Less than a week before the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, there had been another bloody assassination attempt in Pakistan – both could represent turning points in Pakistan’s ongoing struggle with Islamist violence.
In northwest Pakistan a suicide bomber detonated his bomb inside a crowded mosque on Eid al-Adha (the Islamic Feast of Sacrifice which marks the end of the annual hajj.) The attack was an attempt to kill former Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao. Forty-eight people were killed and over 100 were wounded, including Sherpao’s son and two grandnephews. Sherpao was unharmed.
This was the second attempt on Sherpao’s life in eight months, the previous attempt at a political rally in nearby Charsadda, 28 were killed and Sherpao was slightly wounded.
That Islamists would attack Sherpao is unsurprising. As Interior Minister he was a top security official and a key player in the Lal Masjid Mosque crackdown that has sparked the present high levels of violence. But for an Islamist to enter a mosque on a major holiday and murder innocent worshipers should be beyond the pale – even for radical Islamists.
Audrey Kurth Cronin, a professor at the National War College, in this excellent article in International Security How al-Qaida Ends: The Decline and Demise of Terrorist Groups describes how the loss of popular support is a key factor in the demise of terrorist groups. Describing one of the most common paths to this collapse, she writes:
…a terrorist group’s attacks can cause revulsion among its actual or potential public constituency. This is a historically common strategic error and can cause the group to implode. Independent of the counterterrorist activity of a government, a terrorist group may choose a target that a wide range of its constituents consider illegitimate.
The attacks on Bhutto, which have also killed many innocents, have undoubtedly deepened the revulsion amongst Pakistan’s public. But the attack on Sherpao and its attendant massacre of innocent worshipers should foster revulsion among the Islamist’s core base of support, the Pashtun tribes of the Northwest Frontier Province.
Time and again, the Pakistani people have shown that they are not radical Islamists. The Islamist parties rarely poll even in the low double digits in national elections. Since taking power in the Northwest Frontier Province the Islamists have actually lost a great deal of support, when their rule proved little better than their secular predecessors.
In the midst of the many tragedies faced by Pakistan there are real opportunities. If moderates in the Pakistani government and civil society can show real leadership (always a big if) against the Islamists they could find real support among Pakistan’s public and help turn Pakistan from a global security problem into the modern liberal Muslim democracy envisioned by its founders.