The Wave of Suicide Bombing in Pakistan (2007 to 2011)
- Introduction and Background
The wave of suicide bombings that started in Pakistan in the wake of July 2007 military operation against militants sheltered in Islamabad’s Lal Masjid was clearly aimed at destabilizing the country. This wave picked up pace in terms of numbers of attacks in the period between 2007-2011. Several media and official sources had then pointed out that multiple groups were engaged in suicide blasts. Even the Pakistani Taliban was not a monolithic entity and it comprised of several different groups, which were then being targeted in military operations mainly in erstwhile FATA.
Some say that this wave was intended to weaken the resolve of Pakistani state and military leaders so that they retreat from the advance stage of military operations against tribal militants in Pakistani tribal areas. Some western analysts have also described suicide bombings as a strategic tool of the militants group employed to extract concessions from democratic governments. However in Pakistan’s case there is no empirical evidence to vindicate that.
Indeed, there does not exist any empirical study to respond to such questions of strategic motives of dozens of suicide bombings that took place in Pakistan during the period from 2007 to 2011 and to what extent these achieved their objectives. There is a dearth of datasets also, primarily because the government and its institutions only rarely made public the findings of hundreds of investigations that were conducted into these terror attacks. Some of the analysis of the phenomenon of suicide bombings is based on the sketchy information derived from the pre-attack video messages of the suicide bombers available in Pakistani tribal areas.
The lack of data and empirical evidence notwithstanding, some Pakistani experts have observed that militants groups use suicide bombings to achieve strategic objectives.
According to one account, “law enforcement investigations indicate that suicide bombings is the work of multiple militant and terrorist outfits like the local Taliban, Al Qaeda, and groups affiliated with Al Qaeda such as Jamiat al- Furqan and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. The evidence they have collected shows that Al Qaeda and its affiliated groups in Pakistan have used suicide terrorism to obtain specific strategic goals against the government.”
This paper is an attempt to analyze the wave of suicide bombing (2007 to 2011) in terms of intended targets of the terrorists, impact of these attacks on public perceptions and opinion, as well as an assessment of current level of threat. The analysis is mainly based on newspaper reports and analysis of suicide bombings in urban and tribal areas, mainly from English dailies Daily Times, Dawn, The News and The Nation.
The analysis dispels the impression that the Taliban groups and other militants used terror as a weapon only against the state machinery—thus partially repudiating the theory that Taliban were using suicide bombings only as a strategic tool to weaken the resolve of state machinery and military leadership to continue the military operations in erstwhile tribal areas. This theory doesn’t fully explain why pensioners outside a commercial bank in Rawalpindi were targeted or why Shia religious procession became the target of bombings—when apparently none of these people were partners of the state machinery, which was carrying out military operation against militants in the tribal areas.
Suicide bombings as a strategic tool of militants can fully explain the targeting of military and police, political and religious leaders, diplomatic missions of western countries and leaders of rival groups—as all these categories of suicide bombings fall into the definition of entities, which extended political support to the military operations against Pakistani Taliban.
The explanatory power of this theory diminishes in case of explaining the suicide bombings against Shia worshippers or worshippers in a Sunni mosque. Some of people would argue that the objective of these attacks was to sow terror into the heart of the society, which was at war with the militancy.
The military is still continuing operations against various militants groups in the tribal areas as well as urban centers. However the suicide bombings are not taking place frequently.
- Assessment of Current Threat from Suicide Bombing
A significantly decreased incidence of suicide bombings in major urban centers of the country is generally perceived as an indicator that Pakistan’s security situation has now completely returned to normalcy.
The current situation is in fact a complete contrast with the security situation that prevailed in the country during last three years of past decade, i.e. 2007 to 2010, when suicide bombings were almost a daily occurrence. The wave of suicide bombings that hit Pakistan in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks touched alarming heights in 2007, averaging more than one suicide attack a week. It was a widely held perception at that time that the state machinery had lost control of the situation. While PPP leader Benazir Bhutto’s December 27 assassination was the most high-profile suicide attack of the 2007, there were 56 incidents of suicide bombings in Pakistan during 2007, killing 422 members of the army and the police besides 220 civilians.
Two suicide bombings in April and May this year, in two urban centers of the country, Quetta and Lahore respectively, started to give sleepless nights to security managers of Pakistan early this year. These raised the apprehension that this might be the start of another wave of suicide bombings that might grip Pakistani society. But luckily suicide attacks have remained only sporadic in 2019 with 4 such attacks reported throughout the year. Indeed, suicide bombings have gradually disappeared as a potent threat to internal security of the country since 2014.
