Mass-Casualty Attacks in Pakistan

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By Nathan Cohn – Militant groups are tearing the fabric of Pakistani
society, exacting a toll on innocent bystanders, sectarian foes, political
leaders, security forces, and the economy. More than 7,000 Pakistanis have died
in nearly 450 mass-casualty attacks, defined here as an assault by non-state
actors killing five or more individuals in Pakistan, according to data
collated from the Worldwide Incidents Tracking System of the National
Counter-Terrorism Center (NTCT) and the South Asia Terrorism Portal. These
attacks are calculated, vary by region, and correlate with triggering events,
including elections and Pakistani military campaigns. Their frequency, scope,
and magnitude have grown steadily over the last decade, and have risen markedly
since the July 2007 military operation against the Red Mosque in Islamabad. Since then,
mass-casualty attacks have occurred at an annual rate of approximately 90
incidents resulting in 1,500 deaths. 
Only one other country — Iraq
— has suffered more from mass casualty terrorism than Pakistan in the
last five years.

Analysis of data reveals that different militant groups
attack different aspects of Pakistani society. Violence is most concentrated
along the Afghan border, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and
Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the locations of more than 250 attacks and 4,500 deaths from
mass-casualty incidents. Death tolls are lower in the more populous eastern
provinces: 860 have died in 67 incidents in Sindh; 963 have perished in 42
attacks in the Punjab; and in Islamabad and Rawalpindi – defined here
as the National Capital Area – 29 incidents have killed 462. In Balochistan,
579 have died in 45 mass-casualty incidents, while 37 have died in three attacks
in the area known within Pakistan
as Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan.  

These deadly assaults are calculated to
settle scores, influence Pakistan’s
regional, foreign, and national security policies, as well as to affect
domestic power struggles and election campaigns. Many attacks correlate with
triggering events. Politically-inspired killings rise with upcoming electoral
contests. Bloodletting in Sindh and the Punjab
can be sectarian in nature, with clear political overtones. Shifting
allegiances and military plans in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa or along the Afghan border
can affect casualty counts. As a result, national-level trends rarely manifest
uniformly across Pakistan.
Because there are so many triggering events and grievances, it will be very
difficult for Pakistani political leaders and military authorities to reverse
these trends.

Attacks against security forces have increased more than
3,000 percent since 2005, now constituting 31 percent of all deaths from
mass-casualty incidents in the last five years. Deaths from mass-casualty
attacks against security-related targets are most common in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa
and FATA, where more than 60 percent of deaths from these attacks have
occurred.  Fifteen percent of
security-related deaths result from incidents in the Punjab,
while only four percent of deaths from these attacks occur in Sindh, where
violence is mostly directed at civil society. Although only 10 percent of
deaths from attacks against security-related targets occur in the National
Capital Area, fatalities from these attacks are particularly high, representing
more than 50 percent of all deaths in Islamabad
and Rawalpindi.

As would be expected, mass-casualty attacks against
security-related targets, especially against Pakistan’s armed forces, grow in
conjunction with Pakistani military operations. Military campaigns in FATA or
Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa are often accompanied by incidents in the Punjab
and the National Capital Area, but outside of the warzone, these attacks have
been rare in the absence of military campaigns. Spikes in mass-casualty attacks
against security-related targets in the National Capital Area and the Punjab accompanied the 2008 Swat campaign, and the fall
2009 military campaign in the FATA. However, since an intense wave of violence
in late 2009, mass-casualty attacks against security-related targets,
especially against Pakistan’s
armed forces, have greatly diminished in the National Capital Area and the Punjab. In contrast, mass-casualty attacks against
security forces in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the FATA, as well as against police
units, continue unabated.

Two attacks on security targets merit particular notice.
The coordinated attack on Pakistan Naval Station Mehran in May 2011 followed
the raid by U.S. Special Forces against Osama Bin Laden’s residence in
Abbottabad. The siege of Army General Headquarters in October 2009 followed the
announcement of Pakistan Army plans to launch an operation in South
Waziristan. Both attacks were characterized by commando-style
operations and may have been assisted by insider knowledge.  The Pakistan Army may be reluctant to
increase the scope and intensity of its operations against militants in part
because it will again bear the brunt of a resulting spike in mass casualty attacks.    

A longer version of this piece and supporting
data can be found in the Stimson publication, “Crisis in South Asia: Trends and Consequences.”

Photo Credit: Associated Press,

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