Dying For Immortality: Birth Of The ‘Secular’ Baloch Suicide Bomber

Dying For Immortality: Birth Of The ‘Secular’ Baloch Suicide Bomber
On the 26th of April, a woman suicide bomber blew herself up near a van carrying Chinese teachers on the premises of the sprawling University of Karachi. The van was being driven by a Pakistani driver. The attack killed three Chinese teachers and their Pakistani driver. The attacker was a woman associated with the ‘Majeed Brigade’ of the militant Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA). The BLA is a separatist Baloch nationalist outfit and guerrilla group that has been battling Pakistani armed forces since the early 2000s.

The 26th-April suicide attack was one of the five that the BLA have been involved in. Till now, out of the 300-plus suicide attacks that have taken place in Pakistan since the 1990s, more than 95% were carried out by militant Islamist groups (Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism Suicide Attack Database, 2015). So, the BLA attack is only the fifth time that a ‘secular’ militant outfit has used suicide bombing as a weapon in the country. What’s more, the bomber was a woman.

The BLA was formed in the year 2000. However, its emergence is often understood by some analysts and even by its members as a revival of the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) that fought a guerrilla war with the Pakistani armed forces in Balochistan from 1973 till 1978. Hundreds died in that conflict. The war came to an end when the ZA Bhutto regime was toppled in a 1977 military coup by General Zia-ul-Haq. Zia released Baloch leaders arrested by the Bhutto regime, agreed to pull back military forces from Baloch-majority areas, and allow Baloch nationalist leaders to go into exile.

The origins of BLA can actually be traced further back to 1964 when the Baloch activist Jumma Khan formed the Baloch Liberation Front (also BLF) in Damascus, Syria. Jumma formed BLF after the Ayub Khan dictatorship had crushed a Baloch nationalist uprising. Therefore, BLF’s operations were minimal in Pakistan. The outfit was more active in the Baloch-majority areas of Iran against the monarchical government of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Pahlavi’s regime was being backed by the United States, whereas the Arab nationalist regimes in Syria and Iraq were in the ‘Soviet camp.’ BLF received aid from Iraq. But the Iranian forces decimated BLF units.

In 1967, the Baloch Students Organisation (BSO) was formed. The BSO became the student-wing of the left-wing National Awami Party (NAP) which consisted of Pashtun, Baloch and Sindhi nationalists and communists. Formed in 1957, NAP broke into three factions in 1968. Its ‘pro-Moscow’ faction, led by the Pashtun nationalist Wali Khan and Baloch nationalist Ghous Bakhsh Bizenjo, became the largest group (NAP-Wali). The ‘pro-China’ faction was led by the Bengali peasant leader and Maoist AH Bhashani (aka Maulana Bhashani). This smaller faction became NAP-Bhashani. Yet another faction emerged in the shape of Mazdoor Kissan Party (MKP). It was led by the radical Pashtun Marxist, Afzal Bangash.

NAP-Wali adopted the ‘popular front’ model agreed upon by communists during the 7th Congress of the Comintern (a Soviet-led initiative) in 1935 – where it was decided that communists should create alliances with former adversaries such as social democrats and left-liberals as a way to fight fascism and (later) US-backed dictatorships; and to also gain power through elections (especially in Europe).
Ayub had already begun to bring large numbers of Pashtuns into the country’s state institutions and mainstream economics. Bhutto was a Sindhi and he had begun to do the same for Sindhis. In fact, he even began to usurp many aspects of Sindhi nationalism

NAP-Bhashani pledged to take the Maoist route of working towards a peasant-led revolution. Cracks between the communist-led powers of the Soviet Union and China had become starker. By 1968, when a movement against the Ayub Khan dictatorship was peaking, Bhashani’s role during the 1965 presidential election undermined his reputation. He had decided to support Ayub’s re-election because the Ayub regime had struck a strong relationship with Mao’s China.

MKP also took the Maoist line by shunning demands for democracy and instead, pledged to instigate armed peasant uprisings in the former NWFP (now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa) and in Punjab.

BSO was allied with NAP-Wali. BSO was largely made up of young Baloch who had travelled and settled in Karachi as college and university students. The outfit was facilitated by white-collar Baloch professionals and ‘progressive’ Baloch tribal leaders, most of who were members of NAP-Wali.

