Sunday, July 22, 2012

Karachi Ashura Bombing Revisited

In parts of his new book, Instant City (2011), NPR’s Steve Inskeep investigates the Ashura bombing of December 28, 2009 against Karachi's urban, cosmopolitan context. I haven’t read the whole book yet except for the parts on the Ashura bombing. In these parts, Inskeep engages different theories and evidence about the perpetrators. Some of these theories and evidence were shared on this blog after the said bombing. Inskeep’s investigative narrative provides some additional insights and evidence, which if taken with a grain of salt, would be relevant for any evaluation of the (so-called) “sectarian” violence in Karachi.

Before I copy the relevant excerpts, it is important to note that Karachi’s politics – or Pakistan’s politics, for that matter – is not Inskeep’s specialized area, so it is not surprising that Inskeep makes some blatant errors in his narrative. One such error is his suggestion that the 2006 Nishtar Park bombing of the Sunni Tehreek gathering was carried out by Shia militants (p. 17). Inskeep seems to assume that if the blast is on a Sunni gathering, it must have come from the ‘opposite’ side – the Shias. Anyone familiar with the politics on the ground knows that that political gathering of this Barelvi Sunni group, Sunni Tehreek, on the 12th of the Islamic month of Rabiulawwal was targeted by the same criminal elements who had been targeting the Shias for many years. Many Sunni Tehreek leaders have also publicly pointed the finger at these criminal elements (See herehere, and here, in Urdu).

Looking closely at the text of Inskeep’s allegation, it appears that he felt compelled to insert some reference to Shia militants in order to create a journalistic ‘balance’ or ‘objectivity’ – ‘if you point out “Sunni” “extremists”, then you must also mention some “Shia” “extremists” to create that balance.' Inskeep imposes this 'balance' regardless of the asymmetry of Shia killing in Pakistan, and regardless of the fact that in the case of the Nishtar Park bombing, the same criminal elements may have been involved (the criminal elements who were killing both Sunnis and Shias).

Consider Inskeep’s text:
“One of the first stories I covered as a reporter in Karachi involved the Shia community: in 2002, men on motorcycles were following Shia professionals and community leaders – doctors, lawyers, engineers – and shooting them in the head. The killings had become normal. They happened all the time. Presumably the culprits were Sunni extremist groups who considered the Shias to be apostates.

The Shias had their own militants. In 2006 a gathering of Sunnis was bombed in Nishtar Park, around the corner from Abbas Kumeli’s home.

As accustomed as he was to sectarian violence, Kumeli sensed something different in December 2009...” (p. 17)

Note in the middle short para above how Inskeep connects the Nishtar Park bombing to the presumed Shia militancy: not by directly stating it, but by having the two sentences in the same paragraph. Some would consider this sleight of hand a lazy journalistic “balancing”; others would see this serious and unfounded charge as quite unethical.

In the above quoted text, Inskeep also mixes the description of violence with the explanation of it when he reduces the motivation of the “extremists” to be about doctrinal dispute ("Shias to be apostates"). This implied explanation (that focuses on sectarian-religious impulses) undermines the politics of such violence, such as the ethnic politics of Karachi; the interests and support of the country’s security agencies and their rogue elements; the security establishment’s “Good Taliban, BadTaliban” policy; and the involvement of foreign powers, their interests, and their spy elements in Pakistan (for instance, see here and here).

Another more subtle error could be seen in the way Inskeep describes the Muharram/Ashura procession. It sounds like the procession is exclusively a Shia gathering where the Sunnis are largely spectators. However, anyone familiar with the history and culture of these gatherings in South Asia would know that the reality is more complicated than this simplistic dichotomy. Muharram commemorations are attended by Muslims from various backgrounds and even by non-Muslims. The Ashura blast itself provides an indication of this complexity. As a previous post pointed out, 15 of the 50 killed were Sunnis; two were Bohra Shias; and one was Christian; and the rest were Twelver Shias. Some of these were participants and some were also part of volunteer services (as indicated in this partial list here). A senior reporter for the Geo News, Fahim Siddiqui, was also among those hit by the blast on that day. His son and niece who were with him died in the blast. In the simplistic, Sunni/Shia classifications, Fahim Siddiqui would be considered a Sunni, and yet he (along with his son and niece) attended the said procession on that day, and not as a spectator but as a participant. I think there is a more nuanced story to be told here about Muharram commemorations.

