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#4863, 16 April 2015
What�s on Pakistan-based Militants� Minds?
Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy
Research Officer (IReS), IPCS
E-mail: rajeshwari@ipcs.org

On 15 March, terrorists mounted suicide attacks on two churches in Lahore, Pakistan. While this was not the first attack on an institution or individuals related to minority communities in the country, this particular attack was indicative of an emerging trend.

That the minorities in Pakistan aren’t the most protected communities is not news. Over the past four decades, the persecution and/or lack of protection for minorities has resulted in ubiquitous violence, instability and almost-permanent uncertainty vis-à-vis social cohesion, national security, and economy. The religious and sectarian schism only widened with the emergence of armed radical religious insurgent groups. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, approximately 143 people belonging to minority communities have been killed in attacks targeted at minorities, in 2015 alone.

Launched in June 2014 to flush out militants, the Pakistan Army’s Operation Zarb-e-Azb, has seen measureable results, and that coupled with internal problems in these groups – such as factionalism and chaos within the ranks vis-à-vis leadership, agendas, aims and goals, and allocation of ‘duties and powers’ – has had a considerable negative impact on these groups’ operating capabilities.  
In this backdrop, why are Pakistan’s religious minorities being especially targeted at this particular point in time? Do these attack signify increased religious and sectarian schism? Or is the frequency of this targeting simply a consequence of strategies formulated keeping circumstances and capabilities in mind?

2014: Rumblings in Terrorist Networks 
Since June 2014, terrorist activities suggest that that militants based in Pakistan might be thinking laterally, and attempting to carry out their terror-intended activities via new approaches. This isn’t to say that their endgames have changed, but it is likely that the terrorists, in the wake of severe damages to their structures, have been adapting to the altered order of things.

The terror outfits appear to be streamlining their attacks, and have been mounting more attacks on the country’s minority communities, and all entities that are deemed ‘easy targets’.

The March 2015 attacks on the two churches in Lahore, like many others that have taken place over the past year, are indicators of the turmoil underway in the workings of the numerous terrorist groups active in Pakistani territory. This turmoil has been caused in good measure due to Operation Zarb-e-Azb; the internal factionalism in these groups, that which is being exploited by the Pakistan army; and the entry of the Islamic State as a strong competitor in the terrorist market, among others.

Militants, especially those belonging to the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), escaping to Afghanistan via the rugged mountain routes are targeted by the Afghan security forces; and they are being sandwiched. As a result, the TTP and its network has been increasingly weakened, and has therefore begun depending on the smaller affiliate groups that have bases and/or presence in various parts of Pakistan.

Post December 2014: What’s on the Terrorists’ Minds?
The foremost difference between the recent attacks and the ones recorded pre-June 2014 is the comparative absence of the state’s complicity and/or apathy vis-à-vis the persecution of minorities.

Moreover, policymaking vis-à-vis the security sector has intensified post the December 2014 attack on the army school in Peshawar. The cogs of the counter-terrorism machinery are moving at a pace comparatively higher than they used to. Security of important government institutions and other majority community related entities have been beefed. Securitisation of the state is visibly increasing; and the army is ensuring that all political parties more or less acquiesce to the new security policies.

The recent attacks can be interpreted as the manifestation of the terrorists’ desperation and frantic efforts to remain relevant and active in Pakistan.  

Given the wide variety of challenges Pakistan-based terrorist groups face at the moment, they appear to be preferring effectiveness and relevance over the numbers of attacks. Additionally, compared to non-minorities, attacks on minorities are likelier to have a higher ‘success rate’. Religious minorities have consistently been targeted by insurgent groups in Pakistan, but the likelihood of this phenomenon intensifying is quite high. This is because although the state has implementing various counter-terrorism mechanisms and operations, and upgrading security statuses of government and majority civilian infrastructures, the efforts it has undertaken to actively protect minorities and related entities is negligible.

In this state-of-affairs, individuals and institutions affiliated to religious minorities are the country’s most vulnerable elements. Also, although the Pakistan’s Army Chief General Raheel Sharif has stated that the country’s security forces will target terrorists of “all hues and colours,” the operations appear to place a heavier emphasis on fighting the TTP, as compared to other groups.

It is important to note that the terrorists’ targeting of minorities is not a new tactic or a shift in ideological priorities. It is only an intensified continuation of their previous activities against minorities, in the absence of capacity to carry out attacks against all entities. From the terrorists’ points of view, targeting minorities fits right into their two key priorities:

remaining operationally relevant, and
b. working towards their goals

In this broad scheme of things, local terror networks gaining traction with help from extra-regional terrorist networks is not difficult to imagine.

The Big Picture
If the civilian violence that followed the March 15 attacks is an indicator, the State might have to prepare to wage its war against terrorism and simultaneously deal with occasional potentially violent civilian unrests, while also ensuring the safety of those very aggrieved civilians in a democratic manner. In an event of such circumstances, the Pakistani government and the army could become increasingly strained for resources, manpower and time as they simultaneously deal with two extremely pressing issues, however much the disparity in context. The need of the hour is to introduce inclusive policies that promote cohesiveness among the citizenry, for that is the only area where the state can expect some relief.

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