As Sahibzada Noor ul Amin gave the call to prayer on Monday afternoon, a deafening blast shattered the calm. Amin, 50, had led the congregation at the mosque inside the compound of the police headquarters in Pakistan’s Peshawar city five times a day for years. Amin and at least 83 others were killed on January 30 when a suicide bomber in the front row of the mosque set off explosives.

Most of those killed were police personnel. Some died as the roof collapsed, trapping many under the rubble. A visitor as well as a police constable’s grandmother were also among those killed. More than 200 have been injured, including several family members of police personnel as well as children.

At the site of the blast, rescuers and families searched through the rubble for possible survivors, many of whom were trapped for more than 24 hours. The severely wounded were taken to the Lady Reading Hospital, where many others turned up to donate blood.

The toll, at 84, is lower than the earlier reporting that pegged the casualties at 101 due to “double registration by the families in the hospitals”. But this still makes it one of the deadliest attacks ever on the police in Pakistan, according to an official.

Fida Hassan, deputy inspector general of police in Islamabad, said no other attack in Pakistan has ever resulted in the deaths of so many police personnel

Alam Khan, a policeman, said friends and colleagues of years were killed in the explosion. “We had been interacting with each other for years but lost them in one single incident,” he said.

Volatile border, region

Peshawar is on Pakistan’s troubled north-west border with Afghanistan, and is the capital of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. In the 36 years between 1970 and 1999, militant attacks and encounters in the region had killed around 389 police personnel.

But there was a sharp increase in attacks from 2000 to 2019 – in the run-up to the September 2001 attacks in the United States and the “war on terror” in Afghanistan that followed. Suicide attacks, bomb blasts, targeted killings and ambushes have since killed over 1,400 police personnel.

The January 30 blast at the mosque in Peshawar is part of an escalating trend in the area, according to Islamabad-based journalist Kathy Gannon, who has covered the region extensively for over 30 years.

The last major attack in Peshawar took place less than a year ago in March when a bombing at a mosque killed at least 55 people. “It’s a complicated situation,” said Gannon, pointing to the apparent divisions within the Pakistani Taliban and their safe havens in neighbouring Afghanistan.

A Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan commander claimed responsibility for Monday’s deadly blast, but the outfit’s central command later disowned it. “It seems that they consulted among the group and realised that they will be criticised for attacking a mosque,” said Moazzam Jah Ansari, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa inspector general of police, according to Al Jazeera.

The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, a terror organisation, has been blamed for at least a 100 attacks on Pakistan since the past few months. The organisation has pledged its allegiance to the Afghan Taliban.

The attack on mosque in Peshawar appears to have been well planned, given the location as well as the impact of such an incident at the headquarters of the police force in a provincial capital. The headquarters is named after Malik Muhammad Saad, a respected Peshawar police chief who was killed along with over a dozen others in the first major attack on the police in Pakistan in January 2007.

Rescue workers look for survivors under a collapsed roof, in Peshawar on January 30. Credit: Fayaz Aziz/Reuters.

Tight security?

The Peshawar police headquarters lies at the heart of the city, close to high security buildings such as the official residences of the governor and the provincial chief minister, the provincial assembly, civil secretariat and the provincial police headquarters.

The Police Lines itself houses four major departments – the offices of the Peshawar police, Counter Terrorism, Frontier Reserve Police, and the communications network.

Two layers of security restrict access to the compound with guarded check posts at the entrance off Khyber Road as well as one inside. There is a third barricade before the offices of senior officials, to the left of the road leading from the mosque. The mosque is located around 150 metres from the main gate.

“If terrorists can strike the police headquarters in the safest place of the province, what does it mean for the security of other places?” said Kashif Ahmad, a student at the University of Peshawar.

Police more vulnerable

Sharing a long border with Afghanistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has borne the brunt of the long-drawn conflict that roils Pakistan’s western neighbour. From 2005-’14, the bulk of militant attacks in Pakistan were carried out in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, with the deadliest years being between 2009-’11.

These attacks have also targeted army, paramilitary and civilians but for militants attacking the state, police personnel are an easier target than other security forces.

The police are more visible and deployed everywhere, including remote and vulnerable areas, compared to military or paramilitary forces posted in specific locations.

Police stations and posts at the outskirts of Peshawar as well as in smaller towns and districts like Khyber, Lakki Marwat, Bannu, Dera Ismail, North and South Waziristan have been targeted for several months, facing attacks by militants armed with automatic weapons, grenades, explosives.

A senior official, who did not wish to be identified, said that since the past few months, the attackers have started using night vision thermal scope guns to target the police.

Relatives during a funeral, in Peshawar on February 2. Credit: Reuters.

Attacks on the police in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa escalated after 2007. According to data compiled by the police force shared with this reporter, between 2007 to 2014 around 1,100 police personnel were killed in the province.

In 2009, military operations were launched in Malakand division and the erstwhile tribal areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to dismantle the terrorist network. Matters have improved since 2014. Analysts credit factors such as military operations combined with the National Action Plan and other measures such as search operations and intelligence-based actions.

From 2015 to 2020, attacks on the police Khyber Pakhtunkhwa killed 296 personnel, according to data shared with this reporter.

However, there has been an increase in violence since mid-2021, especially in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa after the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan in August that year. That year, 59 police personnel were killed in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

More of the same

The numbers have risen since. Between January and August last year, 63 police personnel lost their lives in targeted killings and other attacks. According to the police, 119 personnel were killed in 2022.

For now, a joint investigation team that has begun probing the Peshawar mosque blast is looking into how the suicide bomber breached the security measures and smuggled explosives inside the compound of the police headquarters.

The police have protested in Peshawar city and Mardan districts of the province, calling on the authorities to thoroughly investigate the incident and eliminate the network as well as those found to be responsible. They have also asked for advanced resources, especially in conflict areas.

But until such issues are resolved, Pakistan is likely to see a continuation in escalating assaults on its security forces, particularly the police who live among the communities they are posted to.

Javed Khan is a senior reporter in Peshawar with over 25 years experience covering conflict, war, terrorism in the region.

This is a Sapan News syndicated feature.