The toll of the terrorist attack in Pakistan on Tuesday is still uncertain: Some sources say there were five victims; others say seven. What is certain is that the three bombers from Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA) — a faction of the Pakistani Taliban Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) that split off in 2014 — wanted a massacre but only partially succeeded.
The target, as in past attacks, was a courthouse in Charsadda, a district capital town about 30 kilometers from Peshawar, capital of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, near the border with Afghanistan.
According to preliminary reports, the three attackers approached the courthouse like ordinary citizens, but as soon as the agents apprehended the first militant, he launched a grenade. He was killed shortly after. The second militant suffered the same fate, shot dead at the entrance, while the third one managed to blow himself up. In total, the suicide bombers launched six grenades but were not able to score the massacre they must have intended had they been able to enter the courthouse, crowded with lawyers and civilians.
This was not the first terrorist attack in Charsadda. Another courthouse came under fire last March when another suicide bomber — also a militant of Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, which means “assembly of faith” — managed to blow himself up inside the courthouse. In January 2016, the Bacha Khan University at Charsadda as of a commando who caused panic among the 200 students of the university, dedicated to a noble Pashtun figure of pacifism (Bacha Khan, in fact, is also known as “the Frontier Gandhi”). In that attack, 22 people died. The attack was claimed by the Geedar Tariq Afridi, a faction of the TTP, but the TTP leadership denied later that it had given the green light to the massacre.
Charsadda is one of the many landmarks of a country with a complex and ancient history. The city not only has a school dedicated to a pacifist who used the Qur’an as an instrument of peace, but it is also the place that houses the ruins of the ancient site of Pushkalavati — the Lotus City — the capital of the Gandhara kingdom between the sixth century BC and the second century AD. According to the Ramayana, a sacred Hindu text, the name comes from the founder Pushkala, son of Bharat and grandson of Rama. This city was originally Zoroastrian, then animist and later Buddhist. Together with Afghanistan, it is one of the cradles of Greek-Buddhist civilization — that is, the ancient link between East and West.
So Charsadda meets all the requirements to be hated by the most radical Islamists. On top of that, it added the supposed apostasy of Bacha Khan, a man who perhaps was hated more only by British soldiers for his opposition to the Raj partition of India and Pakistan.
All the violence seems to point to the Islamic State, to which the JuA had initially pledged its allegiance in August 2014. But in March 2015, it withdrew back under the TTP umbrella. However, it is difficult to follow the changing geometry of the jihadist galaxy.
Meanwhile, the Islamic State has claimed last Thursday’s massacre at the Sufi temple of Lal Shahbaz Qalander in Sehwan, Sindh. Total casualties may reach 90 victims. This attack caused a vehement reaction among the Army senior top ranks, now under the leadership of general Qamar Javed Bajwa who, for a change, has accused Afghanistan of being the supply line for the Caliph’s operations. The reaction was to close the Afghan-Pakistani border, with orders to “shoot on sight.” The rift comes at a tense moment between the two countries, as Islamabad works to expel one million “undocumented” Afghans. Already 600,000 have been deported despite the fact that many of the individuals had refugee status.
As for the internal picture, there have been more than 100 deaths in just 10 days. On Feb. 13, a TTP suicide bomber killed 13 people in Lahore. The same day two bomb squad members were killed in Quetta. On Feb. 15, JuA claimed a suicide attack at the Mohmand tribal agency, killing five people, while in Peshawar, the TTP tried to kill a judge but killed his driver instead. On Thursday Feb. 16, it was the attack on the Sufi Temple at Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, where an IED (dirty bomb) killed three security officers in Balochistan. Then Tuesday’s attack in Charsadda.
It is worth noting that, beyond the numbers, the political violence (not always attributed to the Taliban and their associates and minor allies) has now expanded like wildfire throughout the country. The government, whose officials had long pampered these groups, has now promised to respond with an iron fist. Maybe their macabre honeymoon is over.