The 2014 Peshawar School Massacre

Army Public School Auditorium, Peshawar.
Army Public School Auditorium, Peshawar.

On 16 December 2014, seven gunmen affiliated with the Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP) conducted a terrorist attack on the Army Public School in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. The militants, all of whom were foreign nationals, included one Chechen, three Arabs and two Afghans. They entered the school and opened fire on school staff and children, killing 141 people, including 132 schoolchildren, ranging between eight and eighteen years of age. A rescue operation was launched by the Pakistan Army’s Special Services Group (SSG) special forces, who killed all seven terrorists and rescued 960 people. On 2 December 2015, Pakistan hanged four militants involved in the Peshawar massacre.

This was the deadliest terrorist attack ever to occur in Pakistan, surpassing the 2007 Karsaz attack. According to various news agencies and commentators, the nature and preparation of the attack was very similar to that of the Beslan school hostage crisis that occurred in the North Ossetia–Alania region of the Russian Federation in 2004.

Background

In June 2014, a joint military offensive was conducted by the Pakistan Armed Forces against various groups in North Waziristan which has been the site of a wave of violence. The military offensive, Operation Zarb-e-Azb, was launched in the wake of the 8 June attack on Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, for which the TTP claimed responsibility. It is part of the ongoing war in North-West Pakistan in which more than 2,100 have been killed so far, and, according to the Army, almost 90% of North Waziristan has been cleared.

Attack

The attack began at around 10:30 A.M. when seven gunmen, disguised in uniforms of a Pakistani paramilitary force, the Frontier Corps, entered the school from the back through a cemetery adjacent to the school after having scaled the walls. Army Public School is located at Warsak Road near the Peshawar Cantt, and is part of Army Public Schools and College Systems that runs 146 schools in Pakistan. Before entering the school, the gunmen set fire to the Suzuki Bolan ST41 van in which they had arrived. The terrorists, bearing automatic weapons, moved straight toward the auditorium located at the centre of the complex and opened fire indiscriminately on the children who were gathered there for First aid training. According to the Director General of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the public relations department of the Pakistani military, Major-General Asim Bajwa, the terrorists did not intend to take any hostages but instead wanted to kill as many pupils as they could. As the terrorists opened fire, many of the pupils ran toward the two exits on the other side of the auditorium, but many of them were gunned down in the garden.

Reports also surfaced that pupils were forced to watch teachers, including principal Tahira Qazi, killed in front of them. Within 15 minutes, the SSG teams had stormed the school and entered the premises from two sides in their heavy armoured vehicles and trucks. Immediately, the SSG personnel engaged the terrorists, preventing them from going after and killing other remaining teaching staff and students. The gunmen moved to the administration block of the school and took hostages there. One of them was shot by the military personnel near the auditorium, while the other six managed to make it to the administration block. Terrorists wanted to inflict maximum casualties, says DG ISPR. The emergency trauma teams, and units of the Army Medical Corps in military armoured vehicles were rushed to the school, Army Corps of Military Police and the provincial civilian Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Police (KP Police) worked toward closing off any potential escape routes for the terrorists.

Meanwhile, the SSG commandos had reached the area and surrounded the administration block. Most of the operation took place in the attempt to clear this block and rescue the hostages taken by the gunmen. Special teams of snipers and their spotters pinpointed the terrorists; three of the six attackers were killed by the snipers from the windows and air vents, while the other three were killed when the commandos stormed the building and rescued the remaining hostages in the process. Seven commandos, including two officers, were injured in the battle. A search and clearance operation was started immediately to defuse any IEDs planted by the gunmen within the school premises or in the suicide vests that the terrorists were wearing. The terrorists were in contact with their handlers during the attack, but soon after the SSG had moved in, the security forces intercepted the terrorists’ communications. “We know who they are and who they were in contact with but details can not be shared due to operation reasons. They were aware of locations and they must have carried out the recon of the area. And it is highly possible that someone from inside might have tipped them off” said Bajwa.

– Casualties

An estimated total of 1,099 pupils and teaching staff were present on the school premises. Responding forces were successful in rescuing approximately 960, though 121 were injured. More than 150 people were killed including 134 children and school staff members.

The provincial Government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa announced PKR 20,00,000 (US$20,000 approx.) as compensation to the kin of each of the deceased in the terror attack and PKR 200,000 (US$2,000 approx.) to the seriously injured.

Responsibility

The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack, describing it as revenge for Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the Pakistani military’s offensive in North Waziristan that started in summer 2014.

TTP spokesman Muhammad Omar Khorasani said that “we targeted the school because the Army targets our families. We want them to feel our pain.”, “Our six fighters successfully entered the Army school and we are giving them instructions from outside,” said Khorasani by phone. Khorasani also said “Our suicide bombers have entered the school, they have instructions not to harm the children, but to target the Army personnel. It’s a revenge attack for the Army offensive in North Waziristan.” Later though the Taliban claimed contrary by putting out a statement saying, “More than 50 sons of important army officers were killed after being identified.” The attacks were mainly coordinated by TTP leaders operating in Afghanistan. According to the Pakistani Federal Investigation Agency or FIA’s early investigations, the group was led by the terrorist, Abu Shamil who planned the attacks, accompanied by three Arabs and two Afghans who spoke Pashto and were from Eastern Afghanistan.

