Four men belonging to the Shia faith were killed in three separate attacks in Dera Ismail Khan on May 5. The assassinations are part of a fresh wave of anti-Shia violence in the southern city of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Mukhtar Hussain Gishkori, 40, was riding a motorcycle when he was shot from behind by unidentified motorcyclists at Muryali Mor. Five minutes later, the shooters killed Professor Akhtar Hussain on the same spot. Both the men belonged to the local Shia community.
Mukhtar Hussain’s wife had given birth to a baby boy that morning. “The celebration turned into mourning,” a relative said.
About 55 minutes after the two assassinations, two lawyers Atif Zaidi and Ali Murtajiz were killed on Grid Station Road. They were cousins, and belonged to the Shia community.
“Police have arrested a number of suspects and will soon reach the culprits,” said an officer who asked not to be named.
But the local Shia community is skeptical. “They carry our search operations and arrest suspects after such attacks in order to pacify the angry community, but the attacks soon become a matter of the past and target killings of Shias go on unabated,” said Hasnain Ali, a local resident.
His wife had given birth to a baby boy that morning
On March 22, Syed Raziul Hasan Shah, a lawyer and a Shia leader, was killed in the Topan Wala Bazaar area of Dera Ismail Khan. He was riding a motorcycle when unidentified motorcyclists shot at him from behind.
The two lawyers assassinated on May 5 belong to the famous Zaidi family of Dera Ismail Khan, a prominent Shia clan that has been a key target of violent extremists for about a decade. The family has produced a number of notable bureaucrats, lawyers, judges, police officers, teachers and professors. But in various recent incidents of targeted killings, bombings and suicide attacks, the Zaidi family has lost about 30 of its members, while 20 others have been injured.
In August 2008, Basit Ali Zaidi was killed along with a number of relatives and other Shia men who had gathered at a local hospital to protest against a suicide attack on a gathering that killed 32 people. In December 2003, Syed Rajab Ali Zaidi, a superintendent of police, was killed along with his son.
“It is unfortunate that a family that sacrificed so much for the independence of Pakistan is not safe in their country,” said Tauqeer Zaidi, a journalist. “But the terrorists should keep in mind that such acts cannot demoralize us.”
Syed Arif Ali Zaidi, a prominent lawyer and an elder of the family, wants the military to launch a massive operation against violent extremists in Dera Ismail Khan and its surroundings. Tauqeer Zaidi called for a cleansing “amongst police and other law enforcement agencies” as well, where he said certain people were supporting extremists.
The fresh rise in violence against Shias has created a sense of fear and insecurity in the community.
Sectarian violence was a rare phenomenon in Dera Ismail Khan before the 1980s, after which ties between Shias and some Sunnis became sour over many years. Leaders from both the communities were assassinated during these times.
According to Dr Khadim Hussain, the managing director of Bacha Khan Trust educational foundation, a process of “de-politicization” in the country reduced the space for political activities and dialogue, and as a result, intolerance increased. “In such a society, people like to solve their differences using force,” he said.
After 2008, attacks against the Shia community became severe, often taking the form of bomb explosions and suicide attacks. On February 20, 2009, a suicide attacker targeted the funeral of Sherzaman, a local Shia notable, killing 20 people and leaving dozens others wounded. Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack.
When the conditions worsened, a large number of people belonging to the Shia faith migrated to the nearby Bhakkar town in Punjab, and other parts of the country. Dera Ismail Khan shares borders with Punjab and Balochistan, and is considered a gateway to the tribal areas. Members of TTP, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Jandullah, with their bases in tribal areas, have been reported to be behind attacks on Shias.
After the military operation Zarb-e-Azb, which targeted the TTP and other extremist groups in North Waziristan, and the subsequent implementation of the prime minister’s National Action Plan against terrorism, the number of attacks on the Shia community in Dera Ismail Khan declined. Many of those who had left the city returned to their homes.
Assad Shah, a local member of the Shia community, told me he had moved his family to Bhakkar in 2009, but they had returned to his native town after the reduction sectarian attacks. “We have an emotional attachment with the city and don’t want to leave it,” he said. “The government should provide security to our community.”
But Dr Khadim Hussain believes NAP did not do enough. “After the implementation of the National Action Plan against terrorism, there was a dire need for institutional capacity building,” he said. “But it did not happen.” He said the government should focus on a narrative of maintenance of peace, and avoid the strategy of “securitization of all issues”.
Ali Amin Gandapur, the provincial minister for revenue who represents Dera Ismail Khan city in the parliament, believes sterner security measures are however important. He said it was “painful” how such assassins flee with impunity, and promised that solar-powered CCTV cameras will be installed all over the city by the beginning of June. “Monitoring the terrorists’ activities is the only way to get rid of such killings,” he said. “Police are zeroing in on a number of gangs involved in targeted killings and will arrest them soon.”
Gandapur said sectarian groups of Dera Ismail Khan and the Seraiki belt in Punjab were interconnected. “These terrorists provide give shelter and other kinds of assistance to each other,” he said. “There should be no discrimination among militants working for political parties, religious groups or Taliban factions. Anybody who takes up guns against the government should be dealt with as a terrorist.”
Tahir Ali is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad