ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Two suicide bombers struck the biggest Sufi shrine in Pakistan in the eastern city of Lahore on Thursday night, killing at least 41 people and wounding more than 175, officials said.
It was the second major attack in a month in the city, capital of the heartland Punjab province where many militant groups are becoming increasingly active, following twin attacks on a minority sect that left more than 80 people dead.
Below are some questions and answers about the latest attack in Lahore and who might be responsible.
WHO MIGHT BE BEHIND THE ATTACK?
Militants drawn from Punjab who have joined ranks with Taliban in their northwestern bastion -- some of the most feared groups in the country -- and are likely to be high on the list of suspects.
These militants, sometimes called the “Punjabi Taliban”, are especially troublesome because they pose a threat to stability in Punjab, Pakistan’s most economically important province and the country’s traditional seat of power.
Sunni Muslim Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), a notorious al-Qaeda-linked organisation which has forged ties with the Taliban, is one of the most well-known groups.
LeJ emerged as a sectarian group in the 1990s targeting minority Shi’ite Muslims but later graduated to more audacious attacks, and is suspected of being behind the truck bombing of Islamabad’s Marriott Hotel in 2008 which killed 55 people. Analysts say the group was behind last year’s brazen attack on the army headquarters in Rawalpindi, in which more than 20 people were killed.
HOW IS THIS ATTACK DIFFERENT?
It’s the first attack on a major shrine in Punjab, the country’s heartland, and the first attack on a major Sufi shrine - although there have been attacks on Sufi shrines before in Baluchistan, Islamabad, Peshawar and Swat.
It’s not the first attack on a religious site in Lahore. Almost exactly a month ago, twin teams of suicide bombers attacked two mosques in Lahore belonging to Ahmadis, a minority sect who believe they are followers of Islam and that Mohammad was not the final prophet, but whom most Muslims consider to be a heretic sect.
But this attack is likely to hit Pakistanis harder because the Data Gunj Bakhsh shrine is the most popular in Pakistan and most Pakistanis adhere to the Sufi strand of Islam. It’s a direct attack on the religious identity of the majority of the country.
WHY ARE THEY ATTACKING RELIGIOUS SITES?
The attackers, assuming they’re part of the constellation of radical Sunni groups operating in Pakistan, are violently opposed to differing views of Islam. Shi’ites, Ahmadis and Sufis are all considered heretics or apostates to most of the militant groups, and thus worthy of being killed.
At the same time, mosques and shrines are popular gathering places for Pakistanis and often have poor security, making them soft targets. Attacking mosques sends a powerful message in deeply religious Pakistan, showing that no place is safe and that the government and security forces are powerless to protect people, weakening their already shaky credibility.
WHAT WILL THE RESPONSE BE?
The Punjab government has been slow to recognise the growing threat of militant groups such as LeJ based in there. After the Ahmadi attacks, several provincial officials ruled out any kind of military operation against militant groups along the lines of the army’s push into the frontier areas to the west and northwest along the Afghan border to root out the Taliban.
Reprisals for the twin Ahmadi bombings was muted because they are a reviled minority group. But an attack on a popular religious shrine will mean the Punjab government, led by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the main opposition party in parliament, will now be under immense pressure to act.
Punjab officials say they already have 4,000 young men under watch who have to notify police officials if they leave their villages. But analysts have said this is just “rounding up the usual suspects” and not going after the heads of the militant groups. That may be about to change, although the risks to the PML-N and the security forces are great.
The PML-N draws followers from the same pool of supporters of Islamist groups, and moving against them could mean losing votes in future elections. Also, given the strength of the militant groups in Punjab and the level of support they enjoy among the people, there are fears the government forces might lose.
(Writing by Chris Allbritton, editing by Miral Fahmy)