Pakistan bus attack underscores chronic instability in Karachi, notwithstanding intensified security campaign by police, paramilitary

Despite increased attention towards the state of insecurity in Karachi, emphasized by a now expanding campaign by Pakistani Rangers and police to control the streets, the militant attack on May 13 is just the latest reminder to the city’s chronic instability. During the morning hours of May 13 (local time), a group of five to eight militants on motorcycles raided a bus in the Safoora Chowk area of Karachi’s Gulshan City. At least 47 people were reportedly killed, with approximately 30 wounded. The targets were members of the minority Ismaili Shiite sect. Several factions have claimed responsibility for the attack, which saw all the assailants escape. These allegedly include Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), its splinter faction Jundullah, and the Islamic State (IS), which Jundallah reportedly pledged allegiance to last year. According to reports, arrest raids have already begun in Karachi, with the government claiming it has netted dozens of suspects involved in the attack.

Meanwhile, on May 13, sources indicated that violence, of all types, decreased thus far in Karachi in 2015 when compared to the previous year. According to unconfirmed reports, from January 1 to May 12, 2014, at least 1,622 people were killed in Sindh Province, where Karachi is located. The corresponding period of 2015 has seen just over 732 people killed. Sources further indicate that of this number, 234 suspects, whether criminals or militants, were killed by security forces. Altogether, some 3,000 people were killed in Karachi in all of 2014.

Although statistics have been put forward indicating a drop in violence, this is a relative decline, as killings occur in Karachi on a daily basis. Moreover, it remains unclear whether any statistical improvement will be prolonged. For instance, Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city and economic hub, has been plagued by violence for years. Violence has increasingly come to define the city, with government efforts to tackle the problem proving relatively ineffective. The daily threat of security incidents primarily emanates from three sources; criminality, targeted political killings, and militancy. There is a strong nexus between these sources, with one often serving to benefit the other. Oftentimes, and considering the volume of cases, it is difficult to ascertain which source was the motivation for specific killings.

In regards to criminality, it is rampant and the city is home to numerous well organized criminal networks and street gangs. In this context, many of Karachi’s ganglords are well known. Deadly clashes between rivals or with security forces are frequent. Attacks on rivals can include bombings and shootings. Their activities has effectively made several of the city’s districts de facto no-go zones, notably Lyari. Criminal activities include drug smuggling, land seizures, arms trafficking, extortion, murder, etc. While operations against crime networks have also increased, it should be assumed that bribery and corruption are complicating the overall effectiveness of this campaign.

Political violence is also a regular occurrence in Karachi. Political parties in Pakistan are largely ethnic-based, thereby serving to further political tensions given heightened sectarianism in Pakistan. Furthermore, Karachi is highly diverse, with political parties maintaining strongholds in certain neighborhoods considered home to a certain group or groups. This leads to geographical rivalries, including the competition over land, which is scarce inside the city. Not only do local political factions like the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which mostly represents the Muhajir people, compete with their rivals over ideological influence, the nature of sectarian-based politics means that parties are fighting for the everyday interests of their supporters. Moreover, party supporters periodically clash or are targeted by hired killers. Targeted killings are a known problem, and it is suspected that local political factions utilize such methods against their rivals. They are also utilized by criminal and militant elements. Lastly, political parties in Karachi are often perceived as having a hand in organized crime.

As Pakistan continues its campaign against militant jihadists allied with Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the militant effort against the state has increasingly focused upon Karachi. TTP-related militants from the northwest tribal regions have sought to further entrench themselves within the local population of Karachi. Infiltrating major cities also provides the group’s members with greater protection, as they are no longer subject to army operations in the tribal regions. To this point, overcrowding, general instability and the large Pashtun population, including refugees, continually serve as cover. In that context, it is a working assumption that security forces are acting to prevent said militants from bolstering their operational networks and capabilities in Karachi. Nonetheless, the attack on May 13 shows that militancy is a daily threat, with militants seemingly able to conduct daylight attacks at will. Above all, the attack underscored their intention to further undermine stability in Karachi and thus the country as a whole. Furthermore, TTP affiliates have frequently targeted law enforcement and minorities. Along with more attacks on politicians, additional TTP attacks in Karachi, whether localized killings or major attacks, should be expected. This includes possible attacks against schools and foreign interests, which includes individuals, government locales, or public places. Also, TTP militants will likely remain able to continue their involvement in criminality, which serves to fund their ongoing activities.

Despite widespread instability in Karachi, and though the militant threat in Karachi does not appear to have abated, there is little indication that these factions will be able to effectively control neighborhoods inside Karachi. Rather, the military will aggressively oppose this and operations against the militants will likely limit them to mostly clandestine operations and attacks, undertaken by small cells. Such attacks will nonetheless continue to seriously undermine stability and government control in Karachi.

Above all, the introduction of expanded Ranger operations inside Karachi highlights the inability of local governance and police to handle the security situation. Furthermore, sources have alleged that the Pakistani military is seeking to exert greater control in Karachi, at the expense of local parties. According to these reports, there is speculation that the military is doing so in conjunction with the Rangers’ operations. To that point, MQM has long dominated politics in Karachi and has in fact been subjected to of a growing number of raids by Rangers, including one which targeted their headquarters earlier this year. MQM claims it is being unfairly targeted, with dozens of its activists allegedly killed and thousands arrested.

Additionally, statements by senior military, intelligence and government leaders point to an intention to only further operations inside Karachi. Following the May 13 attack, reports indicated that high-level security and civil chiefs pledged their commitment to the now expanded Rangers/police campaign, while stating that the rate of operations will be sped up. In that context, it is very possible that chronic instability in Karachi, along with the failed initiatives of government to control the situation, will provide the defense establishment with the necessary platform to improve their clout inside Karachi. Doing so would go along with a trend of growing military power nationwide, which only intensified after the Peshawar school attack in December 2014. For instance, the military has expanded its influence elsewhere by intensifying operations against militants in the tribal areas and establishing military courts.

While the Rangers’ operation will likely continue for some time, it remains unclear whether their operations will significantly weaken the destabilizing elements in Karachi over the long term. Their operations have been ongoing for sometime, with little to show for despite the aforementioned statistics. Much of the city’s problems are fundamental, relating to poverty, overcrowding, and sectarianism. Ever intensifying operations by security forces, with the consequences they carry on locals, could result in a further backlash. This could mean more militant and criminal attacks against civilians and security forces, as a means of deterrence. Likewise, political factions like MQM could initiate countermeasures, like city-wide strikes, should acts against it be perceived as crossing the line.

Taken together, Karachi will remain highly volatile in the coming months ahead. Killings will be reported daily, whether by militants, criminals, or political enforcers. Furthermore, the overall state of instability could still become exacerbated despite the statistical decline mentioned before. Causes of an escalation could include high-level assassinations of political, religious or security officials, or major attacks targeting a specific group.

About Daniel Brode

Senior Intelligence Analyst with Max-Security Solutions, a geopolitical risk-consulting firm in Israel. Articles have been published in The New York Times, Jerusalem Post, Al-Arabiya, and Hurriyet. Matriculated at the Virginia Military Institute; completed US Army Airborne School and an exchange program at the University of the German Federal Armed Forces Hamburg. Studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem before receiving a B.A. from Duquesne University in History and a Minor in German. Graduated with a M.A. in Security & Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University. Interned as a research analyst for the Institute for National Security Studies in the Military and Strategic Affairs Program and represented Tel Aviv University in the Wikistrat International Grand Strategy Competition. Completed mandatory military service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
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