The January 30 suicide bombing on a mosque in Peshawar is the latest in an escalating number of militant attacks in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region in northwest Pakistan after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in mid-2021.
By Javed Khan in Peshawar
4 February 2023: Just as Sahibzada Noor ul Amin gave the call to prayer on Monday afternoon, a deafening blast shattered the calm that typically follows the first ‘Allahu Akbar’ signaling the start of a sacred ritual.
Prayer leader Amin, around 50 years old, had led the congregation at the mosque inside the Peshawar police headquarters five times a day for years.
His life, and that of dozens more, was cut short when a suicide bomber in the front row detonated explosives around his vest.
Most of those killed by the explosion on 30 January 2023 were police personnel. Some died as the roof collapsed, trapping many under the rubble.
Although the number of casualties at 84 is less than the 101 initially reported – due to ‘double registration by the families in the hospitals’ – this was still the deadliest attack ever on the police in Pakistan.
“There is no other incident in any province of the country in which such a large number of policemen were martyred,” Fida Hassan, a deputy inspector general of police in Islamabad told this reporter.
Also killed were a police constable’s grandmother and a visitor in the small two-room quarters allocated to junior officers in the police compound. Many family members including children in these residences were injured.
The gory incident rocked the historic city of Peshawar on Pakistan’s north-west border with Afghanistan, capital of the British-named North-West Frontier Province, now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
With over 220 injured and the most severe cases rushed to the nearby Lady Reading Hospital, many turned up to donate blood. There were moving scenes at the hospital as well as the crime scene as men, women and children searched for their loved ones, trapped under the rubble for almost 24 hours.
“Many were our friends and colleagues. We had been interacting with each other for years but lost them in one single incident,” said Alam Khan, a policeman at the headquarters told this reporter.
Security forces have come under fire many times in the province. In the 36 years between 1970 and 1999, militant attacks and encounters have claimed the lives of some 389 police personnel.
The years 2000 to 2019 – the run-up to the 2001 ‘9/11’ attack in New York and subsequent ‘war on terror’ – saw a sharp increase in suicide attacks, bomb blasts, target killings and ambushes that killed over 1,400 police personnel.
The Peshawar mosque blast is only part of “what has been escalating” here for some time, comments journalist Kathy Gannon, who has extensively covered the region for over 30 years from her base in Islamabad.
The last major attack in Peshawar took place in March 2022 – less than a year ago – killing around 92 people. “It’s a complicated situation,” she adds, pointing to apparent divisions within the Pakistani Taliban and their safe havens in neighbouring Afghanistan.
A Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) commander claimed responsibility for the blast. The TTP central command later disowned it.
“It seems that they consulted among the group and realised that they will be criticised for attacking a mosque,” said Peshawar police chief Moazzam Jah Ansari.
Whoever planned the attack knew the impact it would have, taking place as it did in the headquarters of the police force in a provincial capital. The headquarter is named after Malik Muhammad Saad, the respected Peshawar police chief who was killed along with over a dozen others in the first major attack on the police in Pakistan, January 2007.
The Peshawar police headquarters lies in the heart of the city, in proximity to high-security buildings like the official residences of governor and chief minister KP, the provincial assembly, the civil secretariat and the KP provincial police headquarters.
The Police Lines itself houses four major departments – the Peshawar police offices, the Counter Terrorism office, the Frontier Reserve Police, and the communications network. The compound also houses a parade ground and barracks.
Anyone entering the compound must pass through two layers of security – well-guarded check posts at the entrance off Khyber Road, and another inside. There is a third barricade before the offices of senior officials, to the left of the road leading from the mosque. The mosque itself is located at around 150 meters (just under 500 feet) from the main gate.
“If terrorists can strike the police headquarters in the safest place of the province, what does it mean for the security of other places?” asked Kashif Ahmad, a student at the University of Peshawar.
There is mourning as well as outrage across the country following the blast. Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif and chief of army staff General Asim Munir went to Peshawar to review security measures and to inquire after the health of the wounded at hospital. The national flag flew at half mast on Tuesday in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as part of the official mourning.
Sharing a long border with Afghanistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has borne the brunt of the ongoing conflict that roils its western neighbour. Between 2005 and 2014, the bulk of militant attacks in Pakistan were carried out in this province, with the deadliest years being between 2009-11.
Police more vulnerable
Such attacks have also targeted army, paramilitary forces and civilians but for militants attacking the state, police personnel are easier to target than other security forces.
Police are more visible and deployed everywhere, including remote vulnerable areas, compared to military or paramilitary forces posted in specific areas.
Police stations and posts at the outskirts of Peshawar as well as smaller towns and districts like Khyber, Lakki Marwat, Bannu, Dera Ismail, North and South Waziristan have been targeted for several months, attacked by automatic weapons, grenades, IEDs.
The attackers have over the past months started using night vision thermal scope guns to target police, says a senior official speaking on condition of anonymity.
Attacks on police in KP escalated after 2007. According to data compiled by the police force shared with this reporter, between 2007 to 2014 some 1,100 policemen have been killed in the province (107 in 2007; 172 in 2008; 209 in 2009; 107 in 2010; 154 in 2011; 106 in 2012; 134 in 2013; and 111 in 2014).
In 2009, military operations were launched in Malakand division and the erstwhile tribal areas of KP to dismantle the terrorist network and restore peace. Matters have improved since 2014. Analysts credit factors like the military operations combined with the National Action Plan and measures including search operations and intelligence-based actions for the improvement.
Data from police sources shared with this reporter indicate that attacks on police in KP claimed 61 lives in 2015; 74 in 2016; 36 in 2017; 30 in 2018; 38 in 2019; and 28 in 2020.
However, an increase in violence since mid-2021, particularly in KP after the Taliban takeover of Kabul, led to a rise in casualties. That year, as many as 59 police personnel were killed in KP and scores more of military personnel
More of the same
The numbers have risen since. Between January and August 2022, some 63 police personnel lost their lives in target killings and other attacks. According to police sources, 119 police personnel were killed in 2022.
The number of militant incidents are on the rise. From mid-August to end November, at least 118 militant incidents were reported in the province.
The policemen who died in suicide attacks, bomb blasts, target killings, encounters and ambushes across KP since 2007 included two additional inspector generals Safwat Ghayur and Ashraf Noor, deputy inspector general Malik Saad, six SSPs/SPs and a large number of DSPs/acting SPs, inspectors and sub inspectors.
A joint investigation team probing the Peshawar mosque blast is looking to find how the suicide bomber made it into the Lines and how he smuggled explosives.
“It was a suicide blast and all the rumours of whether it was an IED or a drone attack are not true,” KP police chief Ansari told reporters.
Police have protested in Peshawar and Mardan, calling on the authorities to properly probe the incident, find those responsible and eliminate the network involved in such attacks. They also asked for the latest resources to fight the attackers, especially in conflict areas.
Until such issues are resolved, Pakistan is likely to see a continuation in escalating assaults on its security forces, particularly the police who live among the communities they are posted in.
Javed Khan is a senior reporter in Peshawar with over 25 years experience covering conflict, war, terrorism in the region.
Lead image courtesy: Geo TV / AFP
This is a Sapan News syndicated feature published in:
- The Friday Times: Peshawar Mosque Blast Worst In A Series Of Targeted Attacks On Pakistan Police, 2 Feb. 2023