Killing of Shiite Cleric Threatens New Round of Sectarian Violence in Pakistan

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 29

The suspected suicide bomber has been identified as Abdul Karim.

On July 14, Allama Hassan Turabi was assassinated by a suicide bomber in front of his home in the Gulshan-e-Iqbal section of Karachi. Turabi was a prominent Shiite Muslim cleric who headed the banned Tehrik-e-Jafaria (TJP), served as the vice president of the opposition Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) in Pakistan’s Sindh province and was a leading figure in the Shiite Ulema Council. The assassination appears to be the latest in a series of attacks by radical Sunni Islamists against Pakistan’s minority Shiite community. Turabi’s teenage nephew was also killed in the attack and three security guards accompanying the cleric were seriously injured (Dawn, July 14).

The attack occurred when Turabi returned home, accompanied by his seven-man armed security detail, after presenting a speech criticizing Israeli air strikes against Lebanon and declaring solidarity with the plight of the Palestinians at a rally organized by the MMA dubbed “Solidarity Day.” No group or individual has claimed responsibility for the attack (Dawn, July 15). Some sources suggested that elements related to the radical Sunni Islamist Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) or Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), which was implicated in the abduction and murder of U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl, may be responsible. Both groups are banned and are reported to have links to al-Qaeda and the Taliban. They have also had a history of perpetrating attacks against Pakistani Shiites and Christian minorities and other sects that they consider heretical. Pakistani police announced the arrest of three alleged LeJ members in connection with the Turabi assassination on July 19, but no new information has surfaced confirming their role in the assassination (Daily Times, July 19; The News International, July 24).

Witnesses say that the suicide bomber was a young man in his late teens. Pakistani investigators hope to identify him by his severed head that was recovered at the scene. Apparently, the attacker approached security guards stationed in front of Turabi’s home requesting a meeting with the cleric. When the guards refused to grant him access, he began shouting in order to attract the cleric’s attention. Turabi, who by this time had entered his home, returned outside in the direction of the man asking him what he wanted. The attacker then quickly proceeded in Turabi’s direction saying, “I have come from Khairpur,” before detonating the explosives strapped to his body (The News International, July 24). It is not clear what he meant by this statement, although Khairpur is a district in Sindh province. Previously, Turabi narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in April when a remote-controlled bomb was detonated on the road near the car in which he was traveling (The News International, July 24).

Turabi was a staunch critic of the Musharraf regime and a vocal opponent of Islamabad’s staunch ties to the United States. He was also outspoken against Israeli policies toward the Palestinians. He was an advocate for ethnic and sectarian harmony among Pakistan’s disparate ethnic, sectarian and tribal groups and for unity in the face of what he believed was a repressive and corrupt regime in Islamabad that was beholden to U.S. interests. His membership in the Sunni-dominated MMA representing Shiite Muslims—a loosely knit coalition of Islamist parties united in their opposition to the Musharraf regime that commands a wide following in the largely Pashtun regions of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Balochistan, as well as a sizeable representation in parliament—was seen as an effort on the part of Sunni Islamist factions to reach out to Shiites to curtail the sectarian violence that has plagued Pakistan for years.

Prominent religious clerics and leaders comprising opposition parties strongly condemned the attack and were quick to blame Islamabad for failing to ensure law and order. Qazi Hussain Ahmad, head of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) party and member of the MMA, also condemned the attack against Turabi, accusing the perpetrators of seeking to divide Muslims in Pakistan and elsewhere while the United States and Israel wage war on Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran ( Altaf Hussein, founder of the opposition Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), also called the attack an attempt to sow sectarian hatred between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Pakistan (

Despite calls for calm by prominent clerical and political leaders, Turabi’s murder sparked days of violent demonstrations by Shiite faithful and others as thousands of supporters took to the streets following word of his death. Turabi’s funeral procession turned violent when mourners torched parked cars and businesses, including a Pizza Hut restaurant and gasoline stations. Protestors also chanted anti-U.S. and anti-Musharraf slogans during their rampage. MMA officials also called a general strike in Karachi in a show of solidarity with the murdered cleric and as a sign of opposition against the government (Pakistan Times, July 16; Dawn, July 15).

Turabi’s assassination resembles the Nishtar Park attacks in April that wiped out the leadership of the Sunni Tehrik (ST) along with prominent members of the Jamaat-e-Ahle Sunnat in that the attackers targeted high-profile clergy from Sindh province, likely in an effort to incite sectarian fighting and to destabilize the regime (Terrorism Focus, April 18). The attack occurred on the heels of escalating sectarian bloodshed during the last few months between Sunni and Shiite factions in Iraq. It also follows the recent statements by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri praising the efforts of the late al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and justifying his controversial tactics in targeting Shiites and attacks against those who choose to collaborate with coalition and Iraqi security forces. Turabi’s death may point to fresh sectarian violence and tension in the weeks and months to come in Pakistan and all of South Asia, especially if Sunni extremists interpret al-Qaeda’s recent statements as a call for waging war against Shiites. If this is the case, Shiites will retaliate with attacks of their own, threatening to further fragment Pakistan’s already delicate ethno-sectarian and tribal makeup.