Excerpts from the book, Instant City (2011), starting form page 17:

Shortly before the procession, Pakistan’s interior minister visited Karachi. “He met with me in this room where we are sitting,” Kumeli said. The interior minister brought along the governor of Sindh, the province of which Karachi is the capital; each man represented a leading political party – one came from the mayor’s party, known as the MQM, and the other from the rival People’s Party. Both parties had joined an uneasy coalition that was attempting to share power in the province as well as the national government. And today these two officials were delivering a carefully calibrated message to Shia leaders around the city. “They were saying that they had made foolproof security arrangements, and also expressing the satisfaction they were hopeful that no such thing would take place.

“But they were expressing their fears as well.”

The visitors didn’t say exactly why they were afraid, but the list of plausible suspects was well known, starting with Sunni extremist groups that targeted the Shias. Then there were Taliban insurgents, who were bombing Pakistani cities that year in response to an army offensive against their mountain sanctuaries. Karachi politicians who showed up for the parade could become targets for enemies or rivals. And as Kumeli mulled the possibility of attack, he learned of the explosions at two smaller Shia processions on the two days before the climactic march. The blasts increased the tension, even though police blamed one of the explosions on gas from an open sewer line.


One the day of the Ashura procession in 2009, many Karachi residents of other sects and faiths volunteered their time to ensure the safety and comfort of the Shias as they marched. And chief among them were scores of young men who turned up now and again in the city’s security videos, often wearing distinctive khaki uniforms. They were Pakistan Boy Scouts, including Sunni Muslims, Hindus, even Christians…

[A] metal box stood next to a light pole. It was a box of considerable size, more than six feet high on metal legs, with a sloping metal roof. If anyone should come across a damaged Koran, or discarded paper with a Koranic inscription, people were supposed to drop it though a slot in the box so that no one would throw the holy words in the garbage or trample them underfoot. The book stood near the banyan tree, and it was inside that box of wayward scripture that someone had planted a bomb. (p.24)

[My notes: Since Koran (Quran) is considered sacred by all Islamic schools of thought, and perhaps equally by the religious “extremists,” the choice of the place to hide the bomb should complicate any analysis of the motivations and background of the perpetrators.]


The city surveillance video includes no sound.

The camera looks silently down on Jinnah Road from the old city hall. The banyan tree is visible in its little triangular park, across the street and maybe a hundred yards away.

The video recording shows the mourners coming into sight, walking toward the camera. The lead ranks, including the Shia scouts, have just passed the tree, which is visible behind them. They calmly pass in front of the blue-and-white sign of the Subhanallah Bakery.
Then the explosion rips into the body of the crowd. Within two seconds, thick gray smoke has risen as high as a five-story building…

Survivors affirmed later that there were two explosions. The first was sharp and small, like a firecracker, coming from near a water barrel. It may have been designed to startle people, fix them in place. Then the main explosion knocked Najeeb Ilyas to the ground…


We have only begun to recount the multiple events of December 28, but the Ashura bombing alone demands some explanation. Authorities made their first efforts to assign some meaning to the blast well before the day reached its disastrous conclusion. Early media reports quoted government officials who blamed a “suicide bomber.” Pakistan’s interior minister Rehman Malik said the bomber had links to two militant groups, including Pakistan’s version of the Taliban. The Taliban soon claimed responsibility, also describing it as a suicide attack. Evidence, however, began pointing in another direction. Federal investigators studied steel nuts that were strewn on the road, the same ones Faisal Edhi had noticed, and the nuts made them doubt that a suicide bomber was responsible. Hundreds of nuts were too heavy to carry as shrapnel. When choosing a final wardrobe, investigators believed, the discriminating suicide bomber would prefer lightweight ball bearings… (p. 27)

Even more proof came in the form of torn metal fragments. They originated from the box of Koranic scripture. Video images from before the blast showed an Edhi ambulance parked beside the box. Images taken afterward showed the ambulance crumpled like an aluminum can, but still parked in place. The box was gone, blown apart, with pieces flung outward in all directions. The explosion could only have come from inside it, likely detonated by remote control.

