Thursday, July 19, 2007

Suicide bombings in Pakistan ... and what they might mean

The bloody end of the siege of the "Red Mosque" in Islamabad has touched off a violent reaction in peripheral parts of Pakistan where radical Islamists are strong, including several suicide bombings.
Three suicide bomb attacks have killed at least 52 people in Pakistan, as a militant backlash intensified following the army's storming of a radical mosque in Islamabad.

A wave of bomb attacks has swept across Pakistan, killing more than 160, since the assault nine days ago on the Lal Masjid or Red Mosque complex, a militant stronghold.

At least 30 people were killed on Thursday when a car bomber, apparently targeting a vehicle carrying Chinese workers involved in mining activities, rammed into a police van escorting them in the southern town of Hub.

The Chinese were unhurt but all seven policemen in the van and 23 bystanders were killed. Twenty-eight people were wounded.

Another seven people, including policemen, were killed by a car bomb in the far northwestern city of Hangu on Thursday.

The third attack killed at least 15, including two children, at a mosque in an army training centre at a military cantonment area of Kohat, according to officer Mohammad Riaz at the police control room in the North West Frontier Province town.

"The explosion occurred as people were about to offer evening prayers, it was apparently a suicide bombing," he said.[....]
It remains to be seen how this aftermath plays out. In the meantime, here are a few quick observations.

First, this wave of suicide bombings highlights the extent to which suicide bombing is getting established as a 'normal' tactic of violent political conflict throughout much of the Islamic world. These kinds of "martyrdom" operations are not exclusive to the world of Islam--the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, for example, have long used them to devastating effect--but the tactic of suicide bombing is becoming more characteristically Islamist (not unlike beheading) and more pervasively Islamist as well.

Second, I hope people will stop repeating the pseudo-sophisticated myth that suicide bombing is always, or almost always, a response to foreign occupation (real or alleged). The few grains of truth in this thesis were always exaggerated, but it seems clear that they are becoming even less plausible as time goes on and this tactic becomes routinized.

Third, on a somewhat different note, I find it interesting that at least one of these recent suicide-bombing attacks was aimed at Chinese working in Pakistan. Some of the attacks carried out earlier by the fanatics based in the Red Mosque were also aimed at Chinese citizens, and analysts have suggested that the abduction of some Chinese citizens may have been the straw that broke the back of the government's patience. For a half-century, China has been one of Pakistan's closest and most important allies, so attacking Chinese nationals is really playing with fire.

Given that background, I can't help wondering whether something more than coincidence is at work here. Are there really that many Chinese in Pakistan (which would be news to me), and might these attacks reflect some degree of hostility against their presence--on the part of Islamists and/or of the general population? Perhaps not, but I can't help being intrigued.

--Jeff Weintraub

Update 7/20/2007: Yes, it seems that these and other attacks on Chinese nationals in Pakistan do fit into a broader pattern of anti-Chinese resentments. For some discussion of these issues that puts them into a wider international context, see this London Times article. Some highlights:
China was reminded of the harsh realities of its newly acquired status as a global power yesterday when a suicide bomber attacked a convoy of its workers in Pakistan.

At least 30 people were killed when a vehicle laden with explosives was detonated as the convoy carrying 60 Chinese rumbled through a market town near Karachi. [....] Pakistani security forces said they were certain that the Chinese were the targets of the attack, and Chinese in Pakistan were urged to be on their guard against more violence. The suicide bombing was the second attack on Chinese nationals in Pakistan in less than a month. Suspected Islamic militants killed three Chinese engineers near the northwestern city of Peshawar earlier this month.

The attacks will come as a stark reminder to Beijing of the risks inherent in China’s bolder approach to the extension of its interests and influence beyond its borders, particularly in Asia and Africa. More than four million Chinese now work overseas. [....]

The antagonism ranges from rage felt by Islamic radicals in Pakistan over China’s policies to suppress pro-independence Muslim movements, to resentment among small merchants and tribesmen in Kenya who see their jobs and businesses being taken over by Chinese contractors.

