Two faces of terrorism

The one link between the two massacres in two countries

By Mahir Ali (Counterpoint)

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Published: Wed 25 Sep 2013, 10:59 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 7:19 PM

Wanton Killings... Pakistani Christians pray for suicide bombing victims at All Saints Church in Peshawar (left) and (right) a policeman carries a baby to safety after masked gunmen stormed an upmarket mall and sprayed gunfire on shoppers and staff, killing at least six on September 21 in Nairobi. — AFP

THE TERRORIST atrocities perpetrated in Peshawar and Nairobi on the weekend were dissimilar but not exactly disconnected. For one, both were explicitly directed against non-Muslims. The dozen or so men who stormed into the Westgate shopping mall in the Kenyan capital reportedly queried potential victims about their faith before singling out their victims. Outside the All Saints Church in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa capital, no such interrogation was deemed necessary.

The pattern of the Nairobi siege has been compared with the Mumbai rampage of 2008. The suicide bombings in Peshawar, on the other hand, resemble the targeting of Shia and Ahmadi places of worship. In both cases, however, commentators purportedly representing the perpetrators have harped on the theme of foreign military intervention as a primary motivational factor.

The Somali militia Al Shabaab, which has claimed responsibility for the Nairobi carnage, has claimed it was a response to Kenya’s military role in neighbouring Somalia, where a ramshackle regime in Mogadishu barely survives in the presence of troops contributed by the African Union (AU). The Shabaab militia, though, has a particular beef with Kenyan forces, which have collaborated with local warlords to substantially restrict its remit.

In Pakistan, it was the Jundullah wing of the local Taliban that broadcast its culpability, alleging to have been provoked by the American drone strikes in the tribal areas — without elaborating, obviously, on the connection between the All Saints churchgoers and the CIA’s Predators, because there is none.

Sadly, but not altogether surprisingly, Imran Khan, whose party wields provincial power in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, chose to implicitly harp on the same theme, while also linking the attack to elements opposed to the prospect of peace talks between the Taliban and the government in Islamabad, without specifying who he had in mind.

It is intriguing that the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) subsequently denied involvement in the attack, but in itself proves nothing. It is hardly a secret, after all, that groups loosely affiliated with the Taliban pursue relatively independent agendas, so even if the TTP is not being entirely disingenuous, it is perfectly conceivable one of its associates may have decided to commit mass murder without clearing its plans with the TTP hierarchy.

It may well also be the case that whoever authorised the unutterably vile act was indeed determined, inter alia, to thwart any sort of peace process. If so, they are likely to have been pleased by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s assurance from London that in the wake of the monumental tragedy, conciliatory talks were off the agenda.

Perhaps he felt he had little choice. After all, many sensible voices in Pakistan oppose negotiations with dedicated killers as pointless, and arguably irresponsible. After all, in any civilized state, some things must be non-negotiable. Such as the sanctity of life.

Talks ought not to be written off completely as long as there is the slightest chance that they could lead to a modus vivendi that does not entail submitting to obscurantist blackmail. But given that the prospect of successful negotiations are incredibly slim, is there a Plan B in place? A dozen years after the 9/11 backlash, has the notion sunk in that Pakistan and terrorism cannot indefinitely coexist?

Pakistan cannot, surely, want to lapse into another Somalia. The lessons are tangential, no doubt, but ought not to be ignored. The African state fell into disarray following the ouster of Siad Barre in 1991, and was overrun by competing militias under rival warlords, a trend that UN and US intervention in the mid-1990s — including an ill-fated contingent of Pakistani peacekeepers — singularly failed to arrest.

A semblance of stability was eventually restored by the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which fell short of a satisfactory solution, but temporarily brought peace to Mogadishu by sidelining the warlords. Its nomenclature alone may have sufficed, though, to provoke a disastrous US-backed Ethiopian invasion, which led to the ascendancy of Al Shabaab, which had until then been a relatively minor component of the ICU.

There have since then been competing factions within Al Shabaab, which affiliated itself with Al Qaeda a few years ago, with Somali nationalists — who primarily opposed a foreign presence on their soil — lately weeded out by the votaries of global jihad, who have attracted adherents, including British and US-born Somalis, from across the world. Both Al Shabaab and the Kenyan authorities claim that the Westgate terrorists were a disparate bunch in terms of nationality.

The vast area Al Shabaab once controlled within Somalia has also been shrinking, largely because of military operations by Kenyan and other AU forces in collaboration with warlords whose loyalties are easily bought. What’s more, its leadership and ranks have lately been depleted by a vendetta against nationalists averse to the agenda of global jihadism. The militia is likely to have been aware that the shopping mall it targeted in Nairobi is Israeli owned, but it appears Westgate was chosen because it is magnet for Westerners as well as the Kenyan elite.

Its ruthlessness inevitably made the world pay attention. And Kenya, whose president and vice-president have both been implicated by the International Criminal Court in the violence that followed elections five years ago, has received offers of additional support from the UK, US and Israel. Pakistan and Somalia are very different entities but, although it is clear that US intervention has not had a salutary effect in either case, stemming the bloodshed in both cases deserves more concerted engagement at a local level than, most tragically, has hitherto been the case.

Mahir Ali is a journalist based 
in Sydney

More news from