Supporters gather outside NAP-Wali headquarters in Quetta immediately after the 1970 elections. NAP won a majority in Balochistan

However, just before the 1970 elections, tensions developed within BSO when some of its members refused to allow Baloch tribal chiefs to monopolise and navigate Baloch nationalist politics. After the election, these BSO members broke away to form BSO-Awami. This faction decided to support ZA Bhutto’s left-leaning and populist Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) when it came to power in December 1971 (A. Maxwell, The Comparative Approach to National Movements, 2014). Bhutto’s ‘promise’ of doing away with the tribal ‘sardari system’ in Balochistan resonated with members of BSO-Awami who had begun to criticise NAP-Wali’s ‘tribal’ leadership.

But things in this regard quickly began to transform when in 1973 the Bhutto regime dismissed NAP-Wali’s provincial government in Balochistan. The government accused NAP-Wali of aiding Baloch nationalism and militancy. Bhutto also accused the Soviet Union and Iraq of funding Baloch separatists. Interestingly, he was supported in this by former NAP-Wali member Nawab Akbar Bugti, a Baloch tribal leader. Bugti had had a falling out with NAP-Wali when the party ignored Bugti’s ambition to become Governor of Balochistan and instead, Ghous Bakhsh Bizenjo was appointed to the post.

Bugti quit NAP-Wali (even though he now stated that he was never a member of the party, but a sympathiser). He left for London in 1972. On his return, the 22 December 1972 issue of Dawn quoted Bugti as claiming that Baloch separatists were receiving arms from foreign powers. The aging Baloch figurehead, Khan of Kalat, also joined the chorus. In early 1973, Bhutto dismissed the NAP government in Balochistan and expelled the Iraqi ambassador after accusing Iraq of arming Baloch militants. Bugti was then promptly appointed Governor of Balochistan.

Akbar Bugti (seated left) with ZA Bhutto, after the latter appointed him as Governor Balochistan

The question is: were Iraq and the Soviet Union instigating a Baloch nationalist uprising?

After 1971’s loss of East Pakistan on the basis of militant Bengali nationalism, Pakistan was vulnerable, with Baloch, Pashtun and Sindhi nationalists demanding increasing provincial autonomy. Yet, there is only little evidence to substantiate that these ethnic nationalisms were in any real position to achieve what the Bengalis had. Ayub had already begun to bring large numbers of Pashtuns into the country’s state institutions and mainstream economics.

Bhutto was a Sindhi and he had begun to do the same for Sindhis. In fact, he even began to usurp many aspects of Sindhi nationalism – all in a bid to neutralise Sindhi nationalism and allow federalism to absorb it. Also, NAP’s provincial regime was doing rather well in Balochistan (A. Maxwell, Ibid.). Indeed, there was evidence of the involvement of ‘foreign powers’ in Balochistan at the time, but the same evidence suggests that the involvement largely began to take place after the NAP provincial government was removed!

It is more-than-likely that the government’s ouster was the result of, either, Bhutto’s infamous ego (because his party that had won big in Punjab and Sindh, failed to win even a single seat in Balochistan); or else it was due to the intense nature of paranoia that the state of Pakistan had plunged into after the acrimonious, India-backed departure of East Pakistan.

For example, Jumma Khan’s BLF was dead and buried. So, there was no BLF before the ouster of the NAP regime. It only remerged when protests against the ouster of the NAP regime in Balochistan in February 1973 mutated and transformed into becoming an armed guerrilla campaign against the state and government. There have been reports published in newspapers and on certain think-tank sites that claim that two Soviet KGB agents, code named ‘Sasha’ and ‘Misha,’ were instrumental in reviving BLF from the ashes of Jumma Khan’s BLF (I.Husain, ‘One Hand Clapping,’ Dawn, April 2, 2005).

However, in a report published in the March 2005 edition of News Central Asia, Tariq Saeedi suggests, the BLF that the two agents revived was the one that had become dormant after the Baloch insurgency of the 1970s had ended in 1978. Yet, there are other reports that claim that the two agents helped regenerate BLF (as a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla group) in 1973 at the onset of the insurgency that erupted after the ouster of the NAP government. But more convincing evidence points at Afghanistan and Iraq as the main foreign players in this regard, especially Afghanistan (H. Kiessling, Faith, Unity, Discipline: The Inter-Service-Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan, 2016).
Past insurgencies in the province were the handiwork of one tribe or the other. There were also tribes who had opposed armed uprisings, working with the state to curtail the activities of opposing tribes

Asad Rehman, a young Punjabi Marxist and a graduate of a university in England, joined BLF during the 1970s Baloch insurgency. He’s seen here playing with a goat during the insurrection

The Afghan nationalist government headed by Sardar Daoud was used as a proxy by the Soviet Union to facilitate Baloch insurgents. Daoud, who was also a staunch Pashtun nationalist, also aided Pashtun nationalist forces in NWFP (H. Kiessling, Ibid.). There is also evidence that India and Iraq were involved (A. Paliwal, My Enemy's Enemy, 2017) – especially Iraq, because it was hostile towards Iran and had already been involved in aiding uprisings in Iran’s Baloch-majority areas. Pahlavi’s Iran supplied US weapons to Pakistan to crush the insurgency. The Bhutto regime, on the other hand, hosted anti-Daoud forces to launch armed operations against the Afghan government.

