ISIS Affiliate Claims Responsibility for Deadly Attack at Rally in Pakistan

The New York Times

1 August 2023

The Islamic State affiliate in South Asia claimed responsibility on Monday for a suicide bombing in northwest Pakistan that killed dozens of people and injured about 200 more, in the latest bloody sign of the deteriorating security situation in the country.

The death toll from the explosion on Sunday, which targeted a political rally in the Bajaur district near Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, rose to at least 54 people, Shaukat Abbas, a senior officer at the provincial police’s counterterrorism department, said on Monday.

The Islamic State affiliate, known as the Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K, claimed on Monday that a suicide bomber had carried out the attack, characterizing it as part of the group’s war against democracy as a system of government, according to the SITE Intelligence Group.

The blast was among the deadliest terrorist attacks in months in Pakistan, where some militant groups operating along the border with Afghanistan have become more active over the past year. The rise in violence represents a grim shift: Since 2014, when security forces carried out a major military operation to flush militants out of Pakistan, the country has experienced relative calm.

But several high-profile attacks this year — including a bombing in Peshawar that killed more than 100 people and an hourslong assault on the police headquarters in the port city of Karachi — have sent shock waves across the country, with scenes of bloodshed that seemed to announce militancy’s return to Pakistan.

The attacks have raised questions about whether Pakistan’s security establishment can stamp out militancy without the American air and other military support it relied on during the 2014 security operation. The violence has also stoked tensions between Pakistani officials and the Taliban administration in Afghanistan, which the Pakistani authorities have accused of providing haven to some militant groups. Taliban officials have denied that claim.

“The attack in Bajaur unquestionably presents a significant escalation of ISK’s growing capacity and aggressive stance in northwest Pakistan — a region which is already home to many other militant factions,” said Amira Jadoon, the co-author of “The Islamic State in Afghanistan and Pakistan: Strategic Alliances and Rivalries,” using another abbreviation for the Islamic State affiliate.

“It also shows ISK’s continued ability to access and operate on both sides of the border, as it has done so in the past.”

At least three people suspected of being involved in the attack have been arrested so far, the local police chief, Nazir Khan, told news outlets. They were being interrogated by intelligence and law enforcement agencies, he added.

On Monday, funeral processions took place in most villages in the Bajaur district as dozens of families gathered to bury victims of the attack. Even those not mourning loved ones were shaken by the attack and its aftermath, residents said.

Shakir Ali, a shopkeeper who volunteered to take the injured to the hospital, said the screams and cries echoing across the area after the explosion were still ringing in his head on Monday. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, almost everyone who passed him was covered in blood, he recalled.

“It was difficult for us to determine who was injured and who was not,” he said.

The attack — among the first by a militant group on a political rally in the country this year — stirred concerns about whether the country’s deteriorating security situation will affect the next general election, expected in the fall.

The election is seen as critical to restoring political stability to a country that has been rocked by mass protests and unrest since Imran Khan was forced out as prime minister in a vote of no-confidence in April last year.

Paving the way for the election this fall, the current government is expected to dissolve Parliament in August and hand over power to a caretaker government that will oversee the election process. The establishment of a caretaker government is constitutionally required to carry out a general election.

While it is unlikely that ISIS-K has the capacity to significantly disrupt the elections, many security experts are concerned that the Pakistani Taliban — a militant group also known as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or the T.T.P. — may try to target campaign rallies or voting sites, analysts say.

The T.T.P. — which is an ideological twin and ally of the Taliban in Afghanistan — frequently attacked political rallies during Pakistan’s 2008 and 2013 election seasons and the group has seen a resurgence since the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan in 2021.

“The question is how is the T.T.P. planning to sabotage the coming election season,” said Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace. “So far, indicators are that it won’t — but that can change.”

Salman Masood and Zia ur-Rehman contributed reporting.

Christina Goldbaum is the Afghanistan and Pakistan bureau chief for The Times.

ISIS Affiliate Claims Responsibility for Deadly Attack at Rally in Pakistan