A dead boy who had been mistakenly described as a suicide bomber was identified as a Boy Scout.

Police eventually dismissed the Taliban as suspects, instead linking the attack to a little-known Pakistani militant group with ties to al Qaeda [the police and news sources named this group as Jundallah. This group is known to have links with Washington]. We will see as our story unfolds that this militant group was originally organized to punish Pakistan’s government for cooperating with the United States in hunting down militants. So if the police were correct, we can read the attack as one bloody episode in al Qaeda’s long war with the West.

But on another level, the Ashura bombing had little to do with the West. No Americans were targeted. The bombers did not even directly strike America’s allies in the Pakistani government, instead wiping out common citizens on the street. People in the United States barely noticed the attack, which received only brief coverage in the midst of the American holiday season…. The Ashura bombing was instead an atrocity staged for a local audience, in which attackers and victims alike were Muslims. We may better understand it as part of a long battle within Islam [Is Inskeep calling it a “sectarian” battle between the “Shias” and “Sunnis”?], as well as a struggle for power in Pakistan. The details of the attack – the targeting of a vulnerable minority, the state’s failure to provide effective security, and explosives placed with awful symbolism in a box of damaged Korans – reflected disturbing trends through much of the modern Muslim world. [Inskeep needs to read the history of Taliban and al Qaeda and their creators once again; for instance, see here] They also reflected Pakistan’s own peculiar problems….

Karachi also faces a diversity of conflicts, which came into play after the Ashura bombing. [Why only after the bombing? Why separate the two incidents - bombing and fires? Is it possible that the pre-pared arsonists did not know about the bombing? If they did, were they and their interests then not involved from the beginning?] A second event extended the day’s destruction, and revealed more of the competing pressures that shape the instant city. Rival politicians, businessman, soldiers, and thugs jostle for power and land. Religion, while often invoked, is just one of several social divides; people are at least as likely to be split by their class, the location of their ancestral village, or the language they speak at home. Few people trust the government to mediate their differences. All these conflicts combine and intensify one another, like pouring chemicals on a building that’s already on fire, creating unpredictable conflagrations that define life and death in Karachi. (p. 29)


The fires spread along the route we have just traced, beginning at the banyan tree.
Minutes after the Ashura blast, people began breaking into the closed stores in the Lighhouse Bazaar. They pried open the corrugated metal gate to a store selling bolts of cloth and shiny men’s suits. The shop reached far back into the building; the men set it all on fire. Other shops were torched the same way. Some people crossed the street from the bazaar to the old city hall. They smashed the windows of the city fumigation trucks parked by the building and torched them one after another. Soon the flames reached a portion of the building itself. Fire trucks began arriving within minutes, but the crews were quickly driven away by the enraged survivors…

[Compare the above text in which Inskeep describes the scene at the Lighthouse area in terms of an “enraged” crowd that had lost control or gone mad, to how he describes (just four paragraphs later) the scene at the Bolton Market and its coordinated and pre-planned logic. Bolton Market was just a mile away from the Lighthouse area.]

“There was fire all around,” remembered Faisal Edhi of the ambulance service. “I was there about one and a half hours. We were asking the fire brigade to fight against the fire, but they were not present there, they were afraid to come.” They only came later, and “the markets were burned by that time.”

The thousands of police and paramilitary troops along the route made little effort to control the situation, choosing instead to make a tactical retreat.
In the video room at the Civic Centre, Bobby Memon and the police officials saw the chaos unfolding and made no effective response. In Memon’s view, it was a simple lack of coordination. “We always talk about that in a city like Karachi, there should be a central command system; they should have a camera working; and that should be linked to the barricade – should be linked to the ambulances – linked to the hospitals. And that’s only where you can respond to a crisis situation,” he said. Any police officer watching those scenes “was just in there watching. If something happened, what were they going to do?”

Other accounts suggested that the chain of command worked only too well – and that it restrained the police from acting. A Pakistani newspaper, the News International, reported that police requested permission to shoot the arsonists and were refused. Officials feared that if they responded to the violence with force, the situation would escalate and the whole city would explode.

