Last week, the Pakistani Taliban swarmed a university in northwest Pakistan and killed at least 22 people. The militants timed their attack to coincide with an in-school ceremony to maximize casualties.
Gunmen entered the university via a wall in the back area of campus and made their way across the grounds, tossing grenades and shooting. Nasir Durrani, deputy inspector general of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, said that around 50 people suspected to be connected with the attacks are being questioned by authorities. No arrests have yet been made.
According to Sophia Saifi at CNN, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, Umar Mansoor, said the attacks at Bacha Khan University in Charsadda were in retaliation for military campaigns against the group, operations that have reportedly reduced the power of the Taliban in northwestern Pakistan.
The university marked the 28th anniversary of the man after whom the institution is named, Abdul Ghafffar Khan, a Pashtun independence activist and pacifist. Scores of people gathered at the university to pay tribute when the militants arrived.
While the attack caught the campus off guard, it wasn’t entirely unexpected. State authorities heightened regional security because of intelligence of a potential attack. The additional security kept attackers confined to one side of the university. Furthermore, heavily armed troops poured into campus at the first sign of the attack and ambulances rushed in to assist the wounded. The Guardian reports that security forces killed all four gunmen in the university.
An associate professor of chemistry, Syed Hamid Husain, known by his students as “The Protector,” died attempting to shield his students by firing back at the militants. Reporters for the Daily Mail claim that Husain earned the moniker “The Protector” from his pupils because he was an avid hunter who kept a 9mm pistol in his desk. He gave his students enough time to escape before being killed himself.
The majority of student victims died in the hostel where security forces cornered the four attackers. On Thursday, Pakistan held a day of national mourning for the victims, and a prayer ceremony was held in the capital of Islamabad.
Three reporters from The New York Times write that throughout 2015, the Pakistani Taliban had been “pushed to the margin, with attacks at their lowest pace in a decade.” The attack at Bacja Khan might portend a renewed insurgency. If nothing else, the Taliban’s propensity for violence has not been diminished in light of their setbacks.
Different from the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban is closely affiliated with al Qaeda. It aspires to defeat the Pakistani military and overthrow the Pakistani state. The group arose in the early 2000s when the Pakistani military began cracking down on radical sects in Pakistan’s tribal regions near the Afghan border. Pakistani militants with ties to the Afghan Taliban split to form a Taliban of their own in 2007. Despite a difference of aims among these groups, their strategy is identical: massacring ordinary citizens to spread the seeds of fear, intimidation and mayhem.
Specifically, the Pakistani Taliban have a history of targeting teachers, students, and institutions of higher learning. In their campaign to impose an extremist ideology on Pakistani society, they have set schools on fire, banished girls from classrooms and mowed down schoolchildren. The climax of these attacks came in December 2014 when gunmen raided a school in Peshwar, slaughtering 145 people, including 132 students. Attacks on places of knowledge symbolize an assault on the progressive, secular values that the Taliban hope stymie in Pakistan.
Unsurprisingly, these militants have reserved some of their more vicious attacks, like acid throwing, for female students, who typify the kind of pluralistic society loathed by the Taliban. The Taliban’s vicious attacks on schoolchildren have occasionally backfired, however. After making an attempt on her life, the Taliban turned the schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai into an international icon of courage, reform, and progressive values. Their attacks on children also invite ruthless counterstrikes by the Pakistani military.
Notwithstanding, the Taliban appear undeterred. One day after the attacks at Bacha Kahn, a Taliban suicide bomber detonated an explosive near a police checkpoint in Peshawar, killing 11 people.