Quetta, the provincial capital of Pakistan’s restive province Baluchistan, was once again in the news worldwide after two suicide bombers stormed a crowded church on Sunday afternoon. Nine Christians were killed in the attack, and scores were injured.
Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack through its mouthpiece Amaq News Agency but did not provide any evidence that supported the claim.
Military experts in Pakistan believe there had been a surge in terror activities in Baluchistan lately but say there is little or no evidence that establishes IS' existence in the province.
The so-called IS has a prominent presence in Afghanistan, which shares a long and porous border with Baluchistan.
“When we talk about Baluchistan, do not forget its geographical complications. It’s a remote area with less population. It shares borders with Iran and Afghanistan, which makes infiltration of terrorists easy,” Hasan Askari Rizvi, a prominent Lahore-based defense analyst, told VOA.
“The breakaway Taliban groups in the region are reuniting and reorganizing and using the name of Islamic State. They are targeting minorities and using IS’ name to get worldwide attention,” Askari further added.
Shazada Zulfiqar, a Quetta-based senior journalist, holds a different view and believes IS has, through its sympathizers and supporters, managed to make roots in Baluchistan.
“Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (leJ) and Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), the Pakistani Taliban faction, has an established presence in this province. These groups provide manpower to each other and also to the Islamic State,” Zulfiqar told VOA’s Urdu service.
“Although the government claims IS has no existence here, it certainly has roots through its affiliates and sympathizers. They are supported by the local people too, unfortunately,” Zulfiqar added.
Violence concerns analysts
Despite statistics showing a considerable drop in overall terrorism in Pakistan in the recent past, the surge in violent activities in Baluchistan alarms some analysts.
“The latest attack on Quetta’s Bethel Memorial Methodist Church underlines the danger of terrorism and also how these terror groups have support, facilitators and sympathizers in Baluchistan,” Askari said.
After the church attack in Quetta, the provincial government pledged again to curb militancy and enhance its capabilities to fight terrorism effectively.
“Baluchistan is in a state of war,” Sanaullah Zehri, Baluchistan’s chief minister told the local media after paying a visit to the Christians’ graveyard in Quetta. “We are executing plans to strengthen the police and security departments to ensure safety of our citizens, which is our top most priority.”
But to some critics, these official statements mean little unless the government takes effective action against active terrorist groups in the province.
“The government says they have eliminated terror groups from the province but only after such incidents they realize these terror groups have a solid presence. People are still joining them, they’ve resources and established networks,” Zulfiqar told VOA. “Who’s responsible?”
Pakistan’s government, on the other hand, says it is wary of the chaotic and precarious situation of Baluchistan and is increasing security presence in the region.
Pakistan’s Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal told VOA in May that a force of 9,000 security personnel under Pakistan’s Army has been deployed in Baluchistan to provide security.
Pakistan also accuses Afghanistan and India of spreading terror and chaos in Baluchistan. Pakistan maintains India specially wants to sabotage the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Kabul and New Delhi deny these charges.
Baluchistan is the heart of the $50 billion Chinese investment through China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which will connect China’s Xinjiang region to Gwadar’s deep-water seaport in Baluchistan with a huge rail, road, communication and energy network.
Brig. Farooq Ahmad, the former spokesman of Pakistan’s Army media wing in Quetta, shares these concerns.
“Quetta is like a war zone where terrorists from Afghanistan and (the) Indian spy agency RAW are involved in violent activities. This is a plan to destroy the CPEC plan,” Ahmad said.
In terms of area, Baluchistan is Pakistan’s largest province. It has abundant natural resources such as oil, gold, gas and copper reserves, but lacks basic infrastructure and necessities of life.
It is also facing an insurgency from Baloch separatists and nationalists who are fighting to liberate Baluchistan from Pakistan.
Apart from Baloch nationalists, many terrorist groups operate in the region, including Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an anti-Shi’ite militant group, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Jamaat-ul-Ahraar (JuA).
Unless the government provides a sense of belonging and job opportunities to the long-deprived Baloch residents, there is little hope the situation will change in Baluchistan, analysts say.
VOA Urdu’s Abdul Sattar Kakar also contributed to the story.