During that first hour after the blast, two dozen or more men appeared on Jinnah Road. Many were about a mile ahead of where the parade had stopped – on the far side of the old city hall. Here they stood between long grand buildings of yellow stone – Gizri stone, it was called, after the location of the quarry that produced it. This was the wholesale district, known as Bolton Market.
The men broke into National Arms, a store that had sold weapons on this spot since 1948, and made off with Chinese- and Turkish-made handguns. They broke into a second gun store. Some men had torches. Soon entire buildings were in flames.

Television crews broadcast much of this live, which was how the shopkeeper learned of the destruction of his property… (p. 31)

Once the fire crews felt secure enough to operate, they moved from one burning building to another, yet the fires did not die. Mustafa Kamal, the younger mayor of Karachi, moved among the firefighters, offering exhortations and encouragement. It was much too late. The fires burned all night and for several days afterward. Hundreds of shops were destroyed. More than a dozen people were killed in the chaos on the streets.

“Who do you think did all the burning?” I asked Rashid, the plastic seller.

“I just don’t understand,” he replied. He reminded me that the fires in the Bolton Market only seemed to have spread to one side of Jinnah Road. “You will see that all the shops on the right side are affected. Not a single shop on the left side was burnt. Not a single shutter was broken.” That was one of many observations that shopkeepers made to each other as they speculated that certain buildings or blocks might have been deliberately targeted.
A question began forming in their minds – a question without any firm foundation [??], but one shopkeeper after another was asking it.

Was someone trying to clear off certain properties for later use?

Their question was spreading like the fires. (p. 32)

Flames and smoke still rose over Bolton Market, visible for miles through Karachi’s haze, as police began to investigate. Agents from Pakistan’s equivalent of the FBI arrived up the street at the Lighthouse Centre; we have already glimpsed them, peering at steel nuts and dead bodies. They were joined by the special investigations unit of the Karachi police, which handles terrorism cases.

The antiterrorism specialists who focused on the bombing case did not examine the fires at all, classifying them as, essentially, unrelated crimes. “There were two different things,” said Raja Umer Khattab, a senior superintendent of police, when we talked about the case. “One is the blast, and the second is after the blast.” He told me that separate investigators were assigned to the fires, and their examination produced only the arrests of a few Shia Muslims, in line with the policy theory of the case: the fires were set by people in the procession who were enraged by the bombing.

This explanation appeared to satisfy almost nobody outside the police force. Abbas Kumeli, the Shia Muslim leader, argued that the theory made no sense. Granted, the Shia marchers were standing there at the Lighthouse Centre, where some of the fires took place, but the marchers were nowhere near the Bolton Market. Why had the worst fires been set there? Why would angry Shia marchers walk past a mile of buildings and leave them all untouched, then start lighting fires again?

In the absence of a convincing official explanation, people were already supplying their own. (p.33)

In search of more information, I visited the local office of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan… In the commission’s offices… [t]he man I had come to see led the way to a conference table in the breeze near an open window. His name was Abdul Hai. In the days after the fires, he was part of a Human Rights Commission team that conducted its own interviews with shopkeepers and others. Their report released on January 9, 2010, included this provocative paragraph:
“After interviewing and listening [to] the sufferers points of view, the team was of the opinion that the burning and looting was preplanned and was done by 25 to 30 persons who were fully trained and were possessing steel cutters, tools, fire arms and chemicals. It is very important to note that [the] procession of mourners after the bomb blast passed away and there was none of them at burning and looting sites.”

An operation that was preplanned? It was a strong statement in an otherwise carefully worded report. A covering note minimized its key finding: “This report is a mere compilation of the views of people affected directly by the attack.” Not, in other words, any sort of official conclusion.

Abdul Hai made a copy of his report on the Ashura bombing and gave me a chance to look it over. He emphasized again that the report simply passed on the claims of shopkeepers. “I have no opinion,” he said, gradually becoming more vague and evasive, or so it seemed to me.

I pressed him politely. He was a professional; he knew Karachi, he had talked with victims, some of whom may have witnessed the fires; he had even issued this report. What did he think might have happened? Who was responsible for burning several blocks of the city?

Some kind of mafia, he said.

And who might that be?

