Soft target for militants in Lahore

By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Islamabad

Image caption,
Ahmadi mosques have been targeted

The pattern of attack in Lahore is by now all too familiar for the residents of Pakistan's cultural capital.

There has been something of a lull in the grand co-ordinated assaults. The last major attack was in March when a double suicide bombing killed dozens.

But militants have now for the first time targeted the Ahmadi religious minority. Shia Muslims have been targeted over the past year.

As a minority Islamic sect, the Ahmadis are also a soft target.

Ahmadis consider themselves Muslim and follow all Islamic rituals. But they were declared non-Muslims in Pakistan in 1974 and in 1984 they were legally barred from proselytising or identifying themselves as Muslims.

The are the most suppressed of all minority communities in Pakistan and are not free to perform all their desired religious functions.

They are also reviled by the general public. Popular sentiment has been positioned against the Ahmadis for some time. One reason is that because they do not consider Muhammad to be the last prophet, they are considered heretics.

Members of the community have suffered at the hands of mobs rather than organised militants.

There have been occasions where they were gunned down in targeted attacks and militants have thrown hand grenades into Ahmadi mosques.

Such incidents have been prevalent in Punjab province, of which Lahore is the capital, and where most Ahmadis live.

Punjab is also where a number of sectarian militant groups have been active for decades. Anti-Ahmadi sentiment is decades-old in Pakistan, so in some senses the Ahmadis were an obvious target.

'Taliban style'

But there has been nothing on this scale from organised militants.

Friday's attack is in the Taliban style: co-ordinated, simultaneous attacks such as the brazen assault on the Sri Lankan cricket team in 2009.

The mosques in Model Town and Garhi Shahu are 15km (9.5 miles) apart and attackers stormed both mosques around 2pm.

This is the first time that Ahmadi places of worship have been the target of daring organised Taliban-style attacks.

But this is also the first spectacular attack in Lahore since March, and indicates that military action against their bases in the north-western tribal region has not yet destroyed their ability to strike at will.

Lahore has always been an obvious target being the cultural and political centre of Pakistan's most populous province.

Punjabi militant groups have been active here since the 1980s. Sectarian attacks emerged after these groups were exposed to bomb-making and weaponry in Afghanistan during that period.

Groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) have long been responsible for sectarian militant attacks. Many such groups are largely led by Punjabis.

Many of these groups are closely allied with the Taliban - they have hideouts in the Punjab.

Militant attacks in Lahore have long been seen as the handiwork of Punjabi Taliban in association with such long-established sectarian outfits.

On the ground in Punjab, it is difficult to draw a line between these groups. It is difficult to tell one from the other so closely associated have they become.

One certainty is that soft targets such as these will continue to be attacked.

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