BLF was the leading guerrilla outfit during the 1970s Baloch insurgency. Its fighters mainly included Marri and Mengal tribesmen and young Baloch, many of whom were once members of the BSO. BLF disbanded after the insurgency came to an end in 1978. As a result, BSO witnessed another split when a faction broke away as a protest against what it said was a ‘deal’ between Baloch leaders and the Zia dictatorship. The faction became larger than the outfit that it had broken away from, and soon became the only BSO.

Many Baloch nationalists who had been involved in the 1970s insurgency opted to go into exile, mostly to the Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, or to various European countries, or to pro-Soviet Arab countries. Consequently, BSO’s leadership largely fell in the hands of the non-sardar Baloch leaders. BSO was active against the Zia dictatorship and, for this, it worked with other anti-Zia parties. Approximately 60% of political prisoners in Balochistan in the 1980s belonged to BSO (Viewpoint, 19 June, 2014).

By the end of the 1980s, many sardars who had been in exile began their gradual return. This created commotion in BSO. NAP had disintegrated and then returned in 1986 as Awami National Party (ANP). But in 1987, it became a dedicated Pashtun nationalist outfit. Sardar and non-sardar Baloch nationalist parties began to emerge, with their own BSO wings. In the 1990s there were at least six to seven BSO factions. Yet, there was consensus among all Baloch nationalist groups that electoral politics needed to be given another go. For example, in 1987, some former BSO members formed the Baloch National Youth Movement (BNYM).

In 1988, BNYM was turned into an electoral party, the Balochistan National Movement (BNM). It was headed by middle-class Baloch nationalists. BSO-Yaseen became its student-wing. BNM performed extremely well in Baloch-majority areas in the first post-Zia elections in 1988. Throughout the 1990s, Baloch parties led by non-sardars were performing well in elections. However, things in this respect remained volatile and fluid because the military-establishment kept ousting and reinstalling elected governments. Two PPP and two PML-N regimes were chucked out between 1988 and 1999. Democratic Baloch parties allied to one of these parties or the other just couldn’t settle down and fully exhibit the advantages of taking the democratic route.
All these groups were sometimes hostile to each other, and during other times collaborated. The reasons that created animosity between them were class-based, and at times, they fought each other to monopolise the ‘Baloch cause’ and the arms and funds that came with it, especially from the Indian intelligence agencies — even though by most accounts, these did not begin to arrive in earnest till 2015

Meanwhile, the Baloch had continued to face economic discrimination, despite the fact that many young Baloch were breaking away from the hold of tribal chiefs and enrolling in large numbers in universities and colleges. In 2000, a militant Baloch nationalist organisation emerged, the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA). As already discussed, many analysts saw it as the revival of the BLF. This is because the BLA was formed by Khair Bakhsh Marri who had been active in BLF in the 1970s.

At first, BLA’s operations were low-key. In 2005, rumours began to circulate that a military officer had abused a female Baloch doctor in an area dominated by the Baloch Bugti tribe. The news was suppressed by the General Musharraf dictatorship. Musharraf had come to power in October 1999 after toppling the second PML-N government in a military coup. Then, when Musharraf declared that the accused officer was not guilty, Bugti tribesmen, led by their chief, Akbar Bugti, picked up arms against the Musharraf regime.

In 2006, Akbar Bugti was killed in the fighting that was fast turning into a new insurgency. The Bugti tribe became the main backers of the insurgency (The Economist, April, 2012). The fighting also began to draw middle-class Baloch participation. BLA became more aggressive in its attacks against the military. However, cleavages between different Baloch economic groups that had been developing for years, surfaced again when other militant Baloch outfits began to appear, each claiming that they were the true representatives of Baloch nationalism and separatism. These outfits included, the reformed BLF, Lashkar-e-Balochistan, Balochistan Liberation United Front, United Baloch Army and Baloch Republican Army.

All these groups were sometimes hostile to each other, and during other times collaborated. The reasons that created animosity between them were class-based, and at times, they fought each other to monopolise the ‘Baloch cause’ and the arms and funds that came with it, especially from the Indian intelligence agencies — even though by most accounts, these did not begin to arrive in earnest till 2015.

