Today brings back fresh wounds for grieving parents of the harrowing APS attack. Five years ago, armed gunmen entered the Army Public School in Peshawar armed with suicide bombs where several children were watching a first-aid lecture. The nightmarish scene that ensued involved gunmen firing bullets into the hall full of children only to later sadistically kill others after checking if their parents served in the military. The following day when news crews were allowed in, the floor was still wet with blood.
The entire country and international sphere was traumatised by the graphic account of this attack. On its fifth year anniversary, it is worth looking back and reflecting on the most difficult lessons learnt and anti-terrorism measures taken since that painful day.
Although Pakistan has long been cursed by jihadi militancy, the magnitude of the APS attack prompted an immediate campaign against extremism. Some critics say that the attack acted as a catalyst to propelling the country into tackling domestic terrorism like never before.
In the aftermath of the attack, politicians and many members of the public were unwilling to say publicly whether they thought the Taliban had really carried out the atrocity, even though the Islamist movement’s franchise in the country – the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) – had wasted no time in claiming responsibility. Decades of state support for jihadist groups, combined with reluctance by politicians to confront violent groups, has led to a national confusion over who Pakistan’s enemies are. PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif publicly recognised Pakistan’s longstanding ambivalence on the matter, vowing an end to the distinction between “good and bad Taliban”.
Since this day, Pakistan has continued to witness brazen attacks on educational institutions, such as the 2016 assault on the Bacha Khan University in Charsadda which killed 20 and the burning down of schools in Diamer in 2018. However, in spite of this, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa police are confident about their preparedness regarding these attacks. Following the APS incident, police in the KPK province launched several measures including mobile alert systems, security cameras and armed security guards in all schools. In 2014, the KPK police launched a a one-click SOS alert service for sensitive and vulnerable organisations including schools, colleges and universities in a effort to enable them to alert police about emergencies within seconds. Educational facilities across the country were ordered to rapidly build walls and add extra defence to their buildings.
To the bewilderment of Pakistan’s European allies, the horrific incident allowed for the introduction of the National Action Plan (NAP) by civil and military leadership to curb terrorism. Under the NAP, the moratorium on the death penalty was lifted to convicted terrorists and military courts were introduced. In the months following the attack, 300 prisoners were executed on death row.
The introduction of counter-terrorism steps was also taken with haste. The National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) was strengthened which established a dedicated counterterrorism force, as well as regulation of religious seminaries, strict action on promotion hatred, extremism and sectarianism.
In a bid to boost security at school, the local government of KP claims to have invested over Rs36 billion in providing basic facilities at 73,418 schools in the province from 2013 to 2018.
Pakistan’s government does not collect specific data on the number of attacks on schools and universities. However, according to the Global Terrorism Database, there were 867 minor attacks on educational institutions in Pakistan from 2007 to 2015, resulting in 392 fatalities and 724 injuries.
The army, already Pakistan’s most dominant institution, has become even more powerful in the wake of the APS attack. Constitutional changes established empowered military courts to try civilians, bypassing a glacially slow judicial system where judges are easily intimidated. Among the measures introduced was a change to Pakistan’s constitution enabling the establishment of special military courts to fast-track terror cases, including the school attackers. Special courts run by Pakistan’s army were created to try civilians accused of terrorism under a measure that critics complained gives too much power to an already over-mighty military.
Despite the greater willingness to confront domestic militant groups, critics say not enough has been done to tackle the religious extremism that permeates society
Insufficient progress has been made on regulating the country’s religious seminaries, one of the items on a much trumpeted “national action plan” drawn up in the wake of the APS killings.
Although Pakistan can continue to evolve it’s anti-terrorism measures, friends and families who have a personal connection to the agonising event are scarred for life. Despite efforts to evolve and improve the nation’s security, the APS tragedy will forever remain a trauma the nation will never be able to move past.
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