The horrific bomb attack at the famous Qissa Khawani bazaar (story tellers market) in Peshawar left me utterly devastated. I was on verge of writing a jeremiad, if not an obituary, to give vent to my sensibilities. But a grimmer grudge cajoled me to write on a different aspect instead. The perpetrators denied their involvement in the incident, the apologists rushed to highlight it and the people at the helm of affairs softly succumbed to this ploy. It turned my pen to this facet.

Terrorists thrive by creating fear and confusion in the society. Our home grown terrorists have been adroitly achieving these objectives. This is what they did by launching ghastly terrorist attack on the Qissa Khawani bazaar of Peshawar and by denying to have done it. Not only the public but the highest public office has fallen prey to the planned confusion. A question cropped up, if it was not the handiwork of these terrorists then who did it? Terrorists must be gloating over the bedlam?

It is said that during the emergence of ‘modern terrorism’, may be two hundred years ago, terrorists endorsed a doctrine of terrorism as ‘propaganda of the deed’. For these terrorists, claiming responsibility for their violence and the havoc it created was the most significant difference between their acts and those of criminal organizations. But during the last fifty years there has been a change in the approach of terrorist organizations. The number of claims has drastically diminished. ‘From the late 1990s until 2004, the percentage of claimed acts of terror plumetted to 14.5 percent, of which only half could be confirmed as valid claims of responsibility.’ So claiming and disclaiming responsibility is a universally employed tactic of terrorists.

Local terrorist outfits are not a bunch of bedraggled dumb witted morons who recklessly bang their heads against the rock. They are cunning and conniving strategists. They have a proper strategy to accept or deny the responsibility of a terrorist act committed by them. The terrorist attacks on police, intelligence, army and law enforcement agencies are almost always followed by the statements of TTP spokesman who claim the responsibility. Lately they jumped to claim credit of killing the army officers in Upper Dir area of Swat. Claiming such an attack demonstrates the willingness on the part of the group to take ownership of a controversial and potentially provocative tactic in the pursuit of their cause. When they launch spectacular attack on the forces they claim responsibility because show of strength through dramatic attacks is best accomplished through credit-taking.

On the other hand, the attacks on non-government targets like mosques, churches, shrines, markets, public places and educational institutions are not owned by TTP to avoid public animosity. They kept silent over the Kohati Church and Qissa Khawani Bazaar attack. They have a monstrous strategy to stay mum after creating mayhem.  It must not be misconstrued as their weakness.  According to Bruce Hoffman groups are freer to contemplate especially bloody attacks if they are unconstrained by the desire to claim responsibility for the havoc they wreak . Another expert says that, “the ‘stronger’ a group is in relation to opponents, the more likely that they will conceal responsibility.

Another concept is quite valid. Terrorists want to be feared but not to be abhorred. They have to ‘swim with their people’. Rapoport observes that suicide attacks may cause a backlash within the sympathetic community concerning the tactic of choice.  If the sympathetic population turns against them it would be impossible to survive. The channels of resources and recruits may go dry. Therefore they create confusion about their identity, ideology, motives. It helps them deflect outright antagonism against them and also creates apologists who have sympathy for them. Thus, claiming responsibility for a suicide attack on a non military target and on civilian population is a gamble that can turn the tables on them. The footage of a girl being flogged in Swat was shown on TV channels which turned the public opinion against the Maulvi Fazalullah and it paved the way for army operation with full public support.

It is noteworthy that as soon the political parties agreed to initiate peace talks with the terrorists and insurgents a spate of more violence was unleashed. Khyber Pukhtunkhawa experienced unprecedented death and destruction that included killing of a Major General of Pak Army, suicide attack on Kohati Church, bomb blast in Civil Secretariat bus and vehicle based improvised explosive devise (VBIED) attack in Qissa Khawani Bazaar.  It confirms that the ‘groups that face states that are either unstable, unpredictable or unfettered in their employment of retaliatory violence are unlikely to see the utility of claiming credit; the costs of credit-taking will almost certainly outweigh the strategic benefits of claiming responsibility.’

Bruce Hoffman’s assessment seems very relevant to our situation, “While the government is depicted as weak and powerless, looking incompetent or impotent in the face of the terrorist threat, , even when no claim is issued, the terrorists may believe that they are nonetheless still effectively ‘harming’ their enemy and thus achieving their ultimate objective In countries where domestic government responses are unfettered and unpredictable, terrorist groups are likely to pass on credit for their work.” This is exactly the scenario prevailing in Pakistan in general and in KP in particular. “In countries, by contrast, where domestic government responses are constrained by strong legal systems and political stability is high, terrorist groups are likely to readily take responsibility for their acts of violence.”

In our case, where the terrorists have wreaked havoc in many urban centers, it is imperative for the rulers and the law enforcement agencies to develop the prowess and mechanism to identify actual perpetrators, without falling into their trap of deception. And it is not difficult to tell who has done it. Whether it is an inverted jail break as it happened in Abu Ghraib Iraq and D.I.Khan or VBIED attack in Baghdad or Peshawar, TTP and al Qaeda have signature modus operandi of terrorist attacks. They don’t have to bother to tell or claim it. Despite this clarity the seasoned schemers have managed to obfuscate their tactics so cunningly that leaders and investigators have fallen in abyss of confusion about the responsibility. Obviously the general public is even less likely to be able to discern the true picture. This state of affairs is grimmer than the terrorist incident itself. The onus is on intelligence agencies to reduce the uncertainty with provision of concrete intelligence to the government to ward off  planned confusion.

The writer is honorary director of the Centre for Peace and Security Studies, University of the Punjab, and holds Master’s degree in Intelligence and International Security from War Studies Department, King’s College London.