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Islam and Sectarianism ( 4 Apr 2017, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Kurram Agency: Sectarian Bloodshed

By Tushar Ranjan Mohanty

03 April 2017

At least 24 persons were killed and another 100 injured in a suicide attack on an Imambargah (Shia place of worship) in the Noor market area of Parachinar town in the Kurram Agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) on March 31, 2017. The explosion took place as people gathered for Friday prayers near the women's entrance of Imambargah. A witness stated that security personnel at the Imambargah were checking devotees when an unidentified person parked a car next to the building, which then exploded. Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) faction Jama'at-ul-Ahrar (JuA) claimed responsibility for the attack. The attack was part of TTP's "Operation Ghazi" and Shias were the targets, according to the outfit's statement to the media.

On January 21, 2017, 25 persons were killed and more than 87 injured in a bomb explosion at the Sabzi Mandi (vegetable market) area, again in Parachinar town, in the morning when the market was crowded with retailers buying fruits and vegetables. In a text message sent to journalists, the al-Alami (International) faction of Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LeJ) claimed that it, along with the TTP splinter Shehryar Mehsud group, had carried out the attack. In a separate statement, the spokesman for the TTP, Mohammad Khurassani, declared, "A well-trained fighter, Saifullah alias Bilal, carried out a suicide attack in Parachinar. Saifullah attacked headquarters of enemies of Islam who are involved in extrajudicial killing of our suppressed associates. He avenged murders of Malik Ishaq, Noor ul Amin, Asif Chhoto and many other associates, who were killed in fake police encounters."

Earlier, on December 13, 2015, a similar blast in a makeshift market in Parachinar had killed 25 people and injured 62. Two militant groups, LeJ Al-Alami and Ansarul Mujahideen (based in South Waziristan Agency) claimed responsibility for the attack, with one of them saying the target was the Shia community. A statement released to a foreign media channel and attributed to the spokesman for the Jhangvi group, Ali bin Sufian, declared that the attack had been carried out against the Shia elements who were supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Iranian government, adding, "We warn ... parents that if they don't stop their children from ongoing (sic) conflict in Syria they should remain prepared for more such attacks."

Complicating issues, the Federal Government put an unknown group named 'Ansar-ul-Hussain' on the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) ban list of terrorist outfit on December 30, 2016, for its alleged involvement in recruiting Shia youth from Kurram and adjacent areas to fight the Islamic State (IS, also Daesh). However, NACTA officials declined to comment Ansar-ul-Hussain's involvement in any specific activities or on the reasons behind its proscription. Muhammad Aamir Rana, a security analyst and director of the Islamabad-based Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS) claimed that Ansar-ul-Hussain was not involved in any terrorist activities in Pakistan, but a group of some people with this name was working in areas of Parachinar as well as the Orakzai Agency of FATA and the Kohat District of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), to recruit Shia youth to fight Daesh.

The Kurram Agency, long known for sectarian violence, has seen a definite decline in such incidents in recent years, However, Shia dominated Parachinar in the Upper Kurram Agency remains a principal target for Sunni sectarian terrorist formations. Kurram comprises three sub-divisions: Upper, Central and Lower Kurram. Some 58 per cent of its population is Sunni, and 42 per cent Shia (according to the 1998 Census). The majority of Shias live in Upper Kurram, while Sunnis dominate Lower and Central Kurram. The present cycle of escalation started when three people were killed and 13 were injured in an attack on a Shia Imambargah in the morning of April 6, 2007. Clashes in Kurram from November 2007 to 2010 had left over 3,000 people dead, while thousands of families were forced to flee their homes.

Unlike other tribal agencies of FATA, the dynamics in Kurram are different because of the sectarian divide and the geo-strategic location of the Agency. Kurram is surrounded by Afghanistan from three sides and has remained in turmoil since 1980, after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Thrust into Afghanistan on three sides, the Kurram Agency has always been of critical importance for Pakistan. It shares the major portion of its borders with the troubled Logar, Paktia, Khost and Nangarhar Provinces of Afghanistan. The al Qaeda and Taliban infested Tora Bora Mountain range in the Nangarhar Province of Afghanistan shares its boundaries with the Kurram Agency. In the north-east, Kurram abuts the Khyber Agency; the the Orakzai Agency lies to its east; the Hangu District of KP is on its south-east; and the North Waziristan Agency lies south. The Kurram Agency connects the tribal areas of Pakistan to Afghanistan through lower, central and upper Kurram. Crucially, the Thal-Parachinar route is the shortest route to Kabul.

