Hours after the suicide attack on the Pakistan side of the Attari-Wagah border crossing, the group that claimed responsibility for the carnage sent out a sinister warning: India is in its sights too.
In a message posted on Twitter, Jamaatul-Ahrar spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan said the attack was intended to be a “message” to the governments of both India and Pakistan. At least 61 people were killed when a suicide bomber detonated his explosive vest while a large crowd was dispersing after the popular flag-lowering ceremony on Sunday.
“This attack was a message to the governments on both sides of the border. If we can carry out an attack on this side, then we can attack the other side too,” Ehsan said in a tweet in Urdu.
He claimed the Wagah attack was carried out by “our friend Hafiz Hanifullah” (the suicide bomber), and said in another tweet that the group would release a video of the assault.
In another tweet, Ehsan claimed Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the “killer of hundreds of Muslims” and that his group would “take the revenge of innocent people of Kashmir and Gugrat (sic)”.
Though two other lesser-known groups – Jundullah (Soldiers of Allah), a breakaway faction of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and the Mahar Mehsud group – claimed responsibility for the attack at Wagah, security experts are now veering to the conclusion that the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar was responsible for the brazen assault. Ehsan described the claims of the two other groups as “baseless” and posted on Twitter that they did not have “the ability to do (sic) such attacks”. He said the attack was planned at the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar’s headquarters.
The suicide attack in close proximity to the border crossing and the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar’s threat has sent ripples of alarm through the Indian security establishment. A top official, who did not want to be named, acknowledged that the bombing was intended to be a “message” to India even though it was carried out in a parking lot located some 500 metres from the border gates.
There is also consternation in Indian security circles that the Pakistani side was unable to prevent the assault despite several intelligence reports about an impending attack at Wagah. Reports from both countries have said Indian and Pakistani intelligence agencies had picked up plans for an attack ahead of the suicide blast.
Pakistani security agencies found explosives and a suicide jacket packed with explosives and ball bearings during a search operation in the Wagah area after the attack. The Lahore Police arrested a teenager named Abdul Rehman from Multan district on the suspicion that he was the second suicide bomber sent to target the Wagah border crossing. They had earlier issued a sketch of Rehman, who had gone missing from a seminary in the old quarters of Lahore about a month ago.
Sources said Indian intelligence agencies, including the R&AW, too had picked up information about a possible attack at Wagah during the flag-lowering ceremony or at the Golden Temple in Amritsar and alerted security forces. BSF chief D.K. Pathak has acknowledged that his force was on high alert at the time of Sunday’s attack.
The Jamaat-ul-Ahrar was formed in late August after a leadership dispute within the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and it comprises several jihadi factions drawn from Mohmand and Bajaur tribal regions of northwest Pakistan. The group is led by Maulana Omar Khorasani, a former commander of the TTP.
Many leading members of the TPP have joined the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, and Ehsanullah Ehsan was earlier the spokesman of the TTP. Khorasani is considered to be close to Al Qaeda and its chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, who recently announced the formation of a new wing in the Indian subcontinent. Security experts said the attack at Wagah could be aimed at establishing the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar’s supremacy over other Taliban factions.
The TTP is currently headed by Maulana Fazlullah, who has been very low-key and confined his activities to Afghanistan. As the US-led foreign forces begin their drawdown in Afghanistan, there are growing fears in the security establishment that more and more Pakistanbased jihadi groups could turn their attention towards India.
According to the Long War Journal, a website that tracks jihadi groups, the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar participated in a joint suicide assault with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan on two Pakistani military airbases in Quetta two weeks before the group officially announced its formation. The group has also welcomed the formation of the Al Qaeda wing in the Indian subcontinent, saying it would work for the “rights of Muslims” in the region.