Other reasons for the infighting were frustration among Baloch nationalists that their cause was attracting little or no international attention, and the fact that non-militant democratic Baloch parties were getting votes due to the efforts of the militants (MS Akbar, ‘The End of Pakistan's Baloch Insurgency?’, HuffPost, January 3, 2015).

When not fighting the military or against each other, Baloch militant groups were being confronted by Islamist outfits that had been given a free hand in Balochistan by the Pakistani state as a way to dissuade Baloch youth from joining Baloch nationalist politics, and to question its secular nature. The more radical Islamist outfits soon broke away and began to commit horrendous sectarian atrocities against Balochistan’s Shia population. What is more, not only did they become sectarian killing machines, but many of them also avoided clashing with Baloch separatist groups.

BSO-Azad, a faction formed in 2003 when anti-sardar BSO factions merged, rose to become the largest BSO bloc. Apart from encouraging young Baloch men and women to acquire modern education, BSO-Azad also works towards uniting all Baloch militant groups.

Many Baloch militants managed to travel to Afghanistan during the US occupation and trained there. In fact, even with the coming to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2021, Baloch militants training in guerrilla warfare there remain, even though some reports suggest that the Taliban regime is coming under increasing pressure from Pakistan to expel and/or apprehend members of extreme Islamist outfits such as TTP and Baloch militant groups, who are using Afghan territory to launch attacks inside Pakistan.

The state is still using tactics that it used in the 1970s. But the dynamics of the current insurgency are different compared to past insurgencies. The traditional tensions between tribes are gradually eroding, and so are differences between tribal chiefs and the middle-class Baloch (S.A. Wani, Asian Survey, September 2016). Thousands of troops are stationed in Balochistan, and the policy of ‘enforced disappearances’ has intensified. This time, those who ‘disappeared’ are not only tribesmen, but also middle-and lower-middle-class Baloch youth. This has intensified the current Baloch insurgency.

Past insurgencies in the province were the handiwork of one tribe or the other. There were also tribes who had opposed armed uprisings, working with the state to curtail the activities of opposing tribes. Secondly, an emerging Baloch middle class had begun to lay its own course, after continuously falling out with the tribal chiefs.

Therefore, it was simpler for the state to contain Baloch militancy by exploiting such divisions. On the other hand, these divisions complicated the task of bolstering Baloch separatism by foreign powers. Not anymore. In the past, there was evidence of the involvement of ‘foreign hands,’ mainly the USSR, Iraq and Afghanistan. Currently, according to the military, India is ‘funding’ the insurgency, and the insurgents have ‘safe havens’ in Iran and Afghanistan.

This, despite the fact that Afghanistan now has a supposedly ‘pro-Pakistan government.’ India hasn’t really denied its involvement. Yet, this does not mean that the Baloch have not been dealt a bad hand. At any rate, it does signify the utter failure of Pakistan’s foreign policy manoeuvres. These manoeuvres miscalculated the consequences of aiding the Taliban in capturing Kabul. The policy has also failed to contain tensions with India and Iran.
The state is still using tactics that it used in the 1970s. But the dynamics of the current insurgency are different compared to past insurgencies. The traditional tensions between tribes are gradually eroding, and so are differences between tribal chiefs and the middle-class Baloch

The Taliban do not seem to be interested in eliminating camps in Afghanistan housing anti-Pakistan Islamists and Baloch insurgents. Also, the tactic of forming artificial Baloch parties, such as the Baloch Awami Party, has only compounded the problem.

This tactic is akin to the manufactured mandate handed in a most controversial manner to an inexperienced party in 2018 to run the federal government. The ongoing insurgency in Balochistan is unlike previous Baloch insurgencies. There were and still are Baloch nationalists who want to take the democratic route to address the issues faced by their people. But the recent suicide attacks by BLA may suggest that the militancy is now going for broke.


According to conventional wisdom, suicide terrorists are not mentally ill or suicidal—they are psychologically stable individuals who sacrifice themselves for altruistic reasons. But psychologists are now challenging this view. A study by a group of psychologists published in the 2009 issue of Terrorism and Political Violence found evidence of suicidal tendencies, depressive tendencies, and previous (non-terrorist) suicide attempts, in a group of arrested terrorists. A November 2011 study by the American psychologist David Lester, in which he evaluated the psychological makeup of eleven women arrested for terrorism, concluded that many female suicide bombers seem driven, at least in part, by post-traumatic stress disorder, hopelessness, and despair.

