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Balochistan: Taliban's Southern March

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By Ambreen Agha
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management

Exploiting the restive and conflict ridden environment in Balochistan, terrorist outfits that share their ideology with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) are spreading their influence in the Province. The TTP and its proxies, as SAIR has noted earlier, have long had a strong base in the northern part of the Province. In the recent past, however, they have extended their networks into the Makran Division, including Turbat, Panjgur and Gwadar Districts, which lies deep in the South Balochistan. Significantly, the region has witnessed attacks on private schools with the extremists professing abhorrence for western and girls' education.

On May 21, 2014, at least six people, including a Government school teacher, identified as Master Hameed, were shot dead when terrorists entered his residence and opened fire, killing him and five of his relatives in the Dasht area of Turbat District. The attack came in the wake of threatening letters sent to private schools by a newly surfaced terrorist group, Tanzeem-ul-Islami-ul-Furqan (Organisation of the creation of Islam) in Panjgur District, warning the people to completely shut down girls’ education or to prepare themselves for “the worst consequences as prescribed in the Quran”.

Earlier, on May 13, 2014, four armed TIF terrorists, wearing headbands with Allah-o-Akbar (Allah is Great) imprinted on them, set ablaze the vehicle of Major (Retired) Hussain Ali, owner of The Oasis School, in the same District, while he was driving girls to school. The masked terrorists asked him and the girls to de-board the vehicle, before setting it ablaze.

On May 7, 2014, TIF threatened 23 English Language Learning Centres in Panjgur to shut down and stop imparting co-education and teaching in English, which they referred as “Haram (forbidden) in Islam”. In their letter, TIF warned, “Private schools should completely stop girls’ education, both co-education and separate education. We urge all van and taxi drivers to refrain from taking girls to schools. Otherwise, they will also be targeted... Any institution or persons defying the warning will be deemed as an enemy of Islam and therefore punished.” On the same day, masked terrorists barged into a language centre, threatening the teachers and young male and female students against co-education and learning English, and destroyed the school’s furniture and textbooks.

In the aftermath of the May 13 attack, some 2,000 protesters marched through the streets in the District on May 14, raising slogans against TIF and its radical ideology, demanding that the Government immediately arrest the terrorists who had been threatening private schools. The head of a local school, who confirmed receiving threats over the phone, stated, on condition of anonymity, “All these attacks seem to be a part of the fresh campaign against girls’ education.” Narrating his experience, he disclosed that he had been instructed by the terrorists to shut down his school where hundreds of girls were currently enrolled. Calling the closure of the girls’ school a “national tragedy” he recounted, “When I asked the reasons for their demand to stop educating the female students, they spoke rudely and said they would teach me a lesson if I did not stop educating girls.”

These attacks in Panjgur and Turbat Districts indicate the penetration of the Taliban ideology of intolerance and religious bigotry into the Southern regions of Balochistan, which had, thus far, escaped the influence of TTP and its likes. South Balochistan was affected by the Baloch nationalist insurgency, while the North had been under the influence of Islamist terrorist formations, including the TTP and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ).

Partial data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management (ICM) shows that Balochistan has recorded at least 3,149 civilian fatalities since 2004. 294 civilian killings (192 in the South and 102 in the North) have been claimed by Baloch separatist formations such as the United Baloch Army (UBA), Baloch Republican Army (BRA), Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) and Balochistan Liberation Tigers (BLT). The Islamist and sectarian extremist formations, primarily LeJ, TTP and Ahrar-ul-Hind (Liberators of India) claimed responsibility for the killing of another 502 civilians, all in North, mostly in and around Quetta. The remaining 2,360 civilian fatalities - 1,451 in the South and 899 in the North - remain ‘unattributed’. A large proportion of the ‘unattributed’ fatalities, particularly in the Southern region, are believed to be the result of enforced disappearances carried out by state agencies, or by their proxies, prominently including the Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Aman Balochistan (TNAB, Movement for the Restoration of Peace, Balochistan).

The recent spate of attacks in South Balochistan by Islamist terrorist outfits is an alarming indication of a change in these trends. The trickle-down of Islamist ideology into the South indicates a progressive radicalization that threatens a further spread into currently non-Taliban influenced Districts.

