On 23 November, an explosion ripped through a busy marketplace in northwestern Pakistan, killing at least 25 people and wounding 50-plus others. The attack occurred in the town of Kalaya, located in the tribal region known as Orakzai.
How it Went Down
According to police reports, a suicide bomber had driven his motorcycle into a crowd attending a festival in the market that attracts people from various religious communities.
Initially, officials were scrambling to ascertain details of the attack. The nature of the explosive device used wasn’t even known; it was unclear whether the explosion was caused by a suicide bomber or an improvised device. The perpetrators of the attack were also at first unknown. No group immediately claimed responsibility. All investigators were able to determine by the end of the first 24 hours was that the bomb had been disguised in a crate of vegetables placed amongst other merchandise in the crowded market.
The following day, however, ISIS claimed responsibility for the bombing. The announcement was given through the Islamic State’s official news website Amaq. The Orakzai market was a logical target for the group, as it’s located in a heavily Shiite-dominated area.
Back to Back
Shortly before the Orakzai explosion, another attack occurred at the very opposite end of the country, smack in the middle of Pakistan’s busiest port city.
At around 09:30, three gunmen approached the Chinese consulate in Karachi. After being denied entry by consulate guards, the men opened fire. Eyewitnesses also reported seeing a blast at one point, likely the result of one of the attackers detonating a suicide belt. A small firefight ensued between the attackers and police who eventually neutralized all three gunmen. While no consulate personnel were injured, two Pakistani policemen along with two additional civilians were killed in the incident.
The separatist group known as the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), told media sources it had carried out the attack. “We have been seeing the Chinese as an oppressor, along with Pakistani forces,” said a BLA spokesman.
While the two incidents do not appear to be connected, both in their own way have significance for the security situation in the region.
In regards to the Orakzai incident, the attack could likely be signaling a reverting back to a more hostile security situation.
Orakzai is one of the most underdeveloped regions in the country which knows well the brutal nature of conflict. For years the Pakistani Taliban had wreaked havoc on the province in its campaign against the Pakistani state. Until recently, Orakzai was ruled directly from the central government in Islamabad, lacking governmental infrastructure at the provincial level. A few months ago it was merged with Khyber Pantukwa in attempts to give the region a bit more administrative stability. While some hoped militant violence had largely ended in the region as a result of the government’s crackdown campaign in 2014, Friday’s market attack could be a sign of the contrary. Before Orakzai’s merger with Khyber province, the region was still loosely governed by British colonial-era laws and the tribal system of honor which has always existed on the fringes of the state. Perhaps Orakzai’s new legal status will equal better management of security forces and help stave off ISIS’s renewed attempts to hit Shiite targets.
As for the attempted breach of the Chinese consulate in Karachi, the attack points to a new escalation of separatist groups in Pakistan.
Balochistan, the southern province in which Karachi is located, has been dealing with anti-government factions for decades. Confirmed presence of conspiring armed groups in the province goes back to 1973, when Pakistani police and paramilitary forces raided the Iraqi embassy in Islamabad without prior warning to or permission from the Iraqi government. Some maintain the raid was the result of a tip off from the Shah of Iran that had visited Islamabad a few weeks prior. During the raid, a large weapons cache was discovered in crates marked “Foreign Ministry, Baghdad.” The stockpile included small-arms weapons, ammunition, grenades and other military-related supplies such as long- range radios. Pakistan responded by expelling and declaring persona non grata the Iraqi Ambassador Hikmat Sulaiman and other consular staff. Investigations by Pakistani officials concluded that the ammunition and weaponry was destined for Baloch rebels. Then Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto blamed India and Afghanistan, along with Iraq and the Soviet Union, for involvement in a “conspiracy” to support “subversive and irredentist elements which seek to disrupt Pakistan’s integrity.”
Over the years, the Baloch rebels formed into individual factions. The BLA is the most substantial of these groups, with an estimated strength of 500 fighters.
BLA has been pretty consistent in its operations for nearly a decade and a half. Ever since the group made news back in 2005 when they attempted to assassinate Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in a targeted rocket launch, all of the attacks carried out by BLA militants have been against Pakistanis. Last year, however, BLA members executed a shooting against laborers at a construction site in Gwadar which was part of the massive China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project. BLA claimed the attack was in protest of Chinese-Pakistani cooperation. BLA has for years railed against the Pakistani government for committing what they call “economic colonization” of the country. It is clear that the group now sees China as an accessory to this crime. While it is doubtful BLA will be able to effect the Corridor project in any substantial way, it does add to the security concerns surrounding the endeavor. Additionally, both China and Pakistan will now have to cope with an elevated risk of being targeted by Baloch militant groups like BLA.
A second geopolitical consequence of the attack might take the form of heightened tensions between India and Pakistan. One of the long-standing claims of Pakistan against its decades-old rival is that New Delhi secretly funds Baloch rebels through its intelligence agency the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).
From all perspectives, the recent twin militant attacks in Pakistan, especially the shooting in Karachi, will not just be the latest additions to the list of militant incidents in the country. They will almost certainly be game changers.