The attack comes a day after suicide bombing targeting a convoy of Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JuI-F) leader and Deputy Chairman of the Senate (Upper house of Parliament) Maulana Abdul Ghafoor Haideri. At least 27 people were killed in the attack and another 40 injured in the Mastung town on May 12, 2017. The target of the attack, Maulana Haideri, is also General Secretary of JuI-F, and hails from Kalat. A motorcycle borne suicide bomber rammed into the vehicle in which the Maulana was travelling on the Quetta-Karachi National Highway. Haideri had just left a girls-only seminary after attending a graduation ceremony. Daesh (the Islamic State, IS, formerly Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham) claimed responsibility for the attack through a statement posted on the website of its propaganda agency Amaq without any elaboration. Haideri bulletproof vehicle saved his life. Though the explosion severely damaged the vehicle, he and his co-passengers escaped with injuries.
This was not the first time that JUI-F leaders have been targeted by terrorists in the past in the Province, despite the party's long associations with the Taliban movement and leaders acting as negotiators between the terrorists and the Government in the past. On October 23, 2014, two persons were killed and 22 injured in a suicide blast targeting JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rahman on the Meckangi Road of Quetta, moments after he ended his address at a rally in the Sadiq Shaheed Football Ground.
On April 4, 2017, Maulana Abdul Ghafoor Haideri had invited the Taliban to join his party at news conference at the Peshawar Press Club, where he declared, `We invite them [the Taliban"> to join JUI-F and achieve their objectives with the help of a peaceful and political struggle.`
Any slim hope of a sustainable peace in the Balochistan was destroyed after these attacks, despite the considerable decrease of 83.91 per cent in violence in the Province in the first four months of the year, in comparison to the same period last year. The first four months of 2016 had recorded 230 fatalities, including 144 terrorists/militants, 43 civilians and 43 SF personnel, while 2017 saw just 37 fatalities, including 16 SF personnel, 12 militants and 9 civilians. The two recent major attacks have inflicted fatalities equal to the total for the first four months this year.
The complex, multilayered, seemingly never-ending security crisis in Balochistan appears more dangerous with the entry of Daesh on the scene. Balochistan has been under attack by separatists, insurgents, and Islamist terrorists for over a decade, and Daesh adds to the cumulative threat. The Government, however, insists that Daesh has no presence in the Province, a position argued by Balochistan Home Minister Sarfaraz Bugti on October 26, 2016. However, several of the major attacks in the Province, including the suicide attack on Lawyers of August 8, 2016 (75 persons killed), the Quetta Police Training College attack of October 24, 2016 (62 persons killed) and the Shah Noorani Sufi shrine attack of November 12, 2016 (55 persons killed) were claimed by ISIS.
Though Daesh claimed responsibility for the attack on Maulana Haideri, the role of Baloch separatist militants cannot be ruled out. Haideri earned the wrath of Baloch separatists because of his support to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in the Province while addressing a public meeting in Kalat on October 9, 2016, declaring that conspiracies being hatched by India and other elements against the CPEC project would be foiled. He added that JUI-F would continue its struggle to remove the reservations people had regarding the corridor project. A day before the attack on May 11, 2017, Haideri contended that his party would form the next Government in Balochistan in alliance with other political parties, including nationalist parties.
The suicide attack of May 12 and ethnic killings of May 13 in Balochistan occurred while Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif was in Beijing to ink agreements between Pakistan and China aimed at boosting cooperation in various sectors, on the sidelines of the One Belt One Road (OBOR) Forum. Sharif arrived in Beijing on May 12, 2017, to participate in the OBOR Forum. CPEC is the flagship programme of OBOR, and is viewed by Baloch as a conspiracy by the Punjabi elite to plunder their land and resources.
While Balochistan is the starting point of CPEC, the lion's share of projects under the programme has been assigned to Punjab, which has been assigned 53 per cent of the projects currently envisaged, according to Federal Ministry of Interior statistics shared with the Parliament on September 2, 2016. Out of the total of 330 projects, 176 are in Punjab while only eight have been allocated to Balochistan.
