The Attock tragedy
In Punjab, Shuja Khanzada was at the forefront in cracking down on banned outfits under the NAP
By Muhammad Akbar Notezai
During the previous week, Punjab Home Minister Colonel (r) Shuja Khanzada was killed in a suicide attack along with 19 other people when he was at his political office in Shadi Khan village of the Attock District. At least 23 people were also injured in the assault. Along with the Punjab home minister, the commissioner of the Rawalpindi region, Zahid Saeed, said that the Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP), Shaukat Shah, was also among those who died in the blast. Ten other policemen were also present at the site when the explosion took place.
Both the military and civilian leaderships of Pakistan have unequivocally condemned the tragic incident. In a tribute to the home minister, Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif said: “The courage and valour of Shuja Khanzada is a message to the masterminds of terrorism that they are bound to be defeated.” Initaially, it was unknown how the bomber entered the premises where the late minister was at. Punjab Police Inspector General Mushtaq Sukhera told reporters in the aftermath of the attack that that there had been two suicide bombers; one stood outside the boundary wall and the second went inside. The blast by the bomber standing outside ripped through the wall, which caused the roof to fall flat on the minister and the people in attendance. He further added that the police could not rule out the involvement of banned sectarian militant groups against whom the government had launched a crackdown. According to media reports, there were more than 40 to 50 people present at the political office of the slain home minister of Punjab who had come to offer their condolence for the death of a close relative of the slain minister. Many of them were buried under the rubble, as the entire structure of the building was razed to the ground by the blast.
Shuja Khanzada took up the charge of the home ministry in 2014, and since then had actively — particularly in the presence of the National Action Plan (NAP) that came about in the aftermath of the Army Public School (APC) tragedy in December 16, 2014 — been involved in fighting terrorism and sectarian militancy. He had recently also announced that the chief of al Qaeda Pakistan and his accomplices had been killed in an operation, which had been conducted in the outskirts of Lahore. Moreover, he had also announced recently the death of Malik Ishaq, the leader of the banned Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) group. Malik Ishaq was killed in a police encounter with his two sons and 11 other militants on July 29 in Muzaffargarh by the counter-terrorism department.
Following his retirement from the military, Khanzada joined politics. In 2002, he was elected as a member of the Punjab Assembly as a PML-Q candidate. In 2008, he was also elected as an independent candidate and then he joined the PML-N. Subsequently, in 2013, he was again elected and in 2014 he was given the portfolio of Punjab’s home minister when the Model Town incident took place. Benazir Shah, who is an award-winning journalist recently tweeted that this year, four PML-N leaders had been targeted and killed. Shuja Khanzada was the fifth.
One of the Taliban-affiliated militant groups, Lashkar-e-Islam, claimed responsibility for the attack while saying it was retaliation for military operations against them. Salahuddin Ayubi, who is a spokesman of the Lashkar-e-Islam, also warned that such attacks would continue in the future. The aforementioned group is reportedly based in the tribal areas. However, a preliminary report submitted to CM Shahbaz Sharif by the Inspector General of Punjab Police (IGP) Mushtaq Sukhera revealed that the home minister had been killed in retaliation for the killing of LeJ Chief Malik Ishaq and 13 others, including his two sons, in July 29 in the Muzaffargarh district.
As compared to the other three provinces of Pakistan, Punjab province has remained comparatively peaceful. Since 9/11, it has witnessed terrorist incidents, at times piece by piece, in which minorities have particularly been victims. A Lahore based journalist told this scribe on the condition of anonymity that counterterrorism efforts had been directed towards the tribal areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, while the government had shut its eyes on Punjab in the past, where sectarian and religious extremist groups are based, making it now a source of terrorism. But he, on the other hand, also agrees that since December 16, 2014, when the Pakistani Taliban attacked the APS in Peshawar, the government had been leading the way for a terror free Pakistan. He further added that, in Punjab, Shuja Khanzada was at the forefront in cracking down on banned outfits under the NAP. A national English daily also reported that the slain home minister, Shuja Khanzada, had ordered the closure of 170 seminaries, most of which had been a major source of extremism and sectarianism in Punjab. These seminaries were located in Jhang, Muzaffargarh, Layyah, Rajanpur, Dera Ghazi Khan, Kot Addu, Chiniot, Taunsa, Hasilpur and Vehari. Under the directives of the home minister, we were in the process of closing down all seminaries that fell under the ‘suspect’ category.
Moreover, the South Asia Terrorism Database notes that Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali had disclosed during a briefing on the implementation of NAP in January this year that that the number of banned outfits in Punjab, which are actively engaged in terrorism and extremism, had reached 95. Though Attock is situated in Punjab, it borders the militancy-hit province of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. That is why some analysts are of the opinion that the militants who targeted Shuja Khanzada may have come from the more volatile districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Some critics say that the Attock tragedy occurred due to a security lapse; it is said that the slain minister went to his hometown without heavy security, which is why he was attacked. Whatever the case, his death most not be in vain. He was a brave crusader and his attempts to curb extremism must be carried forward.
The author is a freelance journalist and researcher based in Quetta. He blogs at http://www.akbarnotezai.wordpress.com and tweets as @Akbar_notezai