Major urban centers of the country and tribal areas bordering Afghanistan witnessed the dreadful wave of suicide bombings between July 2007 and initial months of 2011. In this period, the terrorists hit military installations, personnel and convoys, police stations and police personnel, political leaders, diplomatic community, sectarian targets and tribal elders. Some of the suicide bombings were targeted against the rival militant leaders and groups. Most common form of suicide bombings was the targeting of military and police check posts in the tribal areas and settled areas.
But this period has apparently vanished from our memory as if it had never happened. We don’t talk about it, we don’t produce any research or academic paper about it; nor do we try to foresee if such a wave can repeat it.
Pakistani security agencies, however, are not as unmindful to their surroundings and they did show some apprehension at the time of two suicide bombings in April and May this year. Security officials also claim that they have broken the back of militancy in Pakistan’s erstwhile tribal areas and that the militants are on the run and incapable to launch major attacks. That also means that as militants no more control any territory in any part of Pakistan, they cannot run any schools for the training of suicide bombers as they used to do when they were controlling South and North Waziristan.
And because now military is controlling every inch of the erstwhile FATA, there is little possibility that the militants would be allowed to recruit the under aged suicide bombers from poor and under nourished families in tribal areas. This seems plausible but hardly enough reason for complacency.
- Reporting on Suicide Bombing: Impact on Public Perceptions and Opinion
Initially the phenomenon of suicide bombings came as a shock to Pakistani society and generated a sense of disbelief and state of denial among the intelligentsia, media and state machinery. Public discourse that came out as a response was that of incomprehension. The initial columns in the Pakistani newspapers, written after initial episodes of suicide bombings, discussed the phenomenon from the perspective of Middle Eastern societies. It seemed Pakistani intelligentsia was not ready to accept that this scourge had hit Pakistani society.
There appeared many signs that the society was not at all prepared to deal with the threat, which were also visible on the pages of newspapers and in the way these news outlets reported the incidents of suicide bombings especially that took place in the urban centers of the country especially Lahore and Peshawar.
Lahore and Peshawar became the main targets of the terrorists and suicide bombers presumably as the terror incidents in these big urban centers created quite a spectacle and became the focus of local and international media outlets. Ironically, throughout this period, Pakistani newspapers continued to treat suicide bombings in these cities as ordinary crime stories. Most of the time the crime reporters of the newspapers were assigned to cover the suicide bombings, with the obvious result that the stories next day were completely devoid of the political context in which these suicide bombings were taking place. Interestingly, most of the time, this was not the case with the reporting of incidents of suicide bombings in tribal areas and other troubled areas like Swat, where, the media persons reporting these incidents were usually well versed in the political and militant landscape of the region.
A second more plausible reason for the inclusion of political context in the reporting of suicide bombing in the tribal areas, perhaps, was the awareness among the tribal journalists about the direct tensions and their latest updates between the military and the tribal militants that provided the backdrop of these bombings.
For example, a news story about suicide bombing in Mingora, Swat on January 8, 2008 in daily Dawn contained the background of the tensions between military and Mullah Fazlullah-led militants in Swat valley, which, according to the report was most plausible backdrop of suicide bombing. “On Sunday, Maulana Fazlullah, through his FM radio, asked his followers to launch attacks against security forces…[T]he security forces have been consolidating their positions in upper Matta tehsil and bracing for a final assault on the hideouts of militants in Ghut Peuchar, Shore, Chuprial and other areas” reads a paragraph of the report in Daily Dawn of January 8, 2008.
Surprisingly, Pakistani newspapers did not learn about how to report the incidents of suicide bombings even at the latter stages, which also contributed in confusing public opinions.
People just seemed to have endured a dreadful experience and tended to forget about it in the long run. The society itself did not create a database of knowledge at the social level to meet this threat at any future point of time. As cited earlier, media and newspapers and their reporting systems were the main factor behind this social amnesia, because they adhered to the old model of reporting a crime event without taking into account shockingly terrorizing pain these events of suicide blasts inflicted on the society. These shocking incidents demanded a new model of reporting, which should have contained not only the political and security context of the bombings, but also the entire new experience of terror which society underwent.
Apart form dealing the suicide bombing as simple crime stories, media also largely relied on official accounts of events, which in a way worked as a constraint, too, in investigative and objective reporting and analysis. Officialdom greatly influences the news reports, especially where the reporter is completely dependent on the concerned officials for access to information and access to the places of events.
It has been an irony that when the terror groups were able to improvise to inflict the most dreadful pain on Pakistani society, the state and society failed to innovate and improvise their responses.
