08 January 2021
Full Report: Pakistan
- Attack on Hazara minority highlights Islamic State’s efforts to stoke sectarian tensions but capabilities will remain confined to Baluchistan province
- Army will tighten security in Quetta following attack, particularly as Prime Minister Khan will likely visit area in coming days following political pressure
- Hazara demonstrators will sustain protest in Quetta in coming days, but efforts will entail no long-term business disruption
Islamic State (IS) claimed to have killed 11 members of Pakistan’s Hazara minority in an attack in the Mach area of Baluchistan province’s Bolan district on 3 January. The victims were employed at a local coal mine and shared residential accommodation close to their workplace. Reports of the incident said the men had been bound and blindfolded before having their throats slit. Following the attack, thousands of Hazara blocked a main road in Quetta with the victims’ coffins, in a protest that remained ongoing as of 7 January. Protests and sit-ins also occurred in several locations in Karachi from 5 January, reportedly organised by the Majlis-i-Wahdat-i-Muslimeen (MWM), a local Shia political organisation. Some restricted access to the airport, delaying flights.
IS has capabilities in Baluchistan province and last carried out a major attack there in April 2019, when it bombed a market in Quetta, the provincial capital, killing at least 16 people. The Hazara are a minority Shia sect and a frequent focus of IS attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan given the group’s sectarian agenda and aim of fuelling instability. IS’s claim of responsibility is therefore highly plausible – particularly as there have been no competing claims from other anti-Shia militant groups in the region, such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.
Pakistan: Hazara killings and protests in Baluchistan
The attack is in line with directives from IS’s central leadership, which has, since the death of former leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October 2019, sought to demonstrate IS’s continued global presence by encouraging attacks in areas where the group has capabilities but has been relatively inactive. The attack also comes exactly one year after the US assassination of Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, who oversaw Shia militias in Iraq and the deployment of Iranian forces in Syria. IS will have timed its targeting of a Shia community to coincide with heightened sectarian tensions around this anniversary, thus maximising the attack’s propaganda value and potentially attracting new supporters from among hardline Sunnis by portraying itself as a key defender of Sunni interests.
The brutal nature of the attack has also proved particularly inflammatory, with demonstrators in Quetta demanding Prime Minister Imran Khan visit the area. It is unlikely, however, that the Hazara were involved in the Karachi protests, given the community is largely confined to areas around Quetta. MWM, a relatively small political group, will instead have hoped a demonstration of Shia solidarity would boost its own political influence. Khan’s political opponents have meanwhile also sought to highlight the attack to portray the government as failing to protect minorities, particularly as it followed an incident on 30 December in which an Islamist mob set fire to a Hindu temple in Karak, in northwestern Khyber Pakthunkhwa province.
IS will likely seek to carry out further attacks on Shia and Sufi targets in the coming months, particularly as Rajab, one of four sacred months in the Islamic calendar that contains several Sufi holy days, falls this year between 13 February and 13 March. Attacks will be largely confined to Baluchistan, where IS’s capabilities are strongest, though the group also has a limited presence in Khyber Pakthunkhwa province. Operations in Quetta are however likely to be somewhat constrained by increased military security in the wake of the Bolan attack, as Quetta is a major hub for Chinese investment. Localised Hazara protests will meanwhile continue in Quetta and Karachi in the coming days, and political pressure will likely see Khan visit Quetta in order to calm tensions, with officials already hinting that such a trip is planned. The Hazara’s relatively small numbers and lack of political influence make it unlikely that their protests will entail any long-term disruption to businesses, though further limited disruption linked to road blockages is likely in coming days.