The bomber struck shortly before afternoon prayers, when the mosque in Peshawar’s bustling Police Lines district would be at its busiest. Hundreds of people, including many police officers, were inside as the device detonated, creating a blast so strong the roof and wall collapsed and 100 people were killed.
The attack on Monday was among the worst in years to hit Peshawar, a city in north-west Pakistan that has been ravaged relentlessly by deadly terrorist violence over decades. Hours after the attack, responsibility was claimed by a low-level commander from one faction of the Pakistan Taliban, known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), as revenge for the death of a fighter in Afghanistan.
Later, an official spokesperson from the TTP distanced themselves from the incident, stating it was not their policy to target mosques. Yet it was just the latest escalation in an onslaught of violence claimed by TTP in the north-west province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which in recent months has been in the grip of a deadly Taliban resurgence that the government and Pakistan’s powerful military appear powerless to control.
Only two weeks previously, a police station on the outskirts of Peshawar was targeted in a coordinated onslaught by well-equipped Taliban fighters. “The terrorists were armed with modern weapons and night vision glasses,” said Irshad Malik, an assistant sub-inspector who was in the police station during the attack. “They targeted officers with snipers and hurled hand-grenades at the police station.” Three officers were killed.
TTP, which is separate from the Taliban in Afghanistan but shares a similar hardline Islamist ideology, has waged a bloody insurgency in Pakistan for the past 15 years, fighting for stricter enforcement of Islamic sharia law. The group has been responsible for some of the deadliest terrorist attacks on Pakistan soil, including the 2014 Peshawar school massacre in which 132 children were killed.
After military operations in 2014 and 2017, which resulted in heavy bloodshed, they were largely suppressed. Yet since November, they have once again stepped up attacks after peace negotiations with the government failed and the group declared it was ending its ceasefire.
Since then, the security situation has deteriorated rapidly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the province neighbouring Afghanistan, as the Pakistan Taliban have carried out almost a dozen deadly attacks targeting police and military posts. In one incident in December, Taliban detainees overpowered their guards at a counter-terrorism unit, seized control of the facility and held them hostage for more than 24 hours, leaving more than a dozen army and police officers dead.
Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for south Asia at the Wilson Center, said: “TTP’s intensifying attacks on Pakistani security forces are meant to send a simple but unsettling message: the state can’t stop them.”
The seemingly uncontrollable resurgence of the TTP in Pakistan had been forewarned by many observers since the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan in August 2020, after they seized control from the US-backed government and imposed brutal Islamic rule on the country. The triumph of the Taliban in Afghanistan was celebrated in Islamabad including by the then prime minister, Imran Khan, who said the country had broken from “the shackles of slavery”.
But promises by the Afghan Taliban not to shelter TTP fighters proved hollow and the relationship between the Pakistan government and the Taliban began to break down.
“Pakistan’s mistake was to think that the Taliban would be willing to help it curb TTP,” said Kugelman. “The Taliban’s track record has been consistent: the group doesn’t turn on its militant allies. It didn’t turn on al-Qaida, so why would it turn on TTP, with which the Taliban have been aligned ideologically for years?”
Meanwhile, misguided efforts by Khan’s government included 5,000 TTP fighters being brought back to Pakistan from Afghanistan to be rehabilitated and resettled in the tribal area of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The programme failed after ceasefire negotiations broke down and funding could not be found to resettle the fighters, leaving Pakistan with more TTP fighters freely roaming on home soil.
The defence minister, Khawaja Asif, who serves under the new government of Shehbaz Sharif, confirmed that the hundreds of TTP fighters had been brought over under the previous Khan government. Asif was critical of the failed rehabilitation plan, accepting that it had instead helped fuel recent terrorist activity in the country.
He said the TTP fighters “did not settle down like normal citizens. Instead they are going back to their old activities, creating an atmosphere of fear in these areas.”
Asif described the situation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as “bad without a doubt”. “They know it, we know it, everyone knows that Pakistani Taliban are using Afghan soil for terrorism in Pakistan,” he said. “We would like to avoid a military operation but if we are compelled to use force then we will have to.”
In Waziristan, a heavily militarised mountainous region bordering Afghanistan, which historically has been at the centre of Taliban attacks and brutal security operations in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, locals described how the Taliban presence could be felt heavily once again. They said an influx of TTP fighters had come from Afghanistan and the Taliban were now controlling the many security checkpoints at night.
“For over a year we have seen TTP militants crossing into Pakistan,” said Anwar Khpalwak, from the local organisation The Voice of People. Locals described how Pakistan Taliban militants now roamed freely around the area, including in the bazaar, and said they had been involved in ransom, kidnapping and extortion of local businesses.
Local anger at the government and military was potent. Most had lost relatives to years of terrorist attacks and retaliatory military operations, and the return of the TTP meant only more violence and bloodshed. “We have lost most men and our widowed women would guard the house at night. We had peace for a very short period, and it seems the terrorists are back. We are tired of war,” said Malik Ala Noor Khan, 40, who lost 14 family members and joined a recent march calling for peace.
Many believed the TTP had only used the ceasefire with the government to regroup and reorganise so they could come back stronger. Manzoor Pashteen, the founder of the Pashtun Tahafuz movement (PTM) that works for peace in the violence-stricken tribal areas, said all the government’s negotiations with the Pakistan Taliban had “never yielded us peace”.
“These negotiations were only to give each other space for a few months,” he said. “In a way, these negotiations were a justification, a gateway to allow militant organisation in tribal areas.”
As hundreds of locals gathered recently in Wana, a town in Waziristan, they waved white flags of peace to protest against the violence that had once again imposed itself on their lives. “Through peaceful protests of the people, we will continue to challenge this war being fought on our soil,” said Pashteen. “This is not our war.”