An Islamic militant in Pakistan in a file photo. Image: Agencies

When 11 ethnic Hazara coal miners were brutally murdered on January 3 in the restive Pakistan province of Balochistan, it wasn’t the first time the minority community had come under terrorist attack.

Targeted killings of Hazaras is part of an ongoing ideological war perpetrated by Pakistani Sunni fanatics against Shiite minorities, a brutal campaign that runs the risk of retaliation from neighboring Iran.   

The desire to impose Sunni over Shiite Islam is the extremist linchpin of such terror networks as Lashkar-e-Jhangavi (LeJ), a Punjab-based Sunni supremacist jihadi group that claimed responsibility for the recent killings.

The fact that Sunni jihadist militants continue to wage such campaigns shows that the Pakistani state has, despite repeated counterclaims, largely failed to uproot and eliminate the jihadi networks it created in the 1980s to fight the Soviets in neighboring Afghanistan.

It was clear even in the 1980s that the use of religious ideology to resist the Soviet communists, who were largely portrayed as “heathens”, would inevitably transform into a monster that targets religious minorities, who are likewise seen as “unbelievers” by hardcore Sunni Islamists.

Established as an offshoot of the anti-Shiite Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan party in 1996, LeJ quickly transformed into Pakistan’s most feared sectarian death squad targeting religious and other minorities across the country.

A US and Pakistan designated terror organization, LeJ has known ties with the Afghan Taliban and has received training in the past from al Qaeda. That’s lent credence to reports LeJ maintains a sanctuary in southern Afghanistan’s Zabul province, from where it can launch attacks across the border into Pakistan.  

Lashkar-e-Jhangavi militants on the march. Image: Facebook

The list of LeJ-claimed atrocities against the Hazara is long and wide. In 2013, LeJ launched multiple bombings in the Pakistan city of Quetta that killed over 200 Hazaras. They also claimed responsibility for the 2016 bombing of a Quetta-based police training center, killing 61 cadets and army officers, among them ethnic Hazaras.

Hazaras, which number somewhere between 600,000-900,000 in Pakistan, are largely based in Quetta. They are also an oppressed minority in neighboring Afghanistan. Some 500,000 Hazaras live in Iran, where many have fled persecution in Pakistan and Afghanistan.   

The Hazara-led sit-in protest over the recent coal miner killings, staged in Quetta, was not the first the beleaguered community has mobilized to demand an end to the attacks.  In 2018, a Hazara sit-in was staged in response to nine killings of their community members between March and May of that year. The sit-in was called off only after the Army chief met the protestors and guaranteed their security.

While Prime Minister Imran Khan was quick to allege an “Indian hand” in the recent killings, he had a different view in 2013 as a parliamentarian when he called for swift and strict action against LeJ for Hazara attacks. It’s unclear if LeJ’s attempted assassination of then-premier Nawaz Sharif in 1999 may have influenced his view.

Most militant and terror incidents in Pakistan are reflexively blamed on an “Indian conspiracy.” While this is often true, especially in the historically restive province of Balochistan, where an armed separatist movement has been ongoing for decades, the finger-pointing also aims to distract attention from Islamabad’s patent failure to uproot the jihadi infrastructure it established in the 1980s, despite the banning of some 77 different militant outfits.

This is due largely due to the state’s own docile and at times deliberate negligence in protecting religious and sectarian minorities. This is particularly evident in the state’s behavior in Balochistan and its capital of Quetta, where most of the attacks on the Hazara have taken place.

Then-Pakistani opposition leader Imran Khan (C) arrives at the site a day after a suicide bombing at the Civil Hospital in Quetta on August 9, 2016. Photo: AFP/Banaras Khan

Anti-Shiite jihadist groups active in the city have not confined their attacks to religious and sectarian minorities, but have also targeted progressive and other politically active groups. In 2016, after a suicide bombing that killed over 70 people including dozens of lawyers in Quetta’s Sandeman Hospital, the Supreme Court of Pakistan established an inquiry commission into the attack’s causes.

The commission found a combination of factors, including state negligence (rather than foreign involvement) and poor functioning anti-terrorism institutions including the Ministry of Religious Affairs and provincial police forces, contributed to the lethal assault. It also found the powerful Interior Ministry had failed to curb and was even complicit with militant organizations and their leadership.

The report specifically refers to how the then-government of Balochistan had written to the Federal Interior Ministry to “proscribe Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and referred to five specific FIRs that recorded their crimes, which included the murder of policemen and Frontier Corps personnel.

“The Ministry of Interior did not to respond to either letter of the government of Balochistan nor proscribed the said organizations,” the report said, adding that state inaction showed an “abject failure” of both The National Counter Terrorism Act and the National Action Plan.

The Pakistan state, instead of working to curb such attacks before they happened, was more focused on co-opting the terror groups that perpetuate them, the report said.

Pakistani minority Hazaras demonstrate following a Karachi bomb attack during a rally in Quetta on March 4, 2013. Photo: AFP/Banaras Khan

According to the findings of the said inquiry report, the then-Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan had on October 21, 2016 met Maulana Mohammad Ahmed Ludhianvi, the head of three banned organizations — Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan, Millat-i-Islamia and Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat — to listen to his demands and apparently conceded to them.

While the report urged the state to re-exert itself in the face of rampant extremism and the targeted killings of minorities, the Imran Khan regime’s limp response to the latest killings shows that the state – instead of guaranteeing security – has receded even further in the face of blatant terrorism.

The inability and unwillingness of state actors to uproot the jihadi infrastructure it had an original hand in creating is not only hurting Pakistan’s efforts to curb militancy and jihad but has also kept the nation on a key international terror-financing blacklist. Meanwhile, the Hazaras and other religious minorities live in constant fear of the next attack.