 14, 2018, in Kunar province.
These two deaths may have brought closure to the parents and relatives of the victims and the judicial commission’s report has tried to answer some of their questions. The tragedy will, of course, continue to haunt not only the victims’ parents but also rest of the nation.
The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar. He can be reached at [email protected]