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Why a hardline extremist group targeted Lahore in Easter bombing

March 28, 2016 at 6:40 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: In Pakistan, the government and people were reeling from yesterday’s terrorist attack in Lahore. It’s the country’s cultural capital.

The crime scene was strung with police tape and emptied of visitors this morning, while investigators searched for evidence. Sunday’s suicide bomber targeted Christians at an Easter celebration. But most of the dead were Muslims who’d been enjoying the park on a weekend.

MAN (through interpreter): I was standing there near the seesaw when the blast occurred. The explosion was very loud. As we rushed over here, we saw a pool of blood and people lying here and there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A breakaway Taliban faction claimed responsibility, its fifth attack since December. In a challenge to the government, the militants said in a statement: “We have entered Lahore.”

The eastern city in Punjab province, the country’s richest and most populous, is a power base of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. His government launched a paramilitary crackdown in Punjab today. And after visiting the wounded, Sharif returned to Islamabad, vowing to defeat what he called the extremist mind-set.

NAWAZ SHARIF, Prime Minister, Pakistan (through interpreter): We will not let them raise their heads again. We will not allow them to play with the lives of the people of Pakistan. This is my resolve. This is my government’s resolve.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Muslim extremists protested outside Parliament for a second day. They chanted “Death to Nawaz” and demanded authorities impose Islamic Sharia law.

Back in Lahore, funerals played out all day as victims, including some of the children, were laid to rest.

MAN (through interpreter): These people were innocent. They had no idea when they left their homes what was going to happen to them. Terrorists killed these innocent people. We demand strict punishment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And at the Vatican, Pope Francis called the attacks vile and senseless.

We explore the situation in Pakistan now with Husain Haqqani, who was Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington from 2008 to 2011. He’s now director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute. He’s also the author of “Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military.” And Pamela Constable, who has covered Pakistan for The Washington Post, and is the author of “Playing With Fire: Pakistan at War With Itself.”

And we welcome both of you back to the program.

Mr. Ambassador, let me start with you.

This group Jamaat-ur-Ahrar, who are they? Where do they come from?

HUSAIN HAQQANI, Former Ambassador, Pakistan: It’s a group that was part of the Pakistani Taliban, the TTP. It has an affiliation with al-Qaida.

They are an offshoot of the TTP, and they have flirted with supporting — support ISIS recently. And they have been responsible for other actions, including kidnappings for ransom and terrorist acts in the past.
JUDY WOODRUFF: When you say they have flirted with ISIS, what do you mean?

HUSAIN HAQQANI: They issued a statement saying that “We agree with ISIS objectives,” but they didn’t go so far as to disassociate with al-Qaida and affiliate themselves with ISIS.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Pam Constable, what would you add to that? Help us figure out where — how they fit into what we already know about the Taliban and ISIS in this part of the world.

PAMELA CONSTABLE, The Washington Post: Well, it’s interesting because, of course, the Pakistani Taliban has always been ferocious and very anti-Western and very anti-state, but this group seems to have been even more hard-line.

They split off from the Pakistan Taliban because it wasn’t hard-line enough on issues such as Sharia law and real fundamentalist values. And the leader of this group is from the border tribal area up in the northwest. But the fact that they’re focusing on Punjab is extremely interesting. And it’s a major challenge for this government, unlike anything they have faced before.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why is that significant that they went after Punjab and specifically the city of Lahore?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Well, partly because, as you — as the tape mentioned, this is the power base of the government, but it’s also because Punjab has always been a little bit off-limits in terms of the anti-terror fight.

There are some groups based in Punjab that have government support, whether it’s acknowledged or not. They have gone very lightly on them. They have tried to appease them. And now it really is coming back to haunt them, because you have much more radical groups coming in and building on that foundation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, why is Punjab, why is Lahore such a target?

HUSAIN HAQQANI: Well, Lahore is only a target yesterday, but the fact remains that the rest of the country has been a target for much longer.

The real problem lies in that attitude of the government of trying to protect the parties in Punjab, while going after the terrorists in other parts of the country, but not in the Punjab. And that’s what has come back to bite them.