“Ah,” he said, in a tone that suggested: Now there’s the hard part. “Everybody knows, but nobody will tell you,” he said. “These mafias are all under the shelter of the police.”

As I moved across the city asking questions, it sometimes seemed that Abdul Hai had it right: everybody knew, but nobody would tell. Usually, however, it seemed to be the other way around. People across the city opened their lives and their hearts to me. Many were eager to tell me what happened that day.

I just wasn’t sure if anybody knew…

After the Ashura fires, everybody seemed to have a conspiracy theory. One came from Faisal Edhi. “I think it was a conspiracy to cause a clash between Shias and Sunnis,” he told me. He believed that the burned shops belonged to Sunni Muslims, who were deliberately attacked in tandem with the bombing of the Shia procession. Maybe so, though I later met a Shia shop owner who had also lost everything.

Other theories implicated the city’s two leading political parties. The major parties had armed wings as well as links to various criminals. One notion pointed to the city’s ruling party, Mayor Kamal’s [Altaf Hussain's] party, the MQM. Some hypotheses said the MQM destroyed the shops of political opponents, or tried to repossess the land for the city’s use [“city’s use”??]. No proof emerged.

Another theory blamed arsonists under the protection of the MQM’s political rivals, the Bhutto family’s Pakistan People’s Party, or PPP. That wasn’t proven either, although the police and Rangers, who failed so miserably to stop the fires, were under the authority of PPP government ministers.

When I met with Raja Umer, the police investigator, I asked about the claims of storekeepers and other witnesses, who believed that chemicals had been poured on the fires to accelerate the burning. People traded stories of arsonists wearing gloves and holding weapons. “No, no, this is wrong,” said Raja Umer. “Totally wrong. People said those who were burning the shops were wearing gloves they kept with them so they would not leave fingerprints. But after investigation it was decided that there was a medical store that was broken into.”

“They were wearing surgical gloves?”

“Yes,” he said. And the fires burned so fiercely not because of chemical accelerants, but simply because the buildings and their contents were so flammable. “It was a chemical market, a plastic market, clothes market, so it can burn easily. There is no evidence we can get about chemicals used for burning.”

Raja Umer’s assurances did not prevent members of Karachi’s elites from casting their own suspicions. One of the more chilling theories came from Yasmeen Lari, a woman who was well connected to Karachi’s political establishment and among the city’s most distinguished architects – she was known as “the first woman architect in Pakistan.” She led Pakistan’s Heritage Foundation, dedicated to preserving historic buildings and other artifacts; when thousands of old documents were found in that giant pile in the city hall clock tower, it was Yasmeen Lari’s foundation that organized an effort to begin preserving and archiving them. She also went into action after the fires. She rushed to the ruined markets, many of which were in buildings dating back to colonial times. City officials were inclined to tear down what little of buildings remained, but she sought to save historic facades. And this work led to her theory: she, like the shopkeepers, believed that somebody wanted the land beneath the stores.

“I’ve come to this conclusion,” she told me, “because M. A. Jinnah Road is now prime commercial land. These buildings are three or four stories high. They were burned down to try to see if, you know, a multistory tower could be put up in their place. Because as soon as we got to the site, within a few days, although we were offering that we would try to raise money for them to restore buildings, these owners kept on saying to me, ‘Don’t worry, we have no problem of money, we have people who are sitting there saying they will build it for us.’ So the question is how come?” Many of the buildings were full of shopkeepers whose families rented space at exceedingly low rates, having held on to their shops for generations. It would not be unprecedented for real estate owners to seize a chance to burn out tenants. “There is a huge mafia in this city,” Yasmeen Lari said, “which really wants to get this prime piece of land to build these multistory towers. I have no doubt in my mind there was great conspiracy.”

I heard an even darker version of this theory from Arif Hasan, a Karachi urban planner and architect who was writing a five-volume history of his city. Hasan was a broad-faced and solid man, whose stern expression somehow carried with it a hint of mirth. Sitting behind the white table in his home office, Hasan spoke in his quiet and precise voice. “Land mafias” had been growing in power for many years, he said, seizing real estate by any means and maximizing its value. “Our politicians became a part of it,” Hasan said. At first the politicians were in control of the mafias, or imagined that they were. “But then the Bolton Market tragedy happened,” he said, “and that showed our politicians that the mafia was stronger than them.”

