ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — A car bomb ripped through a crowded bazaar in the northwestern city of Peshawar, killing at least 74 people today. The deadly attack coincided with the start of a three-day visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who told reporters upon arrival that “Pakistanis have rendered extraordinary sacrifices to stamp out extremism.”
The bombing, which brings this month’s civilian death toll from terror attacks to more than 250, fits an emerging pattern. As the Army pushes its offensive in the Taliban’s base of South Waziristan, militants are lashing out with more attacks on civilians rather than security-related targets.
“It is a different pattern that is emerging now,” says security analyst Ayesha Siddiqa. “What they are trying to do is maximize the germs of fear in the society.”
Television footage from todaya’s blast showed that many shops and vehicles in the area had caught fire while people frantically sought survivors amid the rubble of the Peepal Mandi marketplace. The market sells mostly women’s products.
Over the past two years most high-profile attacks have targeted the state’s security apparatus. This month alone, militants have attacked the Army’s headquarters in Rawalpindi, two police academies and intelligence offices in Lahore, a military convoy in Peshawar, and two military officers. The most prominent exception to these hard targets was a commando-style attack in Lahore on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team in April.
More soft targets
Recently, however, militants have struck more soft targets such as the marketplace in Peshawar. Last week, a suicide bomber detonated himself at the Islamic University in Islamabad, killing at least six people and prompting schools across the country to shut down. Throughout Pakistan’s major cities, public places remain quiet.
“Look at the streets – everything is empty right now. People are afraid, business is down, everyone thinks 100 times before leaving their houses. They only go out for the most important of tasks,” says Saqib Rahim who works at a burger stand in Islamabad’s Jinnah Market.
“I’m afraid for my family whenever they go out shopping,” says Zunaira Fayyaz, an Islamabad-based lawyer. “But at the same time we can’t stop going about our business or else they have succeeded.”
Attacks could backfire
The wave of attacks could backfire against militants as public opinion coalesces in support of military action, says Rifaat Hussain, a security analyst at the Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad.
“In a way there’s a greater resentment and people are much more willing to cooperate with the security agencies and the police and trying to organize themselves with the threat of suicide bombers around them,” he says.
A poll released Oct. 1 by the US-based International Republican Institute found that 73 percent of Pakistanis feel the Taliban is a threat to the country. Eighty-seven percent of Pakistani Muslims said that suicide bombing is never justifiable.
Following the attack, Secretary Clinton said in a joint press conference with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi: “I would like to convey my sympathy to the people of Pakistan. I want you to know this fight is not Pakistan’s alone.”
Her visit is seen as attempt to reaffirm Washington’s support for Pakistan’s civilian government. She is also expected to try to reduce tensions over conditions set on a nonmilitary aid package to Pakistan worth $7.5 billion over five years.
“We commit to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Pakistani people in your fight for peace and security,” she said.