- Categorization of Targets Hit in Suicide Blasts (2007-2011)
The militants were clearly aiming at specific targets in their suicide bombings campaigns including mainly military, intelligence agencies, police and other security agencies. Political and religious leaders were frequently targeted during times of election campaigns and enhanced political activities. Diplomats and diplomatic missions of western countries remained favorite targets of suicide attacks, too. Leaders of rival groups and leaders of peace committee were also targeted. General public and Shia community also became victim of Taliban’s savagery.
If carefully studied, the targeting pattern of suicide attacks clearly indicated the political and strategic objectives of Pakistani Taliban—the main perpetuators of suicide attacks. The targeting patterns clearly reflected the desire of Pakistani Taliban a) to inflict maximum damage on state machinery in order to weaken its resolve and to diminish its capacity to continue the struggle against militancy in Pakistan; and b) to instill terror and create anarchy in the society.
4.1 Security and Law Enforcement Agencies
The fact that September 28, 2019 terror attack in Chaman was not a suicide attack but appeared to be blast of a timed device speaks volumes about the changing nature of terrorist threat in the country. The fact that only 4 suicide blasts happened in Pakistan in 2019 means that the planners of terrorism in the country are fast losing ground.
It was just like any other sunny afternoon of receding winters in Lahore when the double suicide attacks on Naval War College in the busy part of the city took place. The gruesome incident occurred at around 1:10 pm, March 4, 2008 when a suicide bomber, riding a motorcycle, rammed into the college gate. He blew himself up at the gate while making way for his accomplice to the parking lot, which was packed with official vehicles. The second suicide bomber, who was standing at some distance from the gate, rushed to the parking lot and triggered his explosive device. It could have been more devastating than the actual damage it caused in the parking lot of the college, killing eight people on the spot.
There are incidents of targeted suicide bombings, which, could not have been carried out without real-time intelligence available to the handlers and planners of the terror attacks. This involved suicide bombings, where the vehicles, installations or senior officials or personnel of the military were specifically targeted in the suicide attacks. One prime example of this type of suicide attacks was the February 4, 2008 suicide attack on a passenger coach of Army Medical Corps in RA Bazzar Rawalpindi. The attacker rammed his motorcycle into an Army Medical Corps (AMC) coaster in RA Bazaar, killing at least 11 persons, including six uniformed and civil personnel of AMC, and critically injuring over 45 others. Another was the targeting of LT General of Pakistan Army in the same month by a suicide bomber in Rawalpindi.
First three months of 2008 were particularly deadly for the military and police force in the big urban centers of the country like Rawalpindi, Islamabad and Lahore. The year started with a suicide attack on January 10, 2008, on police contingent deployed in GPO Chowk Lahore to watch over the Lawyers protest demonstration in Front of the Lahore High Court. The police personnel were the intended targets of the attack as more than 20 policemen lost their lives when the suicide bomber blew himself up.
Army being the institution on the forefront of counter-terrorism and counter-militancy operations of the state was also the prime target of the terrorists during this period. Army personnel have an everyday presence in the big garrison cities like Rawalpindi and this presence became the target of the suicide bombers. Army Medical Corps (AMC) passenger coach was targeted in Rawalpindi’s busy bazzar adjacent to the GHQ, A Lt General of Pakistan Army was martyred on Mall Road Rawalpindi while he was travelling in his staff car—this clearly meant that the terrorists wanted to instill the same kind of fear and terror in the hearts of those officers who as part of their every day lives roamed the streets and roads of a city, Rawalpindi, which was considered one of the safest in the country.
Not surprising the terrorists by attacking the military personnel, were targeting the most potent and perceptibly the most power elements of Pakistani state structure, which were most visibly and most vocally conducting the counter-terrorism and counter-militancy operations in the tribal areas against the militants.
Suicide attacks on security check posts were also a daily occurrence. In other words, it was quite clear to those manning the check posts that they may or may not return to their habitats in the evening after completing their duties. It could be an approaching vehicle or a pedestrian that could turn out to be a suicide attacker and take their lives. But still they continued to bravely man their check posts in the most dangerous parts of the country.
But the real impact of the suicide bombings were felt when Pakistani state machinery failed to effectively respond to this threat. The police acted as first responders in the suicide bombings incidents but they were not at all trained and prepared to deal with this threat. Government hospitals and their staffs gradually developed the capacity to deal with the emergencies in the wake of suicide attacks. Initially there were no ambulances and no trained staff to shift the injured of the blasts—which were mostly burned victims—to the hospitals.
