By Zia Ur Rehman
KARACHI – The investigations of a Saudi diplomat’s murder and a hand grenade attack on a Saudi consulate, both in Karachi in May, continue, but security analysts are attributing both attacks to a Shiite militant organisation with links abroad.Officials have connected Sipah-e-Mohammed Pakistan (SMP) to both attacks and say the Shiite group aims to reignite feuds between Pakistan’s Sunni and Shiite communities, and between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
“It is impossible to rule out the recent dispute between rival organisations of supporters and non-supporters of Saudi Arabia,” Saud Mirza, then-head of Karachi Police, said in May.
Law enforcement officials May 17 arrested Muntazir Imam, an SMP member, in connection with the death of Hassan al-Qahtani, a Saudi diplomat who was gunned down by men riding two motorcycles in Karachi May 16, and other killings of rival Islamist leaders.
Anti-Saudi attacks in Karachi in May
Qahtani’s assassination came five days after unidentified assailants threw hand grenades at the Saudi consulate in Karachi, where al-Qahtani worked. No one was injured in that attack, media reported.
After the violence, the Saudi government recalled non-essential staff and families of diplomats stationed in Karachi. Imam told investigators that more than 200 SMP activists, trained abroad and heavily armed are hunting down Sunnis, Pakistan Today reported May 26.
Shiite groups support SMP
SMP is a Shiite militant organisation outlawed by the Pakistani government. It has been connected to a number of killings and reportedly maintains close links with a Shiite regime, according to a South Asia Terrorist Portal (SATP) report.
“Although there is no strong evidence of foreign government involvement in supporting the SMP, the terrorist outfit had been supported by (foreign) Shiite groups,” Rana told Central Asia Online. The SMP is mainly involved in targeted killings of leaders of rival groups, particularly those of the SSP, he added.
“When the Punjab government started an operation against the SMP to dismantle its network in the province, most of its leaders fled (abroad),” said Muhammad Amir Rana, director of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS). That operation has badly damaged SMP’s network, Rana said.
He said the Punjab government operation against the SMP was launched three years ago, but it is not known exactly when they fled.
A proxy battleground
Pakistan has become a proxy battleground for conflicts between Shia and Sunni countries, security analysts say, adding that the May attacks on Saudi interests in Karachi could be an effort to re-ignite Sunni-Shiite tensions in Pakistan.
“Saudi interests in Karachi may have been targeted in response to the situation in the Gulf, especially the Saudi military support … to curb (Bahrain’s) uprising,” Raees Ahmed, a political analyst, told Central Asia Online.
The Saudi military’s assistance in putting down predominantly Shiite Bahrain’s uprising angered Pakistani Shiite organisations, Ahmed added, pointing to nationwide anti-Saudi protests that included wall-chalking and a propaganda campaign in Karachi.
In response, Sunni groups rallied in support of Saudi Arabia and accused Shiite states of creating unrest in the Gulf States and Pakistan. Pakistani Sunni leaders condemned the attacks on the Saudi consulates in Karachi and al-Qahtani’s killing and demanded that the government remove banners in Karachi bearing anti-Saudi messages, Ahmed said.
Other cities in Pakistan show signs of Sunni-Shiite tension, Ahmed continued, observing that walls in Karachi, Lahore and elsewhere now bear slogans and posters condemning various countries and exacerbating sectarian tensions.
This is not the first time Pakistan has been the proxy battleground. The SATP report noted that the same thing occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, with Karachi turned into a bloody battleground. Since 1989, fighting between the two sects has killed at least 7,636 in Pakistan, the report stated.