The BLA suicide bomber who killed three Chinese teachers and a Pakistani at Karachi University. She was highly educated and mother of two

The debate is still raging between those who believe that people willing to blow themselves up ‘for a cause’ are in their senses but intensely driven by a cause, and those who are of the view that such men and women are psychologically disturbed. There is debate because a majority of people cannot comprehend just how humans could end their own lives (and those of others) in a most brutal manner for a political or religious cause. More baffling is when the bomber leaves behind a wife/husband, children or parents, as if these did not carry as much significance as the ‘cause’ does. How can they be in their senses?

Human nature, the way it has evolved, is about using the senses to guarantee one’s survival and also that of the family or tribe he/she is a part of. The act of suicide is a consequence of immense distress triggered by, or triggering a psychological disorder. So maybe, the idea of ‘martyrdom’ gives some meaning to those who have already decided to kill themselves? (A. Lankford, ‘What You Don’t Understand About Suicide Attacks,’ Scientific America, July 25, 2015). The belief is that if they killed themselves in a suicide attack for a religious cause, then the ‘sin’ of committing suicide would transform into a divinely-ordained deed; or if they killed themselves for a nationalist cause, they will not be just another victim of suicide, but will be hailed as heroes who sacrificed their lives for a great cause.

Social scientists have also weighed in by noting that suicide bombings are often used by outfits who want to create a spectacle so that they could receive dramatic coverage in the media. Modern electronic media itself has become a spectacle, the manner in which it packages its programming with constant ‘breaking news,’ disorienting graphics, shouting matches, etc. So, news about a terrorist attack fits perfectly in this format and the frantic manner in which such attacks are covered sits well with outfits looking to create a spectacle.

Modern/contemporary suicide attacks have their roots in Lebanon in the early 1980s, when militant Shiite groups began using it as a weapon against US forces stationed in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. From 1981 onwards, such groups began ramming dynamite-laden vehicles into buildings. The biggest attack in this respect was carried out in 1983 when a vehicle laden with explosives rammed into the US Embassy in Beirut. Hundreds were killed. The fact that the attack actually managed to force US Marines to move out of Beirut only encouraged the usage of suicide bombings as an effective weapon.

US Embassy in Beruit completely demolished by a suicide attack in 1983

1983 was also the year when the now defunct Tamil Tigers began to deploy suicide bombers against Sri Lankan forces. The Tamil Tigers had no qualms of killing innocent civilians in the country’s Sinhalese-majority areas. Just one case of suicide bombing was recorded in 1981. But cases of suicide bombings spiked after 1983. Over 500 suicide bombings took place in the next twenty years, mainly in Afghanistan, Algeria, Pakistan, Kenya and Chechnya. Suicide attacks also took place in some European countries, such as Britain and Spain, and in the US (the 2001 WTC attacks). Over 350 suicide attacks took place in Pakistan alone between the 1990s and 2015.

Well over 90 percent of all suicide attacks between 1981 and 2017 were carried out by an assortment of Islamist terrorist groups. The only notable non-Islamist exception in this respect had been the Tamil Tigers. Studies on the phenomenon show that suicide bombings carried out by Islamist outfits are a key component of how these outfits frame their ‘struggle.’ They believe that they are fighting a ‘cosmic war’ that is taking place on a higher plane between ‘forces of good and evil,’ ‘piety and sin.’ To them, humans are just vessels for these forces and that the destruction of these vessels is not an issue. These includes collateral deaths of non-combatants who, too, are just vessels (M. Juergensmeyer, ‘How Cosmic War End?’, International Review for the History of Religion, 2018).

But it would be a stretch to put the suicide attacks carried by ‘secular’ outfits such as Tamil Tigers and BLA in the same cosmic context. Indeed, the fact that such attacks are used to create a spectacle (as a way to grab the headlines) and nudge the interest of certain foreign powers is universal to both religious and secular terror groups. But the question is as to how secular militant outfits persuade people to undertake suicidal missions. They can’t peddle them a place in heaven or God’s approval as Islamist groups do. Yet, if one was to study the history of the Tamil Tigers, they motivated their fighters by explaining the creation of a separate Tamil-majority country as a heaven on Earth. Yes, but the person willing to sacrifice his/her life to create a heaven on Earth will not be here to experience it. So why die? I think, the heaven in this case is, of course, not an eternal abode, but mortal. And immortality in a mortal setting can only be gained as a lasting memory of a person who died to create the heaven on Earth.

Maybe this is the motivation, including the fact that, a psychologically disturbed person is more vulnerable to concoct a ‘meaningful’ and ‘heroic’ death for him/herself.

The writer is a journalist, author, cultural critic, satirist and historian.