Apart from the recent suicide attacks, the broad trend of decline in sectarian incidents has given some relief to locals. This has, however, come at the cost of a simultaneous increase in terrorist and militant activities from across the Afghan border. While the security situation has witnessed remarkable improvements, particularly after Army operations in North Waziristan, Orakzai and Kurram's adjacent areas of KP, the presence of TTP and IS on the abutting Afghan territory have created new threats for the Kurram Agency. Member of National Assembly (MNA) Sajid Hussain Turi thus observed that the people did not feel safe from the Afghanistan side, as border posts were being attacked from Afghan territory. For instance, on April 2, 2017, four missiles were fired from across the Pak-Afghan border into Kurram Agency. A spokesperson of the local administration stated that the missiles were fired from Afghanistan's Paktia province, and panicked the locals, though there was no loss of life. Terrorist attacks from across the border are a regular phenomenon, and some of the major incidents include:

February 19, 2017: Eleven terrorists allegedly attempting to enter Pakistan from Afghanistan were killed in a clash with SFs in the Sapperkot and Para Chamkani area of Kurram Agency. Two Kurram militia members were also injured in the gun battle between SFs and the terrorists.

October 14, 2016: Two persons including a soldier sustained injuries in a suicide attack on a border crossing at Kharlachi in Kurram Agency. The suicide bomber was trying to enter Pakistan from the Paktia province of Afghanistan through the border crossing.

April 7, 2016: 18 terrorists were killed in a cross border attack on a SF checkpost in the Mangora Sar area on the Pak-Afghan border in Kurram Agency.

Due to the persistent threat from Afghanistan, local authorities have asked villagers residing along the border to set up posts on the hilltops and to keep vigil during the night to prevent any attack from the Paktia and Khost Provinces. On April 3, 2016, the Assistant Political Agent and the Commandant of the Kurram Militia met elders of the Turi, Bangash and Mangal tribes near Parachinar, to mobilise the tribal people against the threat. An elder from Borki disclosed, "Officials say that IS and TTP's fighters were involved in attacks on the security posts. People are not only keeping vigil during night, but elders of Borki and Kherlachi have also provided four heavy machineguns and ammunition to the paramilitary forces as a gesture of support."

However, after some months, the Government launched a deweaopnisation campaign in Kurram Agency on December 27, 2016, asking the local tribal people to hand over weapons to the administration. Local Brigade Commander Brigadier Malak Amir Mohammad Khan asked tribal elders at a Jirga in Parachinar to voluntarily surrender their "heavy weapons" to the political administration within 45 days, otherwise strict action against violators of order would be taken. Brigadier Khan added, "All the tribal areas had been cleansed of terrorists and compliance of law is the collective responsibility of every citizen."

Tribal elders in Parachinar, however, remained apprehensive, as the recent history of violence against the tribes and the fragile security situation in Afghanistan continued to threaten security in the Agency. MNA Sajid Hussain Turi thus observed, "The so-called Islamic State has headquarters in our backyard (Nangarhar). Disarming Turi and Bangash tribes in upper and lower parts of Kurram is very inappropriate. Any action against tribes at this moment will create problems." On February 7, 2017, hundreds of pamphlets containing threats were allegedly distributed by Daesh in the Kurram Agency on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line, threatening attacks in specific tribal areas. The Daesh pamphlet declared, in the local language, Pashto, "We have achieved our goals in Afghanistan and are now ready to confront Shia renouncers in Pakistan's tribal areas."

Haji Faqir Hussain, secretary of the Anjuman-e-Hussainia, the central representative body of various Shia tribes in Kurram, noted that the indifferent policies of successive Governments over the past decades had forced the local population to secure themselves against hostile elements within and outside the Valley: "The administration can't guarantee our safety, keeping in view the harsh realities of recent past. Disarming people at this moment is tantamount to tying their hands and feet."

As a result of the recent surge in terrorist incidents across the country, there has been a step up in the security arrangements in sensitive areas of the Kurram Agency as well. Security personnel in large numbers have been deputed at the Government Offices, Mosques, Imambargahs, big shopping markets, hospitals, and bus stands, to avoid the possibility of any mishap. Troops have been deployed at all the exit and entry points, including Parachinar, the headquarters of the Agency, Sadda and Alizai, and barricades have been erected at sensitive places in the Agency for checking. A majority of roads leading to Government offices in the Agency have been sealed. Despite the high security alert, the terrorists have succeeded in executing attacks, putting a question mark against the Government's claims of having tamed terrorism in the tribal areas.

Tushar Ranjan Mohanty is a Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management

Source: Soth Asia Intelligence Review