This has compounded the sense of neglect and marginalization among the Baloch people. on September 3, 2016, the Balochistan Republican Party alleged that the Province's abundant resources were being diverted for the benefit of Pakistan's dominant province, Punjab. Similarly, on March 13, 2017, Munir Mengal, the President of Baloch Voice Foundation, asserted, that CPEC was a 'strategic design' by Pakistan and China to loot Balochistan's resources and eliminate their culture and identity.
Dubbing China as a 'great threat' to the Baloch people, UNHRC Balochistan representative Mehran Marri argued, on August 13, 2016, that `China really-really is spreading its tentacles in Balochistan very rapidly, and therefore, we are appealing to the international community. The Gwadar project is for the Chinese military. This would be detrimental to international powers, to the people's interest, where 60 percent of world's oil flows. So, the world has to really take rapid action in curbing China's influence in Balochistan in particular and in Pakistan in general.` Asserting that CPEC would convert the Baloch people into minorities in their own homeland, Noordin Mengal, a human rights campaigner from Balochistan, stated that, with an influx of outsiders as a result of the project, the identity of the Baloch was being threatened.
Concern about the demographic transformation of Balochistan was reiterated in a report by the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FPCCI) on December 28, 2016, which noted that, at the current rate of influx of Chinese nationals into Balochistan and after completion of the CPEC, the native population of the area would be outnumbered by 2048.
The May 13-killing of Sindhi labourers who were working on a road project are not specific CPEC-funded projects, but are part of a network of connecting roads that are part of the corridor - a common target for Baloch separatist militants who view construction projects as a means to take over their land. Militants trying to disrupt construction of CPEC projects in the Province have killed 44 workers since 2014, according to Colonel Zafar Iqbal, a spokesperson for the construction company, Frontier Works Organisation (FWO). Colonel Zafar Iqbal stated, on September 7, 2016, that `The latest figure has climbed up to 44 deaths and over 100 wounded men on CPEC projects, mainly road construction in Balochistan, which began in 2014`.
The attack on labourers is an act of desperation from the Baloch separatist as their struggle for a sovereign nation has been losing tempo with the recent surrenders of their cadres. Around 500 militants belonging to different banned Baloch militant outfits surrendered to authorities on April 21, 2017. At a ceremony held on the lawns of the Balochistan Assembly building, the militants announced that they had abandoned the armed struggle against the Government and would join mainstream politics. Those who surrendered included 12 'commanders' and 16 'sub-commanders' of the militant organisations. The militants belonged to the Baloch Republican Army (BRA), BLA, Lashkar-i-Balochistan and some other groups. On the occasion of the surrender ceremony, one unnamed provincial official disclosed that around 1,500 militants of Baloch outfits had surrendered since the Government announced a political reconciliation programme in the Province under the National Action Plan (NAP). Earlier, on November 7, 2016, around 202 Baloch separatists belonging to various militant formations surrendered to Provincial Government authorities in Quetta.
On February 20, 2017, the Government deployed a special contingent of 15,000 personnel from the Maritime Security Force (MSF) and Special Security Division (SSD) to protect 34 CPEC related projects, including Gwadar and other coastal areas, and ensure safety of locals and foreigners working on CPEC projects. Senator Mushahid Hussain Sayeed, Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on CPEC, after a committee meeting in Parliament House on February 20, 2017, stated, `The SSD is a force that will provide security to 34 CPEC related projects, while the MSF will safeguard the Gwadar port and other coastal areas of the country,`. He said the SSD had been deployed in six zones from Gwadar to Gilgit-Baltistan, including all four Provinces and Azad Jammu & Kashmir (AJK). Despite all security arrangements, however, the militants continue to succeed in engineering major attacks.
Apart from CPEC related projects, there has been a systematic plundering of natural resources and neglect of real development in Balochistan by the successive Governments. As long as Pakistan's all powerful Army and civilian leadership fail to address legitimate grievances of the Baloch people, Baloch separatism will persist. Worse, increasing Islamist terrorist activities in the Province compound instability and worsen the risks of violence and bloodshed.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management