Tuesday night, a commercial plane in Peshawar, Pakistan was fired upon while landing at Bacha Khan International Airport. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, and one woman has been confirmed dead.
This comes after ten militant members of the Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP) group killed 36 airport personnel earlier this month at the Jinnah International Airport in Karachi.
The attack in Karachi confirmed the organizational capacity of the Islamic group that has sought to impose a “harsh version” of Islamic law on Pakistan since 2007.
Leaders from TTP have stated the offensive was a response to recent air operations against the group in the tribal areas of North Waziristan in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and to a U.S. drone strike that killed former Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud.
It is important to note that while drones were listed as a contributing factor to the violent attack in Karachi, TTP’s mission to combat Pakistan’s government and implement sharia has roots independent from an anti-“war on terror” narrative.
While Pakistan’s prime minister Nawaz Sharif initiated recent peace talks between TTP and the government, last week's airport event signals the failure of nonviolent compromise between the state of Pakistan and the extremist strains of TTP.
“Strike of the Prophet’s Sword”
The ten militants who took their own lives in the Karachi airport attack are suspected to have been foreign nationals from Uzbekistan. However, as of Sunday, the Pakistani military has responded to the Karachi attacks by launching a military operation to combat terrorism on its own turf.
The recent airstrikes in North Waziristan, which killed 167 militants last week, have been supported by even the most unlikely political players. Imran Khan, leader of the Movement for Justice party and steadfast opponent of military intervention, endorsed the operation early this week.
The recent push for a strong state response comes in the midst of heightened fear surrounding the expansion of ISIS extremist ideology and aggression in Iraq and Syria. The fervor to defeat violent, Islamist militancy is perhaps its highest since the initiation of the post-9/11 “war on terror.”
In what is presumably a measure to communicate the gravity of opposition to terrorism, the offensive headed by the Pakistani government has been labeled Zarb-e-Azb, or “Strike of the Prophet’s Sword.”
While political will and military activity are both moving aggressively to thwart an encroaching threat, the decision to conduct intensified counter-terrorism missions in the FATA region of Pakistan has also produced disconcerting, concurrent results.
Over the past several years, drone attacks and fighting have driven some militants to move from their traditional locations in Northwest Pakistan (and Afghanistan) to Karachi. Home to 22 million people and accounting for three-fifths of the country’s GDP, the city is an epicenter for economic activity.
Militants and their sympathizers have made transactions worth over 1.25 billion rupees in Karachi banks in recent months—a frightening reality. The Taliban’s control of 25 percent of the city reveals the ability of the extremist organization to “run a state within a state.“
Movement of TTP and other extremist militants from rural areas to highly populated urban centers not only complicates military action, but makes civil targets more accessible to retaliatory violence.
Seeds of Violence
As the world confronts the political and humanitarian concerns associated with the spread of violent extremism, several factors must be kept in mind.
First is the role of the Pakistani state in fostering an environment sympathetic to the growth of terrorism as a viable solution to political disputes. Earlier this month, the South Asia Intelligence Review reported:
The Pakistani state has created vast spaces for the operation of armed terrorist formations on and from its soil. Unless the base strategy of using terrorism as an instrument of state policy—both for domestic political management and external strategic extension—is abandoned, groups that have turned against their own creators in the establishment will continue to successfully exploit these spaces.
In addition to the recognition that state corruption in Pakistan has created a fertile climate for the growth of terrorist organizations is the acknowledgement of the unintended, adverse effects of the U.S.-administered drone program, which recently killed 5 militants in Northern Waziristan.
Alongside the stoking of anti-American sentiment in the region, the drone program may actively contribute to the movement of Taliban and Al Qaeda cells from their current rural homes to impacted city-centers, such as Karachi, where they are both more difficult to penetrate and combat.
As the United States addresses the growing power of fundamentally driven, violently motivated, and financially backed non-state actors, it must consider its position in the proliferation of anti-establishment ideology and the history of the Pakistani government’s relationship to terrorist organizations.
Walking a Fine Line
“Without a dedicated Counter Terrorism Force (CTF) we will not be rid of terrorism in even 100 years,” argues Ikram Sehgal, defense analyst and security adviser.
He suggests the Pakistani government actively employ civil law enforcement agencies (LEAs) to root out militants from their urban hideouts, instead of anxiously awaiting a “blowback.”
Sehgal places the blame for failure to prevent the Karachi airport attack on the Karachi police force and its intelligence arms. He thus advises the appointment of a lieutenant governor to monitor Karachi, which he indicates should be put in a state of emergency in order to prevent the spread of terrorism and a descent into anarchy similar to developments in Iraq, Syria, and Libya.
As the United States moves forward with counterterrorism efforts in Iraq, officials will have to consider how best to support Pakistan’s internal Counter Terrorism Force, while making sure the country upholds international human rights standards.
The United States and its allies will need to monitor the levels of internally displaced peoples (IDPs) that arise from the state operations in North Waziristan as well as ensure Pakistan’s security forces do not act with impunity regarding torture, extrajudicial killings, and arbitrary detention of FATA residents.
In order to counter the proliferation of radical militancy in the Middle East and South Asia, the task for the international community will be to aggressively target active extremist cells, while respecting legal protocol that—if ignored—will recruit the very “terrorists” they are trying to eliminate.