The Easter week represents the most important period in the Christian calendar, and is seen as a time of peace and hope. Perhaps this fact contributed to the timing of the shocking terrorist attacks which rocked Brussels and Lahore last week; it certainly seems to have been a factor in the latter, in which the Pakistani Taliban targeted the city’s Christian community. Sometimes, when a series of terrorist incidents take place in quick succession, it can seem to the innocent onlooker that they might form part of a terrifying global plot; this makes each individual attack seem more significant and ominous. The public are left wondering where the next target will be, and when it will be hit. Aside from their timing, however, and the claims of their perpetrators to represent Islam, there seems to be little to link these two atrocities.
Early on the morning of Tuesday 22 March, two bombs were set off in the Belgian capital’s Zaventem Airport, killing 17 bystanders and injuring many more before staff were able to carry out an evacuation. Then, while Belgian emergency services were still dealing with the fallout, news broke that a third bomb had been detonated at the Maelbeek metro station, clearly targeting those on their way to work. This attack brought the number of deceased victims to a total of 32, and left the city’s transport network in lock-down while rescue workers and police investigators set to work.
Perhaps the most chilling aspect of the Brussels attacks from an analytical point of view is that they took place despite the fact that the city was already subject to the second highest level of security alert possible. Commentators were quick to observe that just four days before, the Belgian police had finally succeeded in arresting Saleh Abdesslam, a key suspect in the investigation into the attacks unleashed by supporters of the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” (aka ISIS or Daesh) in Paris last November. Perhaps the police in Brussels let their guard down following his capture; maybe key information about Abdesslam’s associates was missed, or not understood properly. The BBC’s security correspondent, Frank Gardner, observed on Radio 4’s Today Programme that morning that there are serious short comings in the intelligence sharing procedures used by Belgian police and security services. Both the Paris and Brussels attacks have also highlighted the problem of radicalisation within certain Belgian communities; the connections between the perpetrators of each suggests that the problem is more serious than a few angry loners chancing their luck.
On Easter Sunday, just three days after the attacks on the airport and metro station in Brussels, at least 75 people were killed at a public park in the Pakistani city of Lahore. While the Brussels blasts were a broad based attack on the Belgian public, this bombing, which was quickly claimed by the Pakistani Taliban, was specifically aimed at the country’s Christian minority, who represent about 2 per cent of Pakistan’s population.
The Taliban has carried out attacks on this community before, most recently in March 2015, which suggests a deliberate decision to target Christians during the Easter period. Despite the group’s minority status, the whole of Pakistan has been shocked and appalled by the incident March 27, which killed an estimated 24 children who had been visiting the park with their families. So far, Lahore police have arrested 17 people in connection with the bombing, and it would seem that the country’s authorities are trying to respond to the Christian community’s fears seriously. Lahore’s leading cleric, Bishop Irfan Jamil, has come out in praise of the government’s efforts against the Taliban, but priests working in closer contact with affected neighbourhoods have been more critical.
BOTH THE PUBLIC AND GOVERNMENTS HAVE A RESPONSIBILITY TO REMAIN CALM, AND SHOW DIGNIFIED SOLIDARITY WITH THE VICTIMS
Both awful stories, especially at a time when Exeter students are enjoying a holiday with friends and family. Hopefully these dreadful attacks will inspire serious reforms and improvements to the Belgian and Pakistani security services’ ability to protect citizens from terrorism. However, they already seem to be having other, less positive, repercussions on international politics. Not an hour after the news of the Brussels bombings reached the UK, people were taking advantage of Belgium’s grief in the debate on Britain’s EU membership. Distasteful though this may be, there is no denying that Britain’s security is closely linked to that of our neighbours on the continent.
Meanwhile, although Lahore is much further away than Belgium, we should not assume that terrorism there doesn’t affect the UK, not least because our Pakistani community is such an important part of modern Britain. The UK is actually in a good position to help both our allies overcome their security issues, by providing advice and sharing intelligence. As in the aftermath of any terrorist attack, both the public and governments have a responsibility to remain calm, and show dignified solidarity with victims.