Pakistan’s security forces say they prevented a “major” terror attack on Christians in Lahore over the Easter weekend.
The city of Lahore, in Pakistan’s Punjab province, was the scene of a deadly suicide bomb attack on Easter Day last year, when 75 people were killed and 340 injured. A splinter group of the Taliban, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, claimed responsibility for the 2016 attack, saying it had “targeted Christians celebrating Easter”.
This year, the police caught the attackers in time, killing one suspect, Ali Tariq, and making two arrests during a Good Friday raid at the Punjab Housing Society in Lahore. Two suicide vests and four grenades were recovered from the scene.
Earlier, police had released a memo warning the city’s residents: “Reliable sources have informed us that two suicide bombers of an unidentified terrorist organisation have entered Lahore with the intention of carrying out attacks in churches or parks on 16/17 April. They have been equipped with suicide jackets and will target areas where the presence of Christians will be high.”
One of those arrested was a woman reported to have recently returned from two months’ training with the Islamic State group in Syria. Naureen Leghari, a 20-year-old medical student, had disappeared in February, when she reportedly travelled to Syria to join IS. She returned to Pakistan just six days before her arrest, and married Tariq, whom she had met on Facebook.
A police source told the Indian newspaper DNA: “Tariq was an expert in preparing suicide vests. Naureen also got training to use weapons, especially Kalashnikov[s]. When a raiding team surrounded the couple’s hideout on Ghazi Road, they opened fire on it. The firing lasted for 35 minutes. Tariq was killed in the crossfire, while Naureen engaged the security forces till she ran out of bullets and some commandos managed to nab her.”
Leghari is the daughter of a chemistry professor, M.A. Qazi, who teaches at the Sindh University. Facebook had earlier blocked her account because of her extremist views. After disappearing in February, Leghari reportedly posted a message to her brother from another woman’s Facebook account, in which she wrote: “Brother, I am Naureen, I hope you all are fine, I am fine and happy too, I have contacted you to inform you that by the grace of God, I have migrated to the land of Khilafah [Caliphate] and hope that you all will someday migrate [here].”
There have been only three suicide bombs attacks carried out by women in Pakistan’s history, the last of which was in 2011.
Pakistan’s security forces had tightened security in the run-up to Easter, particularly in the Punjab province, which has the largest Christian population.
In 2014, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered the creation of a special police force to protect minority worship places, but this was later scrapped after the Punjab Human Rights and Minority Affairs Minister, Khalil Tahir Sandhu, said “there was no need of raising another force for this purpose” because the protection of worship places “was quite satisfactory in the Punjab and reasonable security was being provided”.
However, Pakistan’s Christian minority has suffered numerous deadly attacks, including the September 2013 suicide bombing of a church in Peshawar, when 127 people were killed and 250 others injured, and in March 2015 when two suicide attacks on two separate churches in a Christian neighbourhood of Lahore killed 17 and injured 80 others.