17th February 2017
Terrorism: On 16 February 2017, the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine in Sehwan, Sindh province, was attacked by a large suicide bomb. The Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine is mostly populated by Sufi Muslims, which is a subsect of Shiite Islam. The bomber was equipped with an explosive vest, and detonated it amongst a large gathering of Sufi worshippers. The worshippers were engaged in a religious ritual at the shrine which occurs every Thursday, and involves many families. The detonation resulted in the deaths of at least 88 people, with an estimated 250 also wounded. However, officials have warned that the death toll is likely to rise, as many of the wounded are in critical conditions, and the local hospital is not equipped to deal with casualties on such a scale. It was initially unclear which group conducted the attack, with some suspecting the Pakistani Taliban. However, the Pakistan branch of the Islamic State (IS) group has since claimed responsibility for the attack, via the group’s propaganda website.
The Lal Shahbaq Qalandar terror attack comes amidst a week of serious terrorist violence in Pakistan, which has resulted in the deaths of over 100 people. An attack on 13 February, aimed at a civilian protest in Lahore, was claimed by a faction of the Pakistani Taliban (TPP). However, the Lal Shahbaq Qalandar terror attack differs as it specifically targeted a religious minority group, and was conducted by IS. The target was a renowned shrine, the Lal Shahbaq Qalandar. This mosque is both a tourist attraction and an important place of worship for Pakistan’s sizeable community of Sufi Muslims. In addition, the shrine was a strategic target due to its remote location; the nearest hospital is 70 kilometres away, meaning high death tolls were likely. Sufi shrines have been attacked before; notably, Islamic State bombed a shrine in Baluchistan province in November 2016, which killed 52 people. As a result of the November 2016 attack, Sufi communities had reportedly requested that key religious locations receive heightened state security; one of these locations was the Lal Shahbaq Qalandar shrine. In the aftermath of the terror attack, some Sufi mourners began protesting the lack of security in the area. Massive crowds gathered outside of the shrine, with some groups verbally confronting the security forces.
The Pakistan branch of Islamic State has a small but growing presence in the country. As previously mentioned, the group has specifically targeted Sufi shrines in the past. IS targets Sufi Muslims as they are deemed as apostates, and are seen by IS as following a false religion. The group has declared its intentions to continue attacks on the Sufi community; IS are likely to target more places of worship in the future. IS has also increasingly been targeting state military and governmental facilities throughout Pakistan. In October 2016, the group attacked a police training college in Baluchistan province. This incident reportedly left around 59 people dead. IS have a larger presence in Afghanistan, particularly in Nangarhar province. It is suspected that the support and training for the Lal Shahbaq Qalandar attack came from Afghanistan. At an international level, commentators have noted an increase in Islamic State terror attacks. This has been attributed to the groups continuing military defeat in Iraq and Syria. It seems likely that the group will conduct an increasing amount of terror attacks internationally, especially in Pakistan.
Pakistani security forces have already begun reprisal raids following the recent terror attack. Following the IS attack on the Sufi shrine, Pakistani police launched country-wide operations against Islamic militants. Around 39 suspected militants have reportedly been killed in the raids, alongside the arrest of 47 others. It must be noted that these raids did not specifically target IS operatives, but also militants from the Pakistani Taliban. The Pakistani army has also launched a cross-border artillery offensive on key Islamic State positions in Nangarhar, Afghanistan. This seems to be an attempt to reduce the sanctuaries areas that the group enjoys in Afghanistan.
If caught in a terror situation, travellers are advised to RUN – HIDE – TELL – FIGHT. RUN – If in a location where gunfire or explosions are heard, leave the area or building by any safe and available exit immediately. HIDE – If unable to run away, find suitable cover or barricade yourself in a room. Remember to silence your phone and turn vibrate off. TELL – Inform emergency services or alert someone who is able to do it for you. Once police arrive, comply with their instructions and do not make any sudden movements. FIGHT – As a last resort, if confronted with a gunman, it is recommended to fight back by using the element of surprise by shouting, screaming and running fast at the attacker. If sheltered with others, convince them to do the same and rush the attacker all at once. Ensure the person entering the shelter is the attacker and not law enforcement.
There is likely to be an increased security presence in the area immediately surrounding the Lal Shahbaq Qalandar shrine. It is recommended that travellers avoid all protests that may arise as a result of this terror attack. These protests, while initially peaceful, may quickly turn violent. In addition, large gatherings of civilians are potential targets for further terrorist attacks. As Islamic State seeks to gain a firmer foothold in Pakistan, there are likely to be increasingly frequent terror attacks. These are likely to target religious minorities and state infrastructure.
Intrinsic would advise clients to employ enhanced security measures when visiting Pakistan – airport meet and greet, security drivers and armed Close Protection Officers should be minimum security precaution. Travelers should also utilize travel tracking technology.