Hasan had identified something that drove a city when it grew this rapidly – drove its economy, its politics, its conversation, its dreams and its nightmares. Real estate was the heart of the instant city in the early twenty-first century. It was a swiftly growing city’s true faith, a source of passion, hope, mystery, and superstition. Even if all the conspiracy theories were completely wrong (and certainly none was ever proved), the political result was the same. The abruptly vacant land took center stage in the political debate.

Even the bombing of the Shias prompted less comment than the real estate. A reporter for the News International wrote a few days later, “Within an hour of the Ashura blast, which tragically was quickly forgotten, the battle for prime real estate of Karachi began in earnest.” Shias were always being killed in Pakistan. But real estate on Jinnah Road did not become available every day. The question of what to do with the Bolton Market land instantly became a problem for everyone, including Karachi’s mayor, Mustafa Kamal. It even attracted interest and money from the United States.

When I thought about Arif Hasan’s theories of the Bolton Market fires, I recalled something he’d told me a couple of years before. He compared the situation in Karachi to man’s ancient lust for gold.

“Land has replaced gold,” he said. “Everything that was done for gold, is now done for land.” (p. 37)

Fire crews put out the last of the flames after hundreds of shops were destroyed, but it would be harder to tamp down the political debate. The People’s Party claimed the MQM had failed to properly mobilize the fire crews, which were under the control of MQM politicians. The MQM said the People’s Party had failed to unleash the police. This distraction came at a moment of great tension, when the People’s Party, the MQM, and other political parties were maneuvering against each other for the long-term control of Karachi. The provincial law that had created the local government was about to expire. The parties disagreed on whether and how to renew it, and their indecision raised the possibility that the mayor, the city council, and every other elected official could see their offices changed or even abolished. The moment was even more dangerous because Karachi’s political parties were generally divided between ethnic groups – or more precisely language groups, because each major group had its own tongue, such as Urdu, Sindhi, Punjabi, Baloch, and Pashto, and language was the way many defined themselves. A man’s political rival was also his blood enemy, implicated in ethnic warfare that gone on for decades… [I feel that Inskeep is overgeneralizing from the “ethnic” warfare of particular political parties.]

They year of 2009 was an unusually deadly one for politicians and activists, hundreds of whom were killed [in many cases these were common, innocent persons who would be killed in this warfare and later claimed by one political party or the other as its member], but the monthly pace actually increased in January 2010, according to the figures compiled by the Human Rights Commission. During that month thirty-seven deaths fell under the heading of “targeted killing,” which was the typical phrase for the shootings by gunmen who rolled away on motorcycles. Twenty-six more deaths were labeled “political workers killed.” These figures included a political worker who was beheaded in early January. Were the killings related? Unrelated? Who really knew? Many people had theories, but few of the crimes were ever solved. (p. 38)

My notes: Considering the footage of arsonists and their preparation, among other pieces of evidence, the Ashura bombing was clearly a pre-planned and well-coordinated crime. There is a penchant among many international news reporters of dismissing the possibility of hidden hands and their interests by citing lack of evidence or calling such a possibility a conspiracy theory, instead of uncovering these hands. What this often does (although Inskeep’s account is more nuanced than this) is that the ‘obvious’ causes are taken as the real and only causes – the extremists and their fanatic mindset in the case of the Ashura bombing. The discerning observers who are familiar with Karachi’s politics know which political “ethnic” groups have connections to land mafia in that particular area on the M. A. Jinnah road. And, which “ethnic” political groups have connections to the extremist militants, and which groups have tried to use the specter of Talibanization to target other political groups, their constituencies, and property. And the discerning observers also know the politics of the statements (of condemnation of such crimes and condolences to all bereaved) released to the news media by the same political groups. With such  background information, it is not that difficult to reduce the possibility of the hidden hands to one to two equations - as opposed to throwing this possibility into the basket of “conspiracy theory”. Many local journalist know the hands behind the Ashura bombing, but they would not name these perpetrators because of the risk to their life (and other reasons). But international journalists have more room and security. They should present some conclusions, instead of calling this pursuit as doing conspiracy theory.

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