Lahore Blast: Securing Soft Targets

Spearhead Analysis – 29.03.2016

By Ayesha N.I. Ahmad
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

Pray for LahoreOn Sunday, 27 March 2016, a suicide attack by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan’s JamaatulAhrar wing claimed the lives of 72 people and injured 300 in Gulshan-i-Iqbal Park in Lahore. The motive behind the attack, it appears, was to assert the group’s presence in Lahore and to discourage Christians from celebrating Easter.

In Pakistan, militants have too often used soft targets such as shopping centers, public recreational spaces, transportation sites and parks, to inflict damage on the nations psyche. While the state’s security apparatus, for the most part, successfully protects hard targets like military bases, embassies, government buildings and nuclear power plants, terrorists have stepped up efforts to attack easy to access public places. The Lahore blast is yet another reminder of the difficulty the state faces in protecting against such soft target attacks. Unlike a terror attack on an embassy or a military base, which requires extensive planning due to it being highly patrolled, a soft target location is an easily accessible and difficult to protect area used by ordinary citizens.

Apart from the physical damage a soft target attack causes, the biggest fall out is by far psychological. It instills and spreads a sense of deep insecurity and vulnerability making it stressful to conduct regular day-to-day activities for the average person. For the government, it creates the perception of incompetent and not doing enough. The reality, as bitter as it might be, is that no government no matter how much it tries can fully protect its citizens from a deranged individual intent on blowing themselves up in a public space. The recent attacks in Belgium, Turkey, Iraq, Nigeria and the Ivory Coast have all shown this to be the case.

However, there are certain measures that must be taken by the government to ensure that such attacks occur less frequently. Steps need to be taken to ensure that effective surveillance is in place. Most attackers will observe the site of a planned attack well in advance. It is critical to train security personnel stationed at various posts to not be passive spectators but vigilant professionals who know how to read and profile people’s behavior and identify situations that are suspicious. Security response times also need to be understood and improved upon. Security threat alerts issued by the intelligence agencies and the level of threat need to effectively communicated at all governance levels.

The Prime Minister has rightly called for a more proactive co-operation amongst law enforcement and intelligence agencies against terrorism. However, just a few hours have passed since the prime ministerial address in response to the Lahore Attack and already criticism has emerged over the content and delivery of the speech. An overwhelming number of reactions on social media by top journalists, TV personalities and citizens found the speech to be too soft and lacking the urgency and tone of proactive leadership needed to root out terrorism from the top down. The state must do more in managing a narrative that connects with a panic stricken and hurt national sentiment.

As the geographical and operational capacity of terror groups is countered effectively by the military, the state must be prepared to anticipate these groups striking soft targets. The news that the military has given the go ahead for the Army and Rangers to take action in Punjab needs to be supported by all in the government. Targeting militant facilitators and hideouts will be an important step in dismantling jihadist cells, which carry out such attacks. The government’s resolve to weed out the extremist mindset that has cropped up in certain areas of the country will have to be set in motion by putting resources into strategic public awareness campaigns, educating local authorities and the citizenry on the importance of tolerance and co-existence.

The intent of the attack in Lahore was not only meant to kill or injure, but also to intimidate the public. Thus, targeting people on Easter Sunday in a Park becomes symbolic, indicating that the religious beliefs of minorities in the country are not to be allowed or celebrated. Hateful ideologies like these, that seek to polarize the society, must be effectively countered by the intelligent use of soft power. Clear statements need to come out from all political leaders and office holders that promote tolerance and equality for all citizens of Pakistan regardless of their religious background.

The events of the last 48 hours should strengthen the resolve of the government to retaliate and demonstrate in no uncertain terms its unwillingness to be bullied by a violent and vocal, but ultimately, small group of miscreants.