Burnt books lay in disarray at the Army Public School, besieged by Taliban gunmen on Tuesday. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
The Pakistani Taliban killed 132 students and nine school staff in what is being widely described as the worst terrorist attack in the Muslim state in a decade. The military response has already begun with airstrikes in the North-West Frontier Province.
The terrorist attack, carried out in a Peshawar school attended by children of Pakistani civilian and military families, was as clinical in its planning as in its execution.
Accounts differed in the early hours after the attack on how the attackers entered the school compound. Initially it was widely reported that operatives dressed in military garb and suicide vests scaled the school’s wall by climbing on top of a van, whereas the BBC later reported the army said seven had entered by cutting through a wire fence.
What no one disputes is that the attackers were heavily armed with grenades and automatic weapons. Moving from room to room they began gunning down students and teachers indiscriminately.
The New York Times reported some students were lined up and shot in the head. Others were shot as they tried hiding behind desks. Meanwhile, wailing parents afraid for their children were held back by police from entering the school.
“One of my teachers was crying, she was shot in the hand and she was crying in pain,” student Shahrukh Khan told Reuters describing the mayhem. “One terrorist then walked up to her and started shooting her until she stopped making any sound.”
Pakistani commandos stormed the compound and engaged in an intense eight-hour battle with the attackers. By the time the smoke had cleared all the terrorists lay dead. It was unclear how many were killed by troops and how many had killed themselves.
Around 120 victims were already dead by the time reports of the killings began making international news Tuesday morning. As of Tuesday evening at least 132 uniformed students and nine teachers had died. Around 125 were wounded.
The Pakistan Taliban (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan) took credit for the attack.
“We selected the army’s school for the attack because the government is targeting our families and females. We want them to feel the pain,” the London-based Guardian newspaper reported the Taliban spokesman Muhammad Umar Khorasani as saying.
Since June, Pakistan’s military has been engaged in battle with the Pakistan Taliban in North Waziristan. Tuesday’s act is widely seen as retaliation for these military offensives, political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi told The Muslim Observer.
“They are now looking for soft targets as when they recently attacked the Wagah border area,” said Rizvi. “Today also they were able to enter the school compound which was not strongly defended. They want to demonstrate their capability to take action against the Pakistani government.”
Pakistani teenage Nobel Peace prize-winner Malala Yusoufzai, shot in the head two years ago by the Pakistani Taliban for her stance supporting education for females, condemned the attack.
“I am heartbroken by this senseless and cold-blooded act of terror in Peshawar that is unfolding before us,” Yousafzai said in a statement. “I condemn these atrocious and cowardly acts and stand united with the government and armed forces of Pakistan whose efforts so far to address this horrific event are commendable. …”
“I, along with millions of others around the world, mourn these children, my brothers and sisters – but we will never be defeated.”
Relatives, friends and those otherwise connected to the region quickly took to social media to grieve.
“I was sitting in a function when someone was calling from home number. I had to cut three times but the call was coming constantly. When I received the call, I was told that Daniyal’s school has been attacked,” said Mushtaq Yusufzai on Facebook. “I remained silent and didn’t know what to say in reply as I knew about the outcome of such attacks on schools.”
Yusufzai said that he finally got in touch with his driver after two hours of trying to contact him. The driver told to get back to the school as possible. “I was going to collapse,” he said later. When he finally found them hours later, “I had no courage to listen to them. I left them home and went to the hospital [to visit patients] … I felt the pain as if all of them were my children.”
On this side of the world Muslims have been shaken by Tuesday’s terrible events.
“On the day of judgement I don’t know how these sick people will be able to answer the parents of these children. I don’t know how they will be able to look into the eyes of their own children after carrying out their monstrous deeds,” said Aly Lakhani, a Pakistani-American. Lakhani is a former president of the Students for Islamic Awareness club at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.
“This cancer [of terrorism], which is being treated as if it were benign by so many governments, including Pakistan’s, needs to be stopped.”
As of Wednesday morning the military has been targeting Pakistan Taliban strongholds. But Rizvi told The Muslim Observer that while a military response will be sure to hammer the Khyber area near Peshawar which Taliban elements have used as a staging ground, there is a need for political and civilian unity as well.
“There is a need to create harmony between political leaders on what is terrorism and how to cope with it. The religious civilian leaders are also not in agreement on it,” said Rizvi. “Some of them take a stance against terrorism as a concept, but they do not say anything against any group or action specifically. Sometimes they blame former governments instead of pointing the finger at the culprits amongst us.
“It has to be said that in Pakistan there is sympathy for the Taliban in the civilian sector. Additionally, all the leaders and their factions are divided, and therefore it is difficult to take a firm stand against the Taliban.
“This latest attack by the Taliban will shake some of those elements who have sympathy for the group, but all such sympathy will not disappear overnight. I don’t expect 100% of the population to change their ways.”