Though the attacks by Islamist extremists in the North have been primarily sectarian in nature, against the Shia Hazaras living in the region, the latest attacks on schools in the South are a tribal phenomenon, borrowed from TTP terrorists operating in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). According to partial data compiled by SATP at least 527 schools have been destroyed in KP and FATA since 2007 (data till May 25, 2014), including 330 in KP and 197 in FATA.

Balochistan had not recorded any terrorist or insurgent attacks on education facilities till this point. This new threat further compounds the already poor educational access and high dropout rate in the Province. A November 20, 2013, media report, for instance, noted that more than 2.3 million children had no access to education in Balochistan. The report quoted the Provincial Secretary for Education, Ghulam Ali Baloch, noting that only 1.3 million out of a total of 3.6 million children were going to schools in the Province. Recognising the problem, Balochistan Chief Minister Abdul Malik Baloch on March 12, 2014, observed, “A high dropout rate and poor access of children to school have emerged as the biggest challenges in the Province.”

Expressing concern over the current situation that has prevented students from securing education, the President of the Government Teachers Association, Quetta, A.N. Sabir, noted that militancy was the 'chief culprit' behind Balochistan's illiteracy rate, the highest in the country. This increasing illiteracy was making the youth an easy target of religious extremism and terrorism, against the backdrop of an increase in the number of madrassas (religious seminaries) in the Province. According to the latest figures, released by an unnamed official from the Department of Industries and Commerce in December 2013, Balochistan has 2,500 Government registered madrassas and 10,000 unregistered ones.  

These are the first recorded incidents of Islamist extremist activity in South Balochistan. State Agencies have done little to contain the spread of Islamist extremism, which is endemic in the northern part of the Province. Instead, the Agencies have been persistent in suppressing the Baloch nationalist insurgency in the southern region by launching covert military operations against the insurgents, including operations through Islamist extremist proxies. Baloch nationalist sentiments have also been inflamed by a multiplicity of mega ‘development’ projects, particularly in Gwadar, which have not benefited the Baloch. The insurgents’ have demanded a greater share in the resources and a stake in the decision making structures of the state. This, however, has led to an epidemic of enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings in the Province. Addressing this brutal silencing by the State Agencies, the Voice of Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP) Chairman Nasrullah Baloch and Vice-Chairperson Mama Qadeer Baloch, on April 27, 2014, observed that Pakistani forces have illegally abducted 19,200 Baloch activists and more than 2,000 among them have been 'killed and dumped'. Significantly, the World Report 2014 released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) noted:

The human rights crisis in the mineral-rich province continues unabated. As in previous years, 2013 saw enforced disappearances and killings of suspected Baloch militants and opposition activists by the military, intelligence agencies, and the paramilitary Frontier Corps. Baloch nationalists and other militant groups stepped up attacks on non-Baloch civilians... The military continued to resist government reconciliation efforts and attempts to locate ethnic Baloch who had been subject to “disappearances.” Successive Pakistani governments have appeared powerless to rein in abuses by the military and both sectarian and nationalist militant groups. As a result, many members of the Hazara community and non-Baloch ethnic minorities under attack by militants fled the province or country, while Baloch nationalists have continued to allege serious abuses by the military.

Islamabad continues with its old policy of pitting one communal or ethnic group against the other, with the Government facilitating the mass settlement of ‘outsiders’ in South Balochistan through a range of policies such as allocation of land holdings to migrants from other Provinces, including preferential allocation to ex-Army personnel, in order to change the demography of the region and weaken Baloch separatism. This has created a sense of siege among Balochis in the region, precipitating ethnic violence. There is a visible rivalry between Baloch and ethnic Punjabi workers, with a majority of the latter group employed by the state for its ‘development’ projects. Partial data compiled by ICM indicates that at least 104 Punjabis have been killed by Baloch nationalist insurgents, mostly in South Balochistan, either in retaliation against the perceived demographic engineering in the Province, or for working as alleged spies for the state.

In the war between Baloch nationalists and Islamabad, state-backed radical Islamist forces are expanding their influence towards Southern Balochistan. The recent attacks on schools, and widening networks of madrassas in the region indicate an intensification of this strategy, with the state continuing to appease and support Islamist extremist forces within its established game plan of undermining Baloch separatism through the use of extreme Force, both by state agencies and their proxies.

[Source: SATP]

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