The acting chief minister of this northwestern province, Muhammad Azam Khan, announced that 95 people were killed and 221 injured, making it one of the deadliest attacks ever carried out against Pakistan’s security forces. The blast signaled the brazen revival of violent tactics by the extremist Pakistani Taliban group, which had once been quelled by a military crackdown and until recently was in peace talks with the government.
Monday’s shockingly successful attack on a government compound that should have been one of the more secure parts of Peshawar has raised serious questions about Pakistan’s ability to confront its long-standing militant threat as the Muslim-majority country of 220 million remains mired in an economic crisis and a political standoff.
“This needs to be thoroughly investigated as to how the bomber succeeded in reaching the target by crossing all the checkpoints,” said Syed Masood Shah, a senior police official and minister in the current caretaker government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. “This is not possible without some ‘support.’ The bomber seems to be well aware of the area, and he might have visited the spot before he executed his plan.”
The bombing was claimed by a faction of the Pakistani Taliban militia, known as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, which said the attack was carried out to avenge the death of its former leader. However, a TTP spokesman later denied the claim, saying that such an attack — on a place of worship packed with men at prayer — was un-Islamic. The contradiction suggested splits within the group since the death of its leader, Police Chief Moazzam Jah Ansari said.
Witnesses and survivors described scenes of panic and chaos as the mosque roof collapsed, leaving many worshipers trapped and screaming underneath heavy rubble. Muhammad Kamran, 26, a police trainee, said he had been sitting behind the prayer leader when the blast erupted and the roof overhead collapsed on him and the rows of worshipers around him.
“A portion of the roof fell on me, but I was near a wall,” Kamran recounted from his bed at Lady Reading Hospital. “When I was struggling to find a way out of the rubble, I saw two heads nearby and one man stuck under the debris. … He was screaming and crying for help. I tried my best but couldn’t.” Kamran said he was still shaken and sleepless from the experience, but intended to return to police duty after recovering.
A police officer, who gave his name only as Tajir, was guarding the Capital City Police Office compound where the blast took place. He said he was worried about how the bomber had entered the area, adding that it was “very difficult to search every person here as usually there is hustle and bustle on working days. Government officials and visitors are passing through this gate.”
As families began burying their dead in cemeteries across this ancient city and Pakistani officials scrambled to fashion a coherent response, leaders and commentators of all stripes, from religious party chiefs to secular liberals, joined in universal condemnation of an attack that harked back to a frightening era of constant terrorist threats.
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, who visited blast victims with severe burns and fractures at a Peshawar hospital alongside the army chief Monday, later addressed the attackers in an emotional tweet, warning that “you can’t underestimate the resolve of our people” and declaring terrorism to be the country’s “foremost national security challenge.”
Army chief Gen. Asim Munir said Tuesday that “such immoral and cowardly acts cannot shake the resolve of the nation; but rather invigorate our determination to succeed in the ongoing war against terror.”
But some political leaders sought to blame officials for failed anti-terrorist policies or for being distracted by a power struggle that has paralyzed the government as elections loom. The government is also dealing with floods that ruined vast parts of the agricultural heartland, a financial crisis featuring soaring inflation and heavy foreign debts that the country cannot pay, and a relentless opposition led by ousted prime minister Imran Khan.
Between the “destructive battle of nerves” over elections and the paralysis of government actions “as the economy nosedives,” the editors of the Dawn newspaper wrote Tuesday, “this ‘perfect storm’ presents an ideal opportunity for the TTP and others of their ilk to strike at the state.”
On Tuesday, Sharif sent out a second tweet that sought to rise above the political fray. He said such “despicable actions” as the bombing are intended to spread public fear and “reverse our hard-earned gains against terrorism & militancy. My message to all political forces is one of unity against anti-Pakistan elements,” he said. “We can fight our political fights later.”
But some experts said the moment called for a major reassessment of the Islamist militant threat that has suddenly flared after being beaten back in a military crackdown in the past decade. The TTP has been reinvigorated since the Afghan Taliban returned to power in 2021, and some of its fighters took refuge across the border. The new rulers in Kabul helped broker the peace talks that broke down in November, but there is new concern that the truce backfired, allowing the TTP to regain strength.
“This is a very decisive moment for Pakistan,” said Muhammad Amir Rana, a security analyst in Islamabad. “The mistakes made by the state, to give a way for the TTP to come back to Pakistan, should not happen again. There should be no policy to talk to them and provide them with an opportunity to regroup and get strengthened. We need a firm resolve against terrorism.”
The contradictions between various TTP leaders who claimed or denied the Monday bombing have spawned several theories among observers of militant activities. One is that the attack was carried out by an extreme rogue faction, based in one of Pakistan’s tribal areas. The other is that it had secret TTP approval but was belatedly disowned because of pressure from the Taliban rulers in Kabul, who denounced the deadly attack on a mosque as un-Islamic as they themselves are seeking international recognition.
Whatever the real story behind Monday’s massacre, it has instantly dashed the nation’s sense of complacency as the earlier era of violent militancy faded, and has also thrust Pakistan’s insecure, beleaguered government into a tense new battle that it never expected to add to its current woes.
As Shah, the chief provincial security official in Peshawar, put it, the bombing has “created an environment of fear” across the country. He called on all security agencies to share intelligence and “jointly fight” the threat of further militant attacks. “We are in a state of war, and we must be vigilant,” he said.