‘Terrorism Has Returned’: Pakistan Grapples With Attack That Left 101 Dead

An explosion by a suicide bomber killed more than 100 lives in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar, devastated a mosque in a supposedly safe section of the city and sent plumes of smoke into the sky and panic in the streets.

But more than that: Monday’s attack sent a city scarred by terrorism back in time, to the era a decade ago when Peshawar became synonymous with the remnants of a militant campaign that profoundly changed a nation.

In the years after 2015, when most Pakistani Taliban fighters and other militants were driven from the region, many to neighboring Afghanistan, Peshawar residents dared to hope that the days of random terror attacks were behind them.

But on Tuesday, as emergency services pulled body after body from the rubble, doubts immediately intensified about the government’s ability to fight a new wave of militancy amid a seemingly intractable economic and political crisis.

The bombing was one of the deadliest suicide attacks in Pakistan in years, killing at least 101 people and wounding 217 others, hospital officials said. Many of the victims were police officers and government employees who had come to pray at the mosque, in a heavily guarded neighborhood near several major government and military buildings.

The attack has added to recent evidence that the Pakistani Taliban, a faction that has claimed responsibility, is rebuilding forces from safe havens in Afghanistan under that country’s new government.

“The scale of this attack, which targeted police officers at a mosque in a secure area of ​​Peshawar, truly provokes a sense of déjà vu, a vivid reminder of the insecurity and violence that plagued Pakistan a decade ago,” he said. Madiha Afzal. , Fellow of the Brookings Institution.

In Peshawar, the memory of those days is visceral, and the sense of loss from the attack runs deep. As dusk fell on Tuesday and the shaken city gathered to bury rows and rows of coffins, many wondered: Are the days of blood and horror back? And if they have, where will the country go from here?

“For a few years, there was calm and peace in Peshawar,” said Akbar Mohmand, 34, a rickshaw driver in the city. “But it seems that suicide bombings and terrorism have returned.”

For most of the last 40 years, Peshawar has suffered from the conflicts in the region. In the 1980s, it became a staging ground for fighters fighting the Soviet-backed Afghan government, and after the United States toppled Afghanistan’s Taliban regime in 2001, thousands of Taliban fighters and al-Qaeda members they took refuge in the so-called tribal areas along the border.

For years, Taliban leaders recruited Pakistanis who, like the Afghan Taliban, were ethnically Pashtun, while Pakistani military authorities tried to drive out the militants.

By 2007, an informal network of militants had asserted their own leadership and formed the Pakistani Taliban, known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP. The group quickly emerged as one of the deadliest militant organizations in Pakistan, carrying out attacks across the country.

During that time, Peshawar became the center of the conflict. In one of the group’s largest attacks, in December 2014, Taliban militants killed 147 students and teachers at an army-run public school, giving new impetus to the Pakistani military offensive that led to most of the fighters from the TTP to Afghanistan.

When the Afghan Taliban took over Kabul in August 2021, Pakistani officials were hopeful that after years of covertly supporting them, the new government would help rein in the TTP.

But so far, that gamble hasn’t paid off. The Afghan Taliban have refused to lean on the TTP, analysts say, insisting instead that Pakistan address their grievances. The Afghan Taliban arranged negotiations in Kabul last year, but the mediation proved unsuccessful and relations between the Afghan and Pakistani authorities have become strained.

And in the midst of those talks, the Pakistani Taliban were able to regroup, analysts say. In Swat, a picturesque northern valley that the TTP once effectively controlled, residents last August watched the militants return, bringing terror with them, they said.

Wealthy businessmen, elected representatives and doctors began receiving anonymous calls, made from Afghanistan and within Pakistan, demanding they pay large extortion sums or move to other cities. Increased extortion and threats of violence led thousands of protesters to flood the streets of Swat in October, demanding that the government keep the peace.

“People live in an atmosphere of panic and uncertainty in the valley due to the resurgence of violence by the Taliban,” said Majid Ali, a 26-year-old university student who attended several protests. “But the people will not allow anyone to destroy the peace in the name of the Taliban in the region.”

The attack in Peshawar comes at a time of immense economic and political turmoil that critics say has consumed Pakistan’s leaders and diverted attention from security threats, including the TTP and the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan, which has also intensified its attacks.

Amid accusations from the political elite on Tuesday, there were also rumors that the military might consider launching another such counter-offensive in 2014. But any such offensive today would be complicated by the Pakistani authorities’ tenuous relationship with the new government. in Afghanistan.

“The most successful counterterrorism response would probably be one that focuses on the epicenter of TTP power right now, and that’s Afghanistan, where the group’s leadership is,” said Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center. . “If Pakistan were to carry out counterterrorism activities of a cross-border nature, that could send tensions with the Taliban in Afghanistan through the stratosphere, and that’s the last thing Pakistan needs.”

Even as Pakistani police stepped up their presence on Tuesday, many are not planning to wait for the government to determine its response. There is already a lot of talk about migrating to comparatively safer cities such as Islamabad and Lahore.

“No city is safe in Pakistan, but if you compare it to Peshawar, you can find it comparatively calmer and more peaceful,” said Mr. Mukhtiar Masih, a Christian health worker.

Masih lost a friend in a 2013 suicide bombing that killed more than 120 people at a Peshawar church, and he is terrified of renewed violence. He spent Tuesday calling friends in Lahore, where there is a sizable Christian community, and began packing.

“I have lived in Peshawar during the peak of terrorism from 2009 to 2013,” he said. “I know how hard it is to live.”