Pakistani security forces drive on a road leading to the Army Public School, which was attacked by Taliban gunmen, in Peshawar, December 16, 2014. (Reuters)

December 16, 2014

School Massacre a Sign of Taliban's Desperation but also Violent Capability

At least 141 people have been killed in a Pakistani Taliban attack on a school in Pakistan’s northwestern city of Peshawar. More than 114 people are injured and the death toll could continue to rise. Most of the dead are children, including the sons and daughters of army personnel. The attack clearly demonstrates that the al Qaeda-allied Pakistani Taliban remains a deadly and potent threat, despite having been weakened by ongoing military operations and recent infighting.

The attack’s death toll now exceeds that of the 2007 Karachi bombings targeting former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto that killed at least 139 people, until now Pakistan’s deadliest terrorist attack.

School Siege

Around six militants armed with assault rifles and explosives, including suicide vests, infiltrated the school by scaling a back wall abutting a graveyard while children were taking exams and attending ceremonies. Conflicting reports claim the attackers were disguised in Pakistani military uniforms. Upon entering, the militants indiscriminately fired on the more than 500 students and teachers. The attackers took hostages and began a protracted, hours-long siege of the school. Pakistani military forces arrived on scene and began clearing the school campus building by building. At least one of the attackers set off a suicide vest at some point during the attack. The military reports that six militants have been killed and that the nearly seven-hour-long siege of the school is now over, but that explosives planted by the militants have slowed efforts to fully clear the facility.

Revenge for Pakistan’s Military Operations

The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the main Pakistani Taliban umbrella group, has claimed responsibility for the attack on the school. Its spokesman, Muhammad Khurasani, said the attack was revenge for Operation Zarb-e-Azb, a major ongoing military offensive against the TTP in North Waziristan Agency and the deaths of innocent tribesmen at the hands of the army.

There are several reasons why TTP may have chosen to attack the school. The school is an Army Public School and many soldiers’ children, likely including some of those involved in anti-Taliban operations, attend the school. The attack on the school also comes days after Malala Yousufzai, the child education activist who was targeted and shot by the Taliban in the Swat Valley in 2012, received the Nobel Peace Prize. The TTP has previously issued statements condemning Malala and the values and education system for which she advocates.

Beyond the symbolism of the target, the TTP was most likely looking for a soft target affiliated with the Pakistani military—most military facilities are secured locations and difficult to penetrate—in order to conduct a spectacular, mass-casualty attack that would refocus attention on the group.

Pressures Encouraging TTP Attacks

The TTP has been the premier Taliban umbrella movement in Pakistan and the main enemy of the state since 2007. Pakistani military operations targeted the group’s main haven in North Waziristan starting in June 2014.  Extensive military operatives in North Waziristan and, subsequently, in Khyber and Orakzai Agencies of Pakistan’s tribal areas have disrupted the TTP’s operations and forced its fighters to flee. The TTP’s leadership has faced criticism from its own factions and allied groups for not striking back more effectively against the Pakistani military in the months since the operation commenced.

Many Pakistani militants are disaffected with the TTP’s current leader, Mullah Fazlullah, whom they see as ineffectual, cowardly for hiding in faraway Kunar, Afghanistan, an outsider who is not from the movement’s traditional tribal core, and incapable of quelling internal disputes among the many tribes and factions that make up the TTP. In recent months several prominent factions of the TTP have splintered to form their own groups. Some of those new groups, such as the faction loyal to militant commander Omar Khalid Khurasani of Mohmand Agency, have begun stealing the limelight from the TTP by conducting their own spectacular, high-casualty attacks across the country, such as a bomb attack on the India-Pakistan border that killed 60 people.

The al Qaeda franchise, al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), received most of the attention and credit for an audacious attack it conducted along with the TTP on a Naval Dockyard in Karachi in September 2014. Fazlullah and the TTP were further embarrassed when Fazlullah’s own spokesman declared in October that he and several other high-level TTP commanders were defecting and pledging their allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.

Expect More Spectacular Attacks

For groups like the TTP, headline-grabbing attacks are the primary way of remaining relevant and focusing the national dialogue on its crusade to dismantle what it sees as a heretical democracy and replace it with strict Sharia rule. Such attacks, particularly against targets affiliated with the military or government, serve as advertising for the group, helping it to boost recruitment and fundraising. Demonstrating a high level of activity would also help the TTP stem further disaffection in the ranks among members who believe it has not been active enough. An attack such as the one conducted today is exactly what the TTP has been looking for to try and burnish its star and stem the hemorrhaging of fighters and momentum.

 The attack serves as a stark reminder that the TTP is far from defeated and remains capable of carrying out horrific violence. Indeed, the more pressure the TTP faces, internally and or externally, the more likely it is that it will conduct spectacular attacks of the sort witnessed today.