Even by Pakistan's standards, the latest terrorist attack in Lahore was horrendous. According to the latest reports, 72 people were killed, including at least 29 children, and over 300 wounded. The Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a faction nominally linked to the Pakistan Taliban, claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing.
Security forces patrol the scene of the Lahore bomb blast. (Getty/Anadolu Agency.)
Although the main target was Christians celebrating Easter Sunday at a popular park in the centre of Lahore, the majority of the victims were Muslims. A few days earlier the Afghan Taliban had put out a press release stating that only Islamic rituals could be celebrated in an Islamic country. This presumably gave the terrorists the ideological green light to go on their rampage.
The location for the attack was chosen not only to cause maximum fatalities but also maximum political damage to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose political power base is Lahore, and Shehbaz Sharif, the PM's brother and the chief minister of the Punjab, the province where Lahore is located.
The choice is also particularly significant because Lahore has, on the whole, been spared terrorist acts, with most of them being executed in the north-western part of the country far away from the Punjab, the country's heartland.
The PM promised in a televised address that the government would take revenge. Accordingly, the response by Pakistani authorities was swift. In well over 100 operations conducted by all law enforcement agencies, over 5000 people were rounded up for questioning. While most were released, it does confirm the federal and provincial governments' determination to hunt down the culprits. But most importantly, Sharif wants to reassure the population that his government is on top of the situation and is winning the war against the terrorists.
The tragic event on Easter Sunday had an additional anti-Christian twist to it. At the same time as terror struck in Lahore, thousands of protesters in Islamabad were commemorating the execution of Malik Mumtaz Qadri, the man convicted of assassinating Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, in 2011. Qadri, who was Taseer's bodyguard, was offended by the Governor's defence of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy. Taseer was also arguing for the blasphemy laws to be amended. Qadri was seen as a hero by thousands, including by many in the legal fraternity and the Islamic parties, for taking a stance in defence of Islam.
The protesters managed to break through the police lines guarding Islamabad's highly secure 'Red Zone' and close to 2000 of them are still camped outside the Prime Minister's office. They are demanding, among other things, the implementation of Sharia in the country and assurances that the blasphemy laws will not be amended. The army has had to be called in to control law and order.
The way Prime Minister Sharif handles the aftermath of the terrorist attack and the sit-in outside his office will be crucial for his political future, particularly since he has already offended the small but influential Islamic parties with his political reforms. These include pushing to end child marriage, enacting a landmark domestic violence bill, unblocking access to YouTube, and, of course, proceeding with the execution of Qadri.
On the counter-terrorism front, he will want to avoid recourse to heavy-handed military and paramilitary operations like the ones conducted in other parts of the country, including in Karachi, Sindh province and the tribal areas. Because of the high level of destruction that comes with these operations, the public backlash is often strong, something Sharif would want to avoid in his home province. However, such operations may be unavoidable if the Sharif government is to make headway in eradicating the terrorists, especially in southern Punjab.
With regard to the safety of Pakistani Christians, who represent less than 2% of the population, Sharif will want to be seen internationally to be providing them with the same protection as their Muslim counterparts, something Christian leaders say is not the case at present. This will be particularly important given that Pakistan wants to be seen as fighting all terrorists, not simply a select few. Domestically, however, there is only so far Sharif will be able to go. Any suggestion of reforming the blasphemy laws, which are often conveniently used against Christians, is out of bounds. The public backlash against his government would simply be too great for him to bear.
While the number of terrorist acts has diminished greatly since the military intensified its counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations in the tribal areas of Pakistan following the school massacre in Peshawar in December 2015, terrorism is far from being defeated in Pakistan. This latest terrorist act reaffirms the Taliban's message to the general public, Muslim and Christian alike: no place is safe and the military cannot protect you.
An indication of how seriously Sharif takes these latest events is the fact that he has decided to cancel his trip to Washington, where he was to participate in a high-level nuclear security summit hosted by President Obama at the end of the week.