On 18 December 2014, a video was released by TTP on their website showing a man named Umar Mansoor revealing that he was the mastermind behind the Peshawar School attack. However, the Pakistan government officials commented that the planning of the attack was actually carried out by Saddam Jan, who was instructed by Umar Mansoor on behalf of Maulana Fazlullah. On 26 December 2014 at midnight, Jan was hunted and killed by the special forces in Khyber Agency in a secret hideout alongside six unidentified high-value targets.

Army Public School, KP
Army Public School, KP

– Nationalities of the terrorists

The Pakistani intelligence community conducted an investigation to determine the nationalities of the terrorists, whom the FIA determined were all foreign fighters. The identities of six of the gunmen were released:

  • Abu Shamil (also went by Abdur Rehman)— A Chechen fighter and thought to be the ringleader of the group.

  • Nouman Shah Helmand — An Afghan citizen from Helmand Province; the U.S. had placed a $500,000 bounty upon Shah.

  • Wazir Alam Herat — An Afghan citizen from Herat.

  • Khatib al-Zubaidi — An Arabic speaker and an Egyptian citizen.

  • Mohammad Zahedi — An Arabic speaker and a Moroccan citizen.

  • Jibran al-Saeedi — An Arabic speaker and a Saudi citizen.

The SIM card of the cell phone that was used by the terrorists was found to be registered to a woman belonging to the rural area of Hasilpur, Punjab.

Reactions

The attack sparked widespread reactions in Pakistan, receiving condemnations from public, government, political and religious entities, journalists, and other members of Pakistani society. Pakistani media reacted strongly to the events, with major newspapers, news channels and many commentators calling for renewed and strong action against militants, especially against TTP.

International reaction to the attack was also widespread, with many countries and international organizations condemning the attack and expressing their condolences to the families of the victims. Many important personalities around the world also condemned the attack.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif condemned the attack, calling it a national tragedy and announced a three-day mourning period during which the National Flag would fly at half mast. President Mamnoon Hussain and chief ministers of four provinces reacted strongly to the attack and condemned it.

I have decided to proceed to Peshawar and I will supervise the operation myself. These are my children and it is my loss.”
— Nawaz Sharif, Prime Minister of Pakistan

Artists from around the world also expressed their concern and were very upset by this horrible act. Pakistani artist and singer Shehzad Roy sang a new song for the victims of the Peshawar Attack, which is now the official song on the National TV channel of Pakistan, PTV.

Major Pakistani political entities denounced and heavily condemned the attack on innocent children, calling for a strong reaction against the militants. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf leader Imran Khan calls off the protest.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai condemned the attack, saying in a statement: “I am heartbroken by this senseless and cold-blooded act of terror in Peshawar that is unfolding before us”. Her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai said his “heart is bleeding” and his family is “traumatized” over the Peshawar school massacre.

Even the terrorist organization al-Qaeda’s spokesperson said that “Our hearts are bursting with pain” and that the soldiers should be targeted, not their children.

Following the attack, Pakistani authorities launched crackdowns on Afghan refugee settlements to apprehend illegal immigrants. During the period, at least 30,000 Afghans left for Afghanistan, out of which close to 2,000 were deported due to lack of legal documentation.

Aftermath

Many international media organisations referred to the attack as Pakistan’s “9/11”. The popular opinion was one of anger against the TTP soon after the attacks. Pakistan’s Government and its Armed Forces showed immediate reaction to the incident.

According to the Iranian-American scholar, Vali Nasr, “the Taliban may be trying to slacken the resolve of the military by suggesting that there could be a tremendous human costs to the military offensive and create public pressure on the military to back off from this offensive, but it may actually ricochet on them.”

On the second day after the attack, the moratorium on capital punishment was lifted in terror-related cases by Nawaz Sharif after which Mohammed Aqeel along with Arshad Mehmood, the convicted for a failed assassination attempt on the previous President, General Pervez Musharraf, were executed on the 19th of December.

Candlelight vigil in London, UK for the victims of the terrorist attack.
Candlelight vigil in London, UK for the victims of the terrorist attack.

Protesters in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad surrounded a pro-Taliban mosque and reclaimed the space.

A series of candle vigils were held throughout Pakistan in solidarity with the victims. A number of international communities recorded their protest to condemn the attack.

On 30 December 2014, Pakistani batsman Younis Khan visited the school. The Pakistani team played a test match against New Zealand on the second day after the massacre. Younis Khan handed over cricket kits and a cheque sent by the New Zealand cricket team.

ISPR released a song, “Bara Dushman Bana Phirta Hai Jo Bachon Se Larta Hai”, to pay tribute to victims.

In 2015, Pakistan renamed 107 schools after school children killed during the massacre in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region.

The 2015 video game Pakistan Army Retribution is set during the Peshawar school massacre. Players After a negative review on the website of DAWN, people on Twitter also outed their criticism on the game. Pakistan Army Retribution was pulled from the Google Play Store in January 2016.

– Reopen

The Army Public School Peshawar was reopened on 12 January 2015 under the guard of Pakistan’s security forces. To uplift the morale and spirit of the students and victims of school the chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif himself attended the morning assembly of the school and confirmed them that no such incident will ever occur in Pakistan again they will break the backbone of Taliban.

– Lifting of moratorium on executions of terrorists

On 17 December 2014, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif approved paperwork to remove the moratorium on the death penalty in terror-related cases. Sources from the Prime Minister’s Secretariat stated: “The Prime Minister has approved abolishment of moratorium on the execution of death penalty