On February 15, police in the Pakistani province of Balochistan arrested six suspected members of the outlawed militant Sunni group, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), for attacks against Shi’a Muslims in March of last year and in July 2003 that claimed 100 victims. The arrests were a result of raids acting on a tip-off on homes in the town of Dera Murad Jamali, about 185 miles from the regional center Quetta. The arrests come two weeks after an incident in Karachi where a Muslim scholar (an SSP activist) was murdered, along with his bodyguard, provoking a spate of rioting and looting.
Pakistan, with its high dosage of radicalized Sunni religious politics, combined with a 20 percent Shi’a population, is particularly prone to internally focused Islamist terrorism. More than 4,000 people have died in sectarian clashes since the late 1980s. Beginning on February 10, the month of Muharram, where Shi’a Islam is at its most conspicuous due to large public displays, is a time of tension for the country. The timing of the Karachi attack has, therefore, fuelled fears of looming clashes and suspicions of deliberate attempts to stoke up sectarian violence.
Yet how far the government is committed to putting a brake on sectarian terrorism has been called into question by another killing in the far north of the country. On January 8 the Pakistan daily Dawn reported on an armed attempt made on Aga Ziauddin, a Shiite Muslim leader, in the town of Gilgit. This was followed by a string of deadly riots, which included random street killings, in the towns of Gilgit and Skardu in the Northern Areas region. The fatalities eventually totalled 25 (www.dawn.com).
For this attack no one claimed responsibility, but Abdul Hamid Khan, leader of the Balawaristan Nationalist Front, which campaigns for independence from Pakistan, pointed the finger at al-Qaeda. He went so far as to name the attackers as hailing from “al-Qaeda Cell, Regional HQ, Kohistan.” In a letter addressed to UN General Secretary Kofi Annan and posted on the organization’s website, Abdul Hamid Khan described how al-Qaeda is operative in the area “under the direction of Pakistan intelligence” and that “the design of this indiscriminate killing is … to create disunity in the region by killing the important persons of all the sects, so the joint struggle of the nationalists of all the sects for their future fate could be derailed” (http://balawaristan.net).
The implications of this incident were spelled out by a January 11 editorial in the Dawn, as “Symptoms of a Deeper Malaise.” The violent riots touched off by the attempt on the life of the religious leader, it explained, “points to the poison spread by religious fanatics. The activities of religious militants in the wake of Pakistan’s involvement in the Afghan war and the rein given to religious groups have vitiated the atmosphere.” The editorial goes on to point the finger at the damaging effects of a military dominated regime. Mainstream parties have thus been weakened, which for all their faults, were at least national in outlook and orientation. Now, the paper laments, “their eclipse has left the field open for particular interest groupings to operate freely” (www.dawn.com).