Police inspect a site around damaged vehicles after a suicide bombing near the Confucius Institute affiliated with the Karachi University on April 26, 2022. Photo: VCG / Global Times / Facebook

PESHAWAR – China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Pakistan is being targeted by an intensifying Balochistan insurgency that has so far claimed dozens of lives including three Chinese teachers last week in a daring suicide attack carried out by a female operative of the insurgent Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA).

Shari Baloch, a 31-year-old teacher, mother of two and a post-graduate philosophy student, blew herself up in front of a van carrying Chinese teachers near the Confucius Institute in the southern seaport city of Karachi on April 26, killing at least three Chinese nationals along with their Pakistani driver.

The banned Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) and its lethal guerrilla cell, Majeed Brigade, have claimed the responsibility for the suicide attack, which killed four in Karachi.

Hours after the BLA operative detonated the explosive-laden bag in front of the approaching van, the militant group told an international news channel that the female operative targeted the Confucius institute, which they believed was a “symbol of Chinese economic, cultural and political expansionism.”

“It will give a clear message to China that its presence in Balochistan will not be tolerated,” the BLA representative told the news channel.

China’s Foreign Ministry strongly condemned and expressed “great indignation over this major terrorist attack” and called on Pakistani authorities to “resolutely crack down on the terrorist organizations involved.”

“The blood of the Chinese people should not be shed in vain and those behind this incident will pay the price,” the Chinese ministry said. 

A security guard at the entrance to the Confucius Institute at the University of Karachi, Pakistan on April 26, 2022. Image: Screengrab / Al Jazeera

New Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif visited the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad hours after the deadly blast to express his condolences and vowed to bring the perpetrators to justice. 

The blast came in the wider geopolitical context of politically-charged accusations that the United States orchestrated former premier Imran Khan’s parliamentary ouster to make the way for Sharif’s rise. The allegations are still wholly unproven, however.

The BLA has carried out at least eight attacks this year including two major gun-and-bomb suicide attacks on Frontier Corps camps in Panjgur and Nushki districts, killing at least 12 soldiers. In 2018, the BLA orchestrated a suicide attack on the Chinese consulate in the Pakistani port city of Karachi, killing at least four people.

In 2020, the group targeted the Pakistan Stock Exchange building in Karachi. At least three security guards and a police sub-inspector were killed, while seven people were injured during the attack. Chinese companies have a major shareholding in the Karachi stock exchange.

Since January this year, different Baloch groups have carried out at least 17 attacks, including 10 against security forces, taking 51 lives and injuring 97 others. In March alone, three attacks struck the Balochistan city of Sibi, killing at least 12 Pakistan security personnel.

Mansur Khan Mahsud, executive director of the Islamabad-based FATA Research Centre (FRC), an independent think tank, told Asia Times that the Baloch insurgency is becoming an escalating problem for the Pakistani state.

“It has changed from low-level insurgency to serious and bloody one. Baloch insurgency is now a highly charged insurgency equipped with a suicidal squad by the name of the Majid Brigade composed of men and women suicide bombers,” Mansur said.

“[The] Baloch insurgency is not only confined to Balochistan but it has spread to other provinces of Pakistan as well. During the past couple of years, three major attacks involving the Chinese nationals had been carried out in Sindh province alone. The recent incident may not be the last,” Mansur added.

The recent suicide attack has stirred a public debate about what may have caused an educated and married woman to involve herself in an insurgency aimed at liberating a mineral-rich and geostrategically important province.

Many say that the attack marks a certain intensification of the decades-old Baloch insurgency that is locked in a violent stalemate with Islamabad and by association Beijing as the financier of various China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) related infrastructure projects in Balochistan province.

Baloch rebels in Pakistan have reportedly gained access to advanced US and NATO weaponry. Image: Facebook / Getty

Security analysts say that the use of a woman bomber in the suicide attack signals a paradigm shift in the BLA’s “liberation efforts” in Balochistan. Baloch separatists claim that the Pakistan army in cohort with Chinese developers extracts the region’s precious resources while subjugating the local population.

The secular, ethnic-based BLA has claimed to have established a new suicide unit to attack the CPEC and related projects in the province. “The mission carried out by the first female fidayee of the suicide brigade has added a new chapter in Baloch resistance history,” said a statement issued by BLA just hours after the attack.

Baloch nationalists claim that the insurgency in Balochistan is largely the blowback of human rights violations committed by the Pakistani state, including forced disappearances and killings of voices of dissent. The continued violence spanning over the past two decades, they say, has developed the tribal rebellion into a full-blown insurgency, which now attracts many highly educated Baloch professionals to the ranks of the militants.

“The Karachi attack on Chinese nationals should serve as a wake-up call to the Pakistani establishment. It indicates that a sense of deprivation in Balochistan runs deep and genuine grievances of Baloch remain unresolved,” Mushahid Hussain Sayed, a Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz senator and chairperson of the Senate Defense Committee, told Asia Times. “Running the province by remote control and constant power plays is a tried, tested and failed formula, as people feel alienated.”

Suggesting a way forward, Mushahid said that the authorities should stop treating Balochistan as a political plaything, frequently picking, choosing and changing “favorites.” He also said that the shameful crime of “missing persons should end forthwith” and that the benefits of development are allowed to reach local communities.

Mushahid said that terror groups can strike at will in Karachi, Dasu, Gwadar and anywhere in the country because security warnings often go unheeded, counterterrorism systems are outmoded and intelligence-sharing and coordination were abysmally weak, with the result that such incidents were not prevented.

A Pakistani soldier looks on during the opening of a trade project at the China-backed Gwadar port on November 13, 2016. Photo: AFP / Aamir Qureshi

Moreover, analysts say that the situation in Afghanistan has caused an uptick in militancy in Pakistan because the now-ruling Afghan Taliban are reluctant to take action against militants who carry out terrorist activities in Pakistan from across the border.

Kabul and Islamabad have averted serious border clashes over the militant issue but the Afghan Taliban are still hesitant to crack down on militant elements bent on stirring instability in Pakistan.    

“Baloch insurgents have sanctuaries in Afghanistan and Iran. However, both countries were taking no action against the Baloch insurgents based in their countries. Their attacks against government employees, police, army and Frontier Corps have increased significantly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces,” Mansur said.

Follow FM Shakil on Twitter at @faq1953