ISLAMABAD // Officials believe a twin suicide bomb attack on a Sufi shrine in Lahore late on Thursday, which killed at least 42 pilgrims and injured around 170, may have been the work of a militant faction based in central Punjab province, suggesting a new type of threat facing the Pakistani government. The attacks on shrine of Syed Abul Hassan bin Usman bin Ali al Hajveri, a holy place for Sufis, follows an attack in May on two mosques in Lahore belonging to the minority Ahmedi sect, considered by extremists to be heretics of Islam.
Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), one of the biggest militant groups operating in the region, immediately denied responsibility for the attacks, saying the group only targets state security. Azam Tariq, the shadowy TTP spokesman, speaking to Agence France-Presse, even went as far to condemn "this brutal act", blaming it on unspecified foreign intelligence agencies. With the exception of the attack on two Ahmedi mosques in May, which left 92 people dead, the TTP has not targeted civilians since a September 2008 suicide bombing against the Marriott hotel in Islamabad.
That attack killed 54 people, mostly Pakistanis gathered to break the Ramadan fast, and marked a turning point in public opinion against the TTP, which had, up to that point, successfully portrayed itself as a revolutionary Islamist reform movement. Officials suspect that Thursday's attack may be the handiwork of militant organisations based in central Punjab province, of which Lahore is the capital, rather than the TTP, a predominantly ethnic Pashtun movement based in the north-west tribal regions bordering Afghanistan.
"Our own people become instruments in the hands of others," Khusro Pervez Bakhtiar, the commissioner of Lahore, told journalists gathered outside the al Hajvery Sufi shrine - the site that was attacked on Thursday - after the bombings. Eerily, his words reflected those of the TTP spokesman. They also echoed growing fears within the Pakistani security community that Punjabi militant splinter groups, deprived of a unified command structure by army operations and US drone-launched assassinations in the tribal regions, have been freed to pursue their own agendas.
The groups include both veterans of the bloody sectarian campaigns in Punjab in the 1990s and radical Kashmir-oriented militants who refused to accept the 2002 disbandment of the Pakistani army's covert operations against India. Both groupings subsequently took refuge in the tribal regions, predominantly in North and South Waziristan, where they formally joined hands with al Qa'eda and earned the nickname "Punjabi Taliban".
Landmark attacks against military targets in late 2009, including an unprecedented assault on the Pakistan army headquarters in Rawalpindi, revealed the involvement of such Punjabi militants. These militants are hostile to religious minorities, such as the Sufis who were targeted in Thursday's attacks and Ahmedis, who were hit in May. They consider the Ahmedis - who do not believe that the Prophet Mohammed was the last messenger of God, a fundamental Islamic tenet - to be heretics.
The military, long complicit in the grooming of such militants to pursue strategic prerogatives in Afghanistan and Kashmir, has avoided pinpointing them as the enemy. During the standoff with the militants who attacked and occupied part of the army headquarters in October 2009, government agencies were moved to draft Fazl-ur-Rehman Khalil and Mohammed Ahmed Ludhianvi, respectively the heads of Kashmir-focused and Sunni sectarian groups, to act as intermediaries.
Their attempts failed, demonstrating their loss of credibility for abandoning arms at the behest of the state, and highlighting the potential nightmare of sect-based radicalisation of thousands of militants effectively rendered unemployed by the end of the covert war in Kashmir. The fear of alienating such militants, who hitherto have bowed to state pressure, and of pushing them into the al Qa'eda camp, has to date defined official rhetoric.
Punjabi militants involved in terrorist attacks are painted as the unwitting pawns of "foreign manipulators" - clearly a stab at India. But similar rhetoric was used when the TTP turned on the government in 2007 and seized control of the Swat region of Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa province. If the cyclical character of recent history is any indication, Pakistan could well be on the edge of another precipice. @Email:email@example.com