On August 11, 2018, a suicide bomber attacked a bus carrying Chinese engineers in Balochistan. It later emerged that the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) was behind the attack. The attack has raised questions about security to China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) especially in Balochistan. Below are comments by some experts on the incident:
BLA suicide attack can have huge security implications
The Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) claimed the vehicle-borne suicide attack in Dalbandin area of Balochistan that targeted a bus carrying Chinese engineers, among others. The attack is significant in many ways, with huge implications for the separatist conflict and security in Balochistan.
For one, it was perhaps the first suicide blast claimed by a nationalist insurgent group in Balochistan. Most describe the current phase of Baloch insurgency as of low-scale, which is vindicated by the patterns and tactics of attacks employed by Baloch insurgent groups; these attacks are not as devastating and lethal as those carried out by religiously-inspired militant groups such as the TTP, Jamaatul Ahrar, ISIS and other similar groups. But the Dalbandin suicide attack by BLA indicates that the Baloch groups could also resort to more violent ways of hitting their targets thus moving further from their traditional way of employing direct shootout or firing or locally made low-impact IEDs.
Linked to the Dalbandin attack, there are some other factors, too, which add to the seriousness of the threat the Baloch insurgent groups could pose to the security of Balochistan, and eventually of Pakistan. For one, the attack was not an isolated, out-of-frustration attack by some loner, but was planned by family members of a BLA member. Secondly, not only the BLA but leaders of some other Baloch nationalist insurgent groups such as BLF also cherished the attack and attacker(s). This is though unprecedented but not completely unintelligible. Many non-religious radical groups have resorted to employing the tactic of suicide bombing starting from the 19th-century anarchists to the contemporary Sri Lankan LTTE. However, it yet remains to be seen whether or not Baloch insurgents – who are considered nationalist and not religiously driven – choose to employ suicide bombing as a strategic weapon in future. If they chose to do so, there is a likelihood they could also try to develop sort of links with Islamist militant groups, who have expertise in orchestrating suicide bombings.
The security forces, mega development projects and workers (including non-Baloch Pakistanis and foreigners mainly Chinese), and state installations are among the key targets hit by the Baloch insurgent groups. With more CPEC-related activity and work force in the province and deployment of more security forces – which are though there to protect but are at the same time target of terrorist attacks also – the Baloch insurgents could become a serious threat if they adopt more lethal ways of hitting their targets. The province has already seen some major attacks by the groups like ISIS, TTP and Jamaatul Ahrar in recent years. It is not only about providing security to CPEC projects and workers but also the people, who suffer the most on hands of terrorist violence and its socioeconomic impact.
Involvement of the family in the attack is quite alarming
It is first time in history that a Baloch insurgent group has overtly claimed responsibility for the attack on Chinese by targeting a bus carrying workers of Saindak project in Dalbandin, situated in Chaghi district in Balochistan.
What is quite alarming is the involvement of the family in the attack. The attack was carried out by son of BLA commander, Aslam Baloch. In a video released on social media, just before the attack, Aslam could be seen encouraging his son, who was giving a speech against the Chinese.
However, unfortunately, the era we are living in is not peaceful era. The security personnel have to check everyone to ensure security, but not everyone is a terrorist. People have reservations over the way the security forces have been checking them, even when someone from them is not a terrorist.
Security endeavors would not be successful unless people’s confidence is gained. Security personnel should not behave as if everyone is a terrorist but must treat domestic people in a respectful manner.
Meanwhile, apart from internal, the external security challenges need to be addressed. Militants from Afghanistan are reported to cross the border illegally. There are terrorists’ safe heavens and many grey areas on both sides of the border that need to be addressed. There should be a proper border management and government on both sides should make efforts to shun terrorist’s safe heaven. Suicide attacks itself are not a worrisome but ambition behind them is alarming, and it must be focused
Attack may not necessarily affect execution of CPEC projects
The attack on a bus carrying Chinese engineers is not much of anomaly. Almost all Baloch insurgent groups, including the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), have expressed their opposition to the Chinese working in the province, accusing them of exploiting the riches of Balochistan. At the same time, it would be remiss to say that the Chinese were not informed about it. They are quite aware of the anti-China sentiments in the militant-infested areas.
Even before the inception of CPEC, China knew implications of working in turbulent areas like Gwadar or the wider Balochistan. But still, they decided to come and work here. The issue of working in such environment applies as much to CPEC as to the broader Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which goes through some of the riskiest parts of the world.
That is why, it is wrong to conclude that the BLA attack will somehow affect the execution of CPEC projects. It could be quite reverse.
Before the attack occurred, the attackers had released a video doing which is now doing rounds on social media. It has led to questions why they were not apprehended in time. Actually, personnel of Special Security Division (SSD) have been putting their efforts to ensure security of CPEC and Chinese nationals, but it is often difficult for them to do so, as militants slip through the common populace. That is why, for all the strict measures, the militants launched the attack.
The attackers interestingly used Iranian truck, which was blown up minutes before the bus arrives. But this does not mean that the attack was launched from that side (Iran). No official has even hinted so far at that, though some may draw their own speculations.
It appears the government will have to review security framework for the Chinese working in Pakistan. Political matters are key to way forward. Earlier, there were even reports that China has been holding talks with militants. If that was true – Pakistani and Chinese government denied that – chances are the road to any definite conclusion will be approached on a fast track.
The attack can result in strict security protocols
One of the striking features about the BLA attack on Chinese engineers is the site of the attack.
District Chaghi has been relatively peaceful. While some security incidents occurred in the southern Gwadar or capital Quetta, Chaghi appeared untouched. Baloch nationalists have long existed in Mastung and Quetta, but had negligible presence in Dalbadin, the exact town of Chaghi where attack took place.
The Chinese have been working on Saindak project for about eighteen years; and according to some reports, the project is in completion stage. The attack therefore shows that the BLA and like-minded insurgents are not comfortable with the continued presence of Chinese or what they think is the exploitation of their national resources. Reko Diq, another mining project, immediately comes to mind; it has yet to be completed.
This perception of exploitation of natural resources is even shared by political parties in Balochistan, who argue that the income of projects under CPEC have not been spent for the development of local population. And that they have been deprived of their due rights. This has the potential of creating anti-Chinese sentiment among domestic people, which can result in attacks on Chinese and China led projects.
Though government of Pakistan has adopted strict security measures, insurgents still managed to attack Chinese. This is not possible without support of locals on ground. Same is being said about this incident too, that some locals were involved too.
But this does not mean that the pace of CPEC projects will be affected. For all security concerns, the Chinese companies may not back off. They are committed to the successful execution of CPEC.
China may rather ask Pakistan to review the security of CPEC projects and its workers to continue work on Saindak and Reko Diq projects. According to some reports, Chinese workers have recently been traveling from Karachi to Balochistan by air. To further ensure the intact security of projects and Chinese workers inside the province, it is likely that local traffic will be blocked while they are travelling or they might travel by air within Balochistan.
For any joint ventures, gaining confidence of local bodies is important. Government of Pakistan needs to take local bodies on board with project’s stakeholders. It must ensure domestic people’s participation and address their concerns and grievances.