4.2 Political and Religious Leaders
The political parties, which were most vocal against terrorist groups and terrorism, or were part of the local politics in the tribal areas surrounding the tensions between security forces and tribal militants, were the prime targets of suicide attacks between 2007 and 2011. These included firstly the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Awami National Party (ANP) – the parties which were most vocal against extremism at the national level – and Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam and ANP, which were part of the local politics in tribal areas where military was engaged in a military operation against tribal militants. Circumstances and common sense left little doubt that tribal militants were the force behind these suicide attacks and in most of the cases the so-called spokesmen of Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Party cadre and leaders of Awami National Party remained the prime target of the suicide bombers during this period. ANP has a grass-root level presence in erstwhile tribal areas and quite daringly its party cadres started to assert themselves in the local politics. For instance, in February 2008, ANP cadre was part of the campaign by local tribal Lashkar to oust the foreign militants from North Waziristan. This was happening while ANP as a political party was engaged in election campaign for parliamentary elections. The tribal Lashkar (locally raised tribal force) was raised by the Dawar tribes to evict foreign militants from their area, which according to them, provoked military operations by the Pakistani security forces causing multiple hardships to the local people.
It was in this situation that a joint election rally of ANP workers and the tribal Lashkar was attacked by a suicide bomber in Mirali on February 11, 2008, killing 10 party workers on the spot. This was an incident of suicide bombers targeting of workers of a political party, which was actively campaigning against the militancy in the tribal areas.
One such gathering was targeted by a suicide bomber on March 2, 2008 where some 42 people, mostly tribal elders, were killed at a grand peace Jirga in Darra Adamkhel town, about 40 kilometres south of Peshawar. Not surprisingly the agenda of the meeting was to oust the militants of their area and set up peace committee to ensure making the area trouble free.
The religious parties like Jamat-e-Ulema Islam (JUI-F) started to come under suicide attacks in the period immediately in the wake of 2008 parliamentary elections. These parties were perceived to be close to the militants groups, ideologically, and were seen as a political force in a position to influence the behavior of so-called Pakistani Taliban—primarily because most of the Taliban leadership was educated in the religious seminaries, under the control of JUI leaders. So the attacks on the leaders of JUI was seen as a major change in the strategy of militants, who saw no possibility of any kind of understanding with any party which was functioning under the constitutional framework of Pakistani state. Six people were killed and several others, mostly students, sustained injuries in a suicide attack on a Madrassa in Kili Karbala in the Pishin district. According to reports JUI-F provincial Amir Maulana Muhammad Khan Shirani, Balochistan Assembly Deputy Speaker Syed Matiullah Agha and provincial ministers belonging to the party were attending a ceremony at the Madrassa when a 15-year-old boy blew himself up in front of the stage. However, all the JUI-F leadership escaped unhurt. In March 2011, the JUI-F chief, Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman was specifically targeted in a suicide attack in Swabi where he arrived to address a public rally, he, however escaped unhurt. Fazl was targeted in a second suicide attack on his life, this time in Charsadda, within a short span of a month’s time.
By 2009 the tribal militants had extended their range to areas far away from the tribal areas. They were now targeting religious scholars from the rival sect in major urban centers like Lahore. In June 2009, the tribal militants struck in the heart of Lahore when they targeted Dr Sarfraz Hussain Naeemi in a suicide attack; Dr Naeemi was killed along with five others, when a 17-year-old youth blew himself up at his office in Jamia Naeemia, on the Allama Iqbal Road in Garhi Shahu area of Lahore, soon after the Friday prayers. Dr Naeemi was considered an opponent of Taliban’s ideology.
The parliamentary elections and political parties were the specific targets of suicide attacks in 2008. Attacks on many political activities, parties and leaders, most notably the October 18, 2007 assault on the motorcade of Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister and the then head of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), in Karachi, which resulted in 139 deaths, and her assassination on December 27, 2007 were the glaring examples of Taliban’s terrorist violence to disrupt the political process.
4.3 Shia Community
Shia community was targeted by the tribal militants throughout this period, despite the fact that this community was not directly part of the conflict going on in the tribal areas. Shia quasi-political organizations did start a campaign against extremism after the community came under wave of suicide attacks across the country—but this political campaign was apparently not the cause, which prompted the militants to start targeting the community. In fact, the Shia community came under suicide attacks by the militants right from the start of wave of suicide attacks across Pakistan. Imambargahs and Shia religious processions and funerals were targeted in cities like Dera Ismail Khan, Dera Ghazi Khan and Peshawar, killing scores of people. The state machinery, however, remained helpless in giving protection to the community.