The fact of the matter is that the Pakistani military and the Pakistani civilian leadership easily gets distracted by delusions of fighting India and influence in Afghanistan and allowing certain jihadi groups to pursue those objectives, not realizing that they can end up having offshoots, just like the Pakistani Taliban came out of the Afghan Taliban. The Pakistani component of the Afghan Taliban ended up becoming a separate group.

And now Jamaat-ur-Ahrar has broken away from the Pakistani Taliban. Pakistan has to make a decision to go after all terrorist groups, as well as the mind-set that breeds these terrorists. And Pakistan has not been able to make that decision.

Every few years — in fact, I can recall at least — being in this studio for at least six times saying, whether Pakistan is saying or somebody is staying in the studio Pakistan is going after these people now, it hasn’t, and 16 years have gone by.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you explain, Pam Constable, how much the government appears to have taken its eye off the ball? And what is it that this group wants? Is it just to destroy anything that doesn’t agree with them? Why specifically children? This was a playground. There were children, women, and they ended up mostly killing Muslims.

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Well, they want power. They want religious power. They want their vision of the religion to prevail in what has been historically, at least in theory, a multireligious democracy, in which obviously Muslim dominates, but — Islam dominates, but the country has always been very not open to Christianity only, but benefited enormously.

Some of the best schools and colleges in Pakistan have been Christian. So it’s always been a popular group, a group that’s fit in and benefited greatly the society. I think it’s important to point out that these extremists don’t only go after Christians. They go after Shiite Muslims and they go after Ahmadi Muslims, which is a very ostracized Muslim minority. They have been very badly attacked by groups like this.

So, this really is sort of the sword arm of extreme Sunni Islam acting viciously, without regard for any human life, simply to make a point, Easter, a park, children, mothers, playground. Notably, very little guards, few guards were there.

HUSAIN HAQQANI: And they justify killing the Muslims as well on grounds that this is necessary for advancing their cause.

Two things are at play here. One, Pakistan’s involvement with jihadi groups initially was primarily as a strategic investment, which was supposed to bring them benefits through influence in Afghanistan and…

JUDY WOODRUFF: At the highest levels.

HUSAIN HAQQANI: And the liberation of Jammu and Kashmir from India.

That has backfired. Now, even though it has backfired, Pakistan has been very selective in going after these jihadi groups. And that is the reason why the jihadi groups pick up specific targets like Shias or Ahmadis or Christians, as a means of improving their recruitment, playing on various kinds of polarization, and taking advantage of that to advance in society further.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Pam Constable, how much should we look at this as an extension of what ISIS is doing in other parts of the world, especially in the Middle East, and how much of this is internal to Pakistan?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: I think it’s mostly internal, but I think this group — and I think they even said so — groups like this are taking a leaf, taking an inspiration, if you will, from ISIS and saying, we can go farther, we can do more. You know, let’s get up to the plate here.

But it’s been going on a very long time within Pakistan, sort of creeping up bomb by bomb and attack by attack. It’s not new news. It’s the pace and the ferocity that has increased. And I think that that is because they feel emboldened by ISIS.

HUSAIN HAQQANI: And the state has not taken the measures that are necessary to isolate them all.

So, there are groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed which attack India. And they are spared. Once they are spared, it’s very possible that some of their members will actually join splinter groups which will attack Pakistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just very quickly, in less than a minute, to both of you, when Prime Minister Sharif says, “We’re going after the people responsible, we’re going to something about this,” how realistic is that?

HUSAIN HAQQANI: Well, people like me at that time say, I hope you can, but Pakistan has had eight prime ministers since 9/11, each one of whom has said the same thing. It hasn’t happened.

We need to examine why it hasn’t happened and try to change that.

PAMELA CONSTABLE: The government says, unofficially, that it’s going to be sending in paramilitary rangers in Punjab, which has been somewhat successful in Karachi, a very violent city.

Let’s see if they can do it. I have serious doubts, but let’s see if they can do it. Maybe it will be a turning point. One can always hope.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Pam Constable, Ambassador Husain Haqqani, we thank you both.

PAMELA CONSTABLE: You’re welcome.