Ahmed Rashid, a political analyst in Pakistan, said that anger was simmering over perceptions that the Chinese were stealing their livelihoods. [....] Chinese contractors bring in many of their own engineers and labour.

They live in tight-knit communities that operate in a virtual vacuum inside whichever country they have been assigned. That breeds resentment among locals who fear for their livelihoods and are suspicious of outsiders.

In April nine Chinese workers and 65 Ethiopians were killed when guerrillas attacked an oil installation near the Somali border. Rebels abducted a Chinese mining executive searching for uranium in the Sahara, adding Niger to the list of states where China’s hunger for minerals has led its nationals into trouble. [Etc.]
I had heard about these kinds of anti-Chinese resentments in various African countries (where the culturally insensitive 'Ugly Chinese' is becoming a more viscerally disliked figure than the old 'Ugly American'), but I didn't realize that this sort of thing was happening in places like Pakistan, too.

(Of course, there is a long, ugly, and often violent history of racist resentment against overseas ethnic Chinese immigrant communities in Southeast Asia and elsewhere--including, let us not forget, North America. That's an old story. But this seems to be a new and different phenomenon.)

=========================
One News (TV New Zealand)
July 20, 2007
Pakistan violence intensifies

Three suicide bomb attacks have killed at least 52 people in Pakistan, as a militant backlash intensified following the army's storming of a radical mosque in Islamabad.

A wave of bomb attacks has swept across Pakistan, killing more than 160, since the assault nine days ago on the Lal Masjid or Red Mosque complex, a militant stronghold.

At least 30 people were killed on Thursday when a car bomber, apparently targeting a vehicle carrying Chinese workers involved in mining activities, rammed into a police van escorting them in the southern town of Hub.

The Chinese were unhurt but all seven policemen in the van and 23 bystanders were killed. Twenty-eight people were wounded.

Another seven people, including policemen, were killed by a car bomb in the far northwestern city of Hangu on Thursday.

The third attack killed at least 15, including two children, at a mosque in an army training centre at a military cantonment area of Kohat, according to officer Mohammad Riaz at the police control room in the North West Frontier Province town.

"The explosion occurred as people were about to offer evening prayers, it was apparently a suicide bombing," he said.

The attack in Hub, at the border of Baluchistan and Sindh provinces, was the biggest of the latest wave of violence and the first in southern Pakistan.

"I saw flames all around me after a big bang. It appeared as if cars were flying in the air," Mohammad Raheem, 17, a labourer injured in the blast, said in a Karachi hospital.

"There were cries and screams all around. After that I don't know what happened. I just fainted."

Chinese workers have been targeted in the same region by Baluch separatists in the past, but police suspect the latest attack was more to do with the storming of the mosque.

"We believe it is part of the recent attacks carried out by Islamist militants," Tariq Masood Khosa, police chief of Baluchistan, said.

President Pervez Musharraf said on Wednesday he had no intention of declaring a state of emergency to counter the growing insecurity, and gave assurances that elections due later this year would go ahead as planned.

Stocks down

Karachi's stock market had gained almost 40% since the beginning of 2007, but the escalating violence has lopped close to 6% off the main index in the past two days.

A cleric in the southern city voiced fears of civil war if Musharraf stepped up his fight on militants in the northwest.

"Musharraf has chosen a dangerous path," said Mufti Muhammad Naeem of Karachi's largest Islamic school.

"I think this situation could blow up in an all-out civil war."

The government said 102 people had been killed in the storming of the Lal Masjid. Many victims came from the northwest and were followers of clerical brothers advocating a militant brand of Islam reminiscent of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The car bomber who blew himself up at a police training centre in the northwestern city of Hangu timed his attack to coincide with the arrival of a group of young recruits.

"The attacker tried to crash through the gate. He blew himself up as security guards at the gate tried to stop him," said Fakhr-e-Alam, top administration official of the city.

Hangu, which itself has a history of sectarian violence, is close to the lawless tribal regions on the Afghan border, known to be hotbeds of support for al Qaeda and Taliban militants.

Many al Qaeda fighters fled to Pakistan's tribal areas after United States-led forces toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001.

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