Most of these suicide attacks took place in cities of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, however Punjab was not completely immune from these attacks. A suicide bomber blew himself up at the entrance of an Imambargah on April 5, 2009, in Sargodha killing 24 people, including three children. On December 24, 2009, a suicide bomber blew himself outside an Imambargah in Shakrial village within the Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT). On December 28, 2009 an Ashura procession was attacked by a suicide bomber in Karachi killing 42 people on the spot, which ultimately led to riots in the city. During this period the Shia community continued to feel vulnerable throughout the country as suicide bomber continued to strike the religious events and religious buildings across the country in cities like Quetta, Sargodha, Lahore, Hangu and other places.
4.4. General Public or Civilians
Suicide bombings on civilians showed the savagery of Pakistani Taliban was on full display. Most of this type of suicide bombings took place in 2009.
One such attack took place in Jumrud, Khyber, on March 27, 2009. About 48 people were killed and 170 injured when a mosque packed with worshippers collapsed after a bomb blast during Friday prayers. Khyber Agency administrator Tariq Hayat Khan blamed the defunct Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan for the carnage. Another such suicide attack where general public was the target took place on October 9, 2009 in Peshawar’s busy bazaar where 49 people, including a woman and seven children, were killed. Reportedly, a suicide attacker detonated his explosives-laden car at the crowded Soekarno Chowk in Khyber Bazaar. Separately, in Islamabad, two suicide blasts on October 20, 2009 rocked the new campus of the International Islamic University Islamabad (IIUI) in H-10 sector of Islamabad, killing at least six students and staffers, including two female students, and injuring more than 29 others.
Another such gruesome incident took place in Rawalpindi on November 2, 2009 when a suicide bomber hit a bank killing 36 people and wounding over 65 others. Four soldiers were also among the dead. The bomber blew himself up outside the National Bank of Pakistan (NBP) on the Khadim Hussain Road, where people had lined up to draw their salaries and pensions.
4.5 Rival Militant Groups and Peace Committees
In the middle months of 2009, different groups of Taliban started using suicide bombings as a tool to eliminate leaders of their rival groups or pro-government peace committees’ members. This proved to be equally deadly as most of these attacks took place in crowded places like mosques or other public gatherings. This resulted in large number of deaths. A suicide bomber blew himself up prior to prayers in Masjid Wali Muhammad in Akhurwal area of the volatile Darra Adamkhel semi-tribal region, killing over 70 people and wounding more than 100. Eyewitnesses said over 200 tribesmen were preparing for the Friday prayers when a bomber in his late teens blew himself up.
Some of these suicide attacks could specifically be described as assassination attempts on rival group’s leaders. Such was the case in a suicide bombing at the base of the militant group, Ansarul Islam, in the Tirah Valley in Khyber Agency on January 9, 2010, which left 10 people, including its members, dead and seven others injured. Dr Naeem, spokesman for the Ansarul Islam, told media that the rival militant group, Lashkar-e-Islam, led by Mangal Bagh, was involved in the suicide attack.
4.6 Western Interests/Diplomats
The US and other western countries were openly and vocally supporting Pakistani military in the war against terrorism and this meant that they were at the receiving end of terror campaign in this period. The targeting of Western embassies and western diplomatic staff was the manifestations of this reality that Taliban were out to weaken the resolve of western governments to continue to support Pakistani efforts in the war against terror.
The attack on the Danish Embassy and staff in Islamabad was a classical example of this type of attacks, which was targeted in a suspected suicide bombing on June 2, 2008 killing 6 people on the spot. Similarly, a UN office was targeted on October 5, 2009 in Islamabad, killing six people including two diplomats. It was reported in the newspapers that as a UN led mission was in Pakistan to investigate the killing of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, the suicide attack on UN office could be in reaction to the arrival of UN investigation team.
On April 5, 2010, three coordinated suicide attacks apparently targeting US Consulate took place in Peshawar city, killing eight people. Taliban claimed responsibility for what was described in the media as suicide attacks to avenge the drone attacks on tribal areas. It was reported that the suicide bombers intended to enter the Consulate building to inflict maximum damage, but did not succeed.
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 Robert A. Pape, “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” American Political Science Review Vol. 97, No. 3 August 2003, The University of Chicago.
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 Fakir S. Ayazuddin, “Other view: The suicide bombers,” The News, May 21, 2005.
 “Mayhem on the Mall,” The News, March 5, 2008.
 “42 killed in Darra suicide attack,” The News, March 3, 2008.
 “Six killed in Pishin suicide attack,” The News, March 3, 2009.
 “Moderate voice silenced,” The News, June 13, 2009.