Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Business Recorder editorial Nov 15, 2016

Shrines’ security The suicide bombing at the Shah Noorani shrine in Balochistan has once again focused attention on what is an obvious target. Obvious because Islamic State (IS) and other terrorist groups of its ilk hate the syncretic tradition of the Sufi culture that is so much a part of South Asia’s life and also because, as in any public gathering, the annual urs (commemoration) or weekly dhamaal (dancing) sessions at such shrines attract large crowds. Chief Minister Balochistan Nawab Sanaullah Zehri announced on November 14 the setting up of a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) to probe the incident. It may be recalled that the suicide bombing on November 12 left 54 people dead and 103 wounded. The chief minister also revealed that a forensic team would be invited from Punjab to visit the shrine and collect evidence. The shrine is closed until security can be assured, which may take time. Meanwhile for reasons of difficult access to the shrine, the Balochistan government has decided to place the shrine under the control of the Sindh Auqaf Department. This indicates that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of such shrines throughout the country that are locally managed and not under the control of any provincial Auqaf department. It may be wise to see that all, or as many as possible of such shrines re brought into the Auqaf net to ensure their security. Concerns about security at the ongoing Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai urs in Sindh are even graver, both because of the recent Shah Noorani incident as well as the fact that the urs attracts huge crowds. Though the police claim security at the shrine has been beefed up, with 2,000 police and Rangers deployed, 13 walk-through gates and 25 CCTV cameras in and around the site, security must still be considered precarious there. Shrines being soft targets have attracted the unwanted attention of the terrorists in the past too. Prominent examples of such incidents are the 2005 attack on Bari Imam and the 2010 incidents at Abdullah Shah Ghazi, Data Darbar and Baba Farid Ganjshakar’s shrines. Upper Sindh and the bordering districts of Balochistan (which is where Shah Noorani is located) have been a hotbed of terrorism for some time. Isolated, unprotected shrines like Shah Noorani are most at risk. Counterterrorism has its own best practices, based on experience. Europe too reeled from the recent wave of terrorist attacks in Paris and other locations. The exception in Europe appears to be Spain. Forty years of combating the Basque separatists had already honed the Spanish counterterrorism capability. The bombings of Madrid trains therefore did not require more than a further vamping up of the counterterrorism capability. Essentially, the Spanish counterterrorism model is one long advocated by experts in Pakistan too, but with only halting progress. Counterterrorism cannot succeed without intelligence-based pre-emptive strikes on terrorist organisations. There is no other efficacious way to prevent suicide bombers from plying their horrendous trade, especially not after a suicide bomber is launched. Even if he/she is taken down before reaching the intended target, there will always be considerable collateral damage. But all is not darkness. The Counter Terrorism Department of Punjab on November 14 foiled a plot to attack a shrine in Gujranwala, arresting in their pre-emptive raid the three terrorists, a treasure trove of explosives and IS literature. This is precisely the kind of operation required to scotch terrorism. However, no one should be sanguine that this will be a quick or easy task. What is important is not only this kind of intelligence-based pre-emptive action but, since the terrorists are no respecters of provincial or even international boundaries, close coordination amongst the provinces and the Centre, preferably under the umbrella of one organisation with a centralised data base.

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