Al-Qaeda makes a point with Lahore attack
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
ISLAMABAD – After announcing the formal end to combat operations
in Iraq, United States President Barack Obama said the next target was “disrupting, dismantling and defeating al-Qaeda”, which he says is anchored in the Pakistani tribal areas.
The top brains of al-Qaeda, sitting in the high mountains of Razmak in North Waziristan tribal area on the border with Afghanistan, will be cognizant of the American designs, and factoring in the chaos caused by the devastating floods of the past month that have displaced about 20 million people. Al-Qaeda’s gaze is also firmly on urban centers.
Militant sources tell Asia Times Online that al-Qaeda is in contact with various “franchises”, including the Pakistan-based anti-Iranian group Jundallah, the anti-Shi’ite Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the militant Harkat-ul Mujahideen al-Alami. The aim is to draw up plans for target-orientated attacks rather than random terrorism.
A key focus of the plan is to spread the insurgency to the urban centers of Peshawar, the capital of northwest Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa province, Dera Ismail Khan, a city in the province, as well as to the areas of Swat and Buner, also in the province. It was here for the first time that in 2007 Western forces in Afghanistan decided to treat Pakistan and Afghanistan as a single war theater.
Al-Qaeda believes that targeted attacks will have a multiplying effect and create a wider space for chaos, and that once American and Pakistani resources are drawn into this region, the militants will step up action in other urban areas.
The southern port city of Karachi has served as a trial run, with the assassination in August of a Shi’ite lawmaker from the multi-party Muthahida Quami Movement. This had some success in unleashing ethnic and sectarian riots. (See Al-Qaeda meddles while Karachi burns, Asia Times Online, August 5, 2010.
On Wednesday evening, as Shi’ite mourners trooped through Karachi’s famous Empress Market, which is full of Pashtun shopkeepers, an assailant fired several bullets into the crowd, injuring six people. Thanks to good coordination between the police and Shi’ite scholars, the crowd remained in control.
At the same time, Shi’ite mourners in Multan in Punjab province were pelted with stones, but again the crown was kept under control.
On the same night it was a very different story in Lahore, the capital of Punjab. At least 35 people were killed and more than 250 injured after three bombs exploded during a Shi’ite procession.
The first explosion took place as about 35,000 Shi’ites proceeded to mark the death in the 7th century of the first Shi’ite imam, Ali bin Abi Talib. A few minutes later, as people fled in panic, a suicide bomber blew himself up near an area where food was being prepared for the marchers. This was followed by a second suicide bomber detonating his explosive belt near the end of the procession.
The incident was clearly well-planned and obtained what was no doubt its goal – within half an hour mobs were in control of the streets, even briefly occupying two police stations. Shi’ite mourners vented their anger at the Punjab government, ruled by the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz group, and its alleged alliance with the Taliban.
Paramilitary troops were eventually called in, but it was late into the night before some order was restored.
The understanding that Asia Times Online has gained from militant contacts is that the Lahore attack was not for the massacre of Shi’ites per se. Rather, it was to spread the insurgency to urban centers, and there will be many more such incidents.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online’s Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org