Pakistan’s Violent Cycles of Sectarianism

On February 13, 2015, four suicide bombers attacked a Shia mosque during Friday prayers, killing 19 and injuring more than 40 people. The Pakistani Taliban (TTP) claimed responsibility, saying the attack was in response to the recent hanging of one of their members. While this particular attack may have been triggered by the military offensive against the Taliban in the northwestern regions of the country, it is also the most recent episode in a sectarian conflict that has plagued the country almost since its inception. Unless the Pakistani state re-evaluates its relationship with certain hardliner Sunni militant groups, the metastasizing cycles of sectarian violence will continue, with each new one deadlier than the last.

Historically, the Shias in Pakistan, which constitute about 20% of the population, began to mobilize after general Zia came to power in 1977. Zia’s Islamization policies were rooted in Sunni principles and alienated the Shia minority. Next door, post-revolution Iran viewed itself as the protector of Shias across the world, and in a bid to export its revolution, began supporting newly formed Shia militant groups. Rival Sunni militant groups were formed, and with the onset of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, Iraq and the Gulf states lent their backing to these groups to help marginalize Pakistan’s Shias, who were viewed as Iran’s pawns in the region. Sectarian violence in Pakistan soared.

However, by the mid-1990s, Iranian funding for Shia militant groups had largely dried up. Embroiled in battle against the Taliban by its backing of the Northern Alliance, and fearing a backlash of Sunni militancy on its own soil, Iran concluded that support for Pakistan’s Shia militants was counter-productive. Moreover, in 1996, Ghulam Raza Naqvi, the leader of Sipah-e-Mohammed (SMP), the most prominent Shia militant organization, was arrested. Soon after, the Punjab Crime Investigation Department infiltrated and bought off the remaining core members, decimating the group. Meanwhile, hardliner Sunni militant groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and Sippah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan, and demonstrated their utility to the state. Thus, until 2001, the unspoken alliance between the state and Sunni militants continued.

After 9/11, however, as the U.S. ally in the War on Terror, General Musharraf, was forced to ban many of these same militant organizations.  Many of the groups changed names and continued to operate. However, once the Pakistani military began targeting militants in FATA, the internal militant dynamics changed. By 2007, an umbrella organization of anti-state militant groups emerged: TTP, or the Pakistani Taliban. The TTP then went on to swear allegiance to Al Qaeda. Interestingly, many groups and individuals in the TTP were associated with anti-Shia groups such as LeJ and SSP. This led to a deadly cross-fertilization of skills, strategies, and resources: LeJ and SSP have been known to provide TTP and Al Qaeda intelligence, safe houses, and volunteers, in return for access to Al Qaeda strategies and trainings, such as sophisticated bomb making techniques.

At the same time, it is believed that anti-Shia militant organizations continue to be used by the state apparatus. When the separatist movement in the southern province of Balochistan started gaining momentum in 2012, the local Shia population was ruthlessly targeted by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). It was repeatedly alleged that Pakistan’s security forces, in a bid to dilute the Baloch nationalist movement, backed the attacks.

Today, Pakistan’s Shia minority finds itself trapped in the crossfire of larger national and regional conflicts. With the decisive dismantling of Shia militant organizations by Pakistan’s security forces in the 1990s, recent sectarian attacks have been overwhelmingly one-sided, and have targeted unarmed, ordinary Shias. In the face of increasingly ruthless attacks, the Shia population has so far taken recourse to dramatic, peaceful protests to draw attention to their plight. However, there is evidence to suggest the dynamic might be shifting, and that Shia militants may be mobilizing once again. The recent release of Gulam Raza Naqvi, the revered Shia leader, after an 18-year imprisonment, may be ominous in this regard.

All the while, the Pakistani military and civilian government continue to operate in the absence of a coherent strategy. Some parts of the military continue to view militant groups as valuable tools of foreign policy. Moreover, right-wing political parties like the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) continue to provide Sunni militant organizations political cover, making effective elimination nearly impossible (for instance, the SSP, operating as Ahl-e-Sunnat-Wal-Jamaat (ASWJ) fielded 40 candidates in the 2013 general elections). While it remains to be seen if the current military operation will defeat the Pakistani Taliban, the February 13 attack demonstrates that the Shia minority remains trapped in the crossfire. Unless the Pakistani state stops viewing Sunni militant groups as a backstop against India, Iran, and Afghanistan, the issue of sectarianism will continue to morph and spiral out of control, with consequences that can spill beyond Pakistan’s borders.


Image: A Majeed-AFP, Getty

Posted in , Militancy, Pakistan, Policy, Security, Terrorism

Faiqa Mahmood

Faiqa Mahmood

Faiqa Mahmood is a Master's candidate at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, Tufts University, where she focuses on International Security Studies and Southwest Asia. Ms. Mahmood's research interests include unmanned warfare, civil-military relations, democratization, and human rights; her Master's thesis is titled "The Efficacy of US Drone Warfare in Pakistan: The Long View." Ms. Mahmood has also worked as a researcher with think tanks in Egypt, Lebanon, and Washington, D.C. In Pakistan, Ms. Mahmood taught second-year law students as part of the University of London's International Program. She is a licensed attorney at the Islamabad High Court, Pakistan and has been called to the Bar of England and Wales.

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2 thoughts on “Pakistan’s Violent Cycles of Sectarianism

  1. Thank you, for this honest assessment! (as opposed to the view that the Sunni Punjabi dominated Military elite has suddenly developed zero tolerance for all “non-state” actors.)

  2. Faiqa – a comprehensive assessment. Are you optimistic that a coherent CT strategy will emerge in the near-to-mid future?

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