LAHORE - After recent killings of many militant commanders during security operations in the largest province, terrorists struck back on Sunday and killed Punjab Home Minister Col. (Retd) Shuja Khanzada and 18 others in a suicide attack in his native town.

The central police office, during the first week of this month, had already warned government officers serving in the Punjab province to strictly follow security guidelines since they could be targeted by terrorists.

“Security will remain on high-alert and search operations will continue. Similarly, a serious crackdown will be started against the criminals, terrorists, and their facilitators. On being a target of terrorists, “all officers / officials” will strictly follow the given security guidelines,” says the Press statement issued from the central police office on August 4.

Amid heightened security, at least 19 persons including Minister and a Deputy Superintendent of Police died and several others were injured when two suicide bombers detonated explosive-vests back-to-back in Attock district yesterday.

Security experts and police investigators state that the the brutal attack on Punjab Home Minister could be in retaliation to the killings of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi chief Malik Ishaq and a senior al-Qaeda commander in the Punjab last month.

The head of al-Qaeda in Pakistan was among 4 militants killed in a police raid near Lahore last week. Shuja Khanzada had named the al-Qaeda leader only as ‘Abdali’ in a news conference and said Abdali and three other operatives were planning an attack on “government figures.”

The Minister had stated, “Their leader who was giving them the briefings, who was leading the entire team, was the head of al-Qaeda in Pakistan. His name was Abdali,” he had told reporters. Punjab police killed Ishaq, his two sons, and his 11 other accomplices in an ‘armed encounter’ in Muzaffargarh on July 29. Shortly after the armed encounter, a spokesperson for Counter-Terrorism Department termed the killings as a big blow to terrorists. “A chapter of target killings in South Punjab has been closed.”

“Malik Ishaq and Ghulam Rasool Shah were running a big gang of terrorists and target killers. These gangsters were also in league with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and al Qaeda groups operating in the area.”

Following the killings of Malik Ishaq and his accomplices, the IGP had stated, “This is the right and an appropriate time that the (entire) police force should stay alert.”

Talking to reporters, the provincial police chief stated it is too early to say who targeted Khanzada. However, he hinted that there was a possibility that a small group was behind the high-profile assault.

On the other hand, security experts and defence analysts state that they believe it could be the work of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an offshoot of the Pakistani Taliban, who had already pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.

The law enforcement agencies had warned that the stalwarts of different political parties, security personnel and their families could be targeted by militants following the killings of militant commanders in police actions.

Since the government ordered the provincial governments to fully implement the National Action Plan (NAP) to quell extremism and militancy, the Punjab police are ruthlessly killing the criminals particularly the militants.

The police are actively fighting against the militants along with security and intelligence agencies. As per police record, at least 198 alleged criminals including many militants have been killed in police encounters during the first six months of this year across the Punjab province. Last year, the police during the same period had killed 141 alleged criminals in armed encounters. The police ‘encounters’ with the militants are likely to increase in the days ahead as the security and law-enforcement agencies have stepped up clampdown on the extremists.

Again, a police spokesperson on Sunday said that in the backdrop of Attock incident security was beefed up across the Punjab on the instructions of Inspector General of Police Punjab Mushtaq Ahmad Sukhera and the police force will perform the security duties as per given positions.

While quoting the IGP, the spokesperson said that the Punjab Police has become the frontline force in war against terrorism and crackdown against these subversive elements will continue to defeat and destroy the militants’ network. The police chief has ordered a thorough inquiry into this incident to bring the culprits to justice.

Police sources stated that the suicide attackers came from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa since Attock district is located on the border of KP and Punjab provinces.

The Punjab IGP termed the martyrdom of Shuja Khanzada as a “national loss” and said in the same breath that the morale and courage of the police force could not be shattered by such cowardly acts of terrorism.

The police chief also paid rich tributes to Shaheed DSP Shoukat Hussain Shah.

Forty-year-old DSP Shoukat Hussain Shah had joined the Police Department in 1998 as Inspector. He left behind one widow and one daughter as bereaved.

The provincial police chief has also directed the officers to beef up security in sensitive areas and around important buildings and key government installations. An official said on Sunday that special search operations were underway all over the Punjab province to hunt down suspected militants.

According to many police officers, Shujaa Khanzada was a real hero who instilled a new life into the provincial counter-terrorism department.

Punjab Home Minister Shuja Khanzada, the front man of Punjab’s fight against terrorism was killed in a suicide attack at his political office near Shadi Khan Village in Hazro near Attock on Sunday.

Son of Yousaf Khanzada, Khanzada was born into an agriculturist Pakhtun family belonging to the Yousufzai clan in SHadi Khan. He belonged to an influential family and his grandfather, Captain Ajab Khan had served as a member in Indian Legislative Assembly. His uncle, late Captain (retd) Taj Muhammad Khanzada was also a veteran parliamentarian as member of the National Assembly from the 1950s to the late 1990s and also served in Majlis-e-Shura and. He matriculated at the Public School Nowshera, followed by F.Sc. and graduation from the Islamia College in Peshawar with a bachelors’ degree in arts in 1966. After graduating from Islamia College, Peshawar in 1966, he was commissioned in Pakistan Army in 1967 and participated actively in 1971 Pakistan-India war.

In the military, Khanzada served as an instructor during 1974-78, and commander 3 Lancers from 1982-83. He was awarded “Tamgha-e-Basalat” in 1988. Being among the first few to reach Siachin Glacier in 1983, he also served as a Military Attache to the Embassy of Pakistan in Washington DC, during 1992-94; and was later seconded to the Embassy of Pakistan as Minister Information. Following his retirement from the military, Khanzada entered politics and was elected as a member of the Punjab Assembly in 2002. He served as special adviser to the chief minister and also held a ministry portfolio. He returned to the assembly in 2008 and worked as Chairman Chief Minister’s Task Forces on Agriculture and Police Training Reforms before his most recent appointment as Punjab home minister in October 2014. Khanzada was reportedly under threats, particularly after Malik Ishaq was killed along with fellow Laskhar-e-Jhangvi militants in Punjab last month.