Deadly Pakistani school attack raises security concerns
Charsadda, Pakistan — Once again, Islamic militants stormed a school in northeastern Pakistan in a deadly attack that lasted for hours. And once again, the blood of students and teachers stained classrooms and hallways, raising questions about whether security forces are able to protect the country’s educational institutions from extremists.
At least 20 people were killed and 23 were wounded Wednesday in the assault at Bacha Khan University in Charsadda before the four gunmen were slain and the military declared an end to the siege. Two teachers were among the dead, including a chemistry professor who was praised as a hero for shooting back at the attackers and allowing some students to escape.
The university attack was grimly reminiscent of the December 2014 massacre at an army public school in nearby Peshawar that killed 150, mostly children.
A breakaway faction of the Taliban took responsibility for the university attack, although a spokesman for the larger Taliban organization, led by Mullah Fazlullah, denied having anything to do with it and called it “un-Islamic.”
The violence shows how vulnerable schools remain in Pakistan, where extremists have sought to prevent Western-style education, especially for girls.
Malala Yousafzai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize after the teenager was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman in 2012 outside her school in the Swat Valley because of her vocal support for gender equality and education for girls. She said she was “heartbroken” by the latest attack.
Several schools were closed last weekend after intelligence suggested militants were planning an attack, according to Muhammed Amir Rana, director of the private Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies. A provincial government spokesman said they were closed as part of a security drill.
After the Peshawar attack, the government promised to set up a joint Intelligence Directorate, but that has not happened yet.
The military is one of Pakistan’s most powerful institutions, as is the intelligence agency, known as the ISI. It is especially difficult for civilian governments to penetrate that authority and establish intelligence sharing with government-operated security forces such as the police.
“The government is trying to develop a response but is facing capacity issues,” Rana said, particularly in the area of intelligence-sharing among the powerful intelligence agencies and the police.
The army has been pounding militant hideouts in the tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan since June 2014, disrupting operations for the Pakistani Taliban militants. Because of that campaign, analysts say the extremists have turned to attacking soft targets such as schools.
“We are determined and resolved in our commitment to wipe out the menace of terrorism from our homeland,” Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said in a statement after the attack.
A breakaway Taliban faction led by Khalifa Umar Mansoor said it had carried out the attack.
But a statement emailed to news organizations by Muhammad Khorasani, the spokesman for the Tehrik-e-Taliban, the largest Taliban group, said: “We disown, condemn the attack and term it as un-Islamic.”
After the 2014 Peshawar school massacre, Taliban militants were united in taking responsibility for the violence.
Rana, whose institute tracks militant movement, said the divisions in the Taliban over who carried out Wednesday’s attack probably has more to do with a fear of retribution than a reflection of a deeply divided Taliban.
Abdul Ghani, whose son fled the carnage by running into a nearby sugar cane field, decried that Pakistani students are “at risk of being killed.”