Although Punjab had had a series of suicide bombings since the July 2007 Lal Masjid operations, the latest attack on Mianwali, a small Pashtun town closer to the Frontier and a Pakistan Air Force base, assumes significance as it signals a change of tactics -- from suicide bombings to armed assaults -- by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan which had been engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with the Pakistan security forces in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and NWFP for the past two years. The TTP, formed in December 2007, is an umbrella organisation of different Taliban groups operating in Pakistan.
These attacks also fit well with the Taliban threat to take its battle for supremacy into the heart of Pakistan, Punjab.
The Taliban and its allies have been preparing ground for the 'Talibanisation' of adjoining regions of Punjab for quite some time now. In August 2008, owners of cable networks and CD shops in Muzaffargarh (close to Multan which has been a stronghold of sectarian and terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Lashkar-e-Tayiba) received threats warning them to close their businesses. Such is the fear of the Taliban reprisals that the beleaguered police simply refused to register a complaint.
In the adjoining town of Kot Addu, the Tehreek-e-Islami Taliban, a previously unknown group, warned women to wear the burqa and threatened them with acid attacks.
Given the brutal attack on women in Afghanistan, such threats were taken seriously. In October 2008 three bomb blasts rocked a juice shop in Lahore frequented by young couples. A month earlier a medical college in Multan had received threats demanding the end of co-ed training. In July 2008, local hoteliers in Attock were warned to stop alleged prostitution in their property, which severely affected tourism in the historic city.
By issuing such diktats, the Taliban not only intends to distract the security forces that have been fighting them with renewed vigour since the past six months, but also alter the pluralistic nature of Islam in Punjab and replace it with an extremist Wahhabi strand.
TTP's strength could be gauged by the number of attacks -- 12 -- it carried out successfully in Punjab during 2008. These attacks also showed the group's growing network of allies among the local criminal and extremist groups, particularly in the Seraiki belt of southern Punjab.
Tariq Pervez, former director general of the Federal Investigation Agency said in an interview, 'ideas, logistics, cash (comes) from the Gulf. Arab guys, mainly Egyptians and Saudis, are on hand to provide the chemistry. Veteran Punjabi extremists plot the attacks, while the Pakistan Taliban provides the martyrs.' Pakistani scholar Ahmed Rashid believes that terrorist attacks in Punjabi cities were conducted by these local urban based groups and not by the groups from FATA.
A clear illustration of this alliance of terror was revealed during the investigation of the September 2008 bombing of the Marriot hotel. Of the more than 250 suspects arrested from southern Punjab, a large number of them belonged to the Lashkar-e-Janghvi, Jaish-i-Mohammad; Lashkar-e-Tayiba, Sipah-e-Sahaba, Tehrik-e-Jafria and Sipah-e-Mohammad.
These alliances show that the Taliban was no longer a purely Pashtun movement; terrorist and sectarian organisations from Punjab not only generate funds but also recruits and trains fresh cadres to fight alongside the Taliban both within in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The Lashkar-e-Tayiba has been sending its trained cadres to Afghanistan for quite sometime. In July last, the Lashkar hand was evident in the attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul and an American post in Kunar. Lashkar and Jaish have been sending their recruits to training camps run by the Taliban in Dir and Upper Dir since 2004. An associate of Lashkar, Dr Islam and his group, has been fairly active in Bajaur.
The Mianwali attack and the Ghazi Khan bombing should be taken as warning shots of an impending battle which would further destabilise Pakistan and the region as a consequence.
Kaustav Dhar Chakrabarti is a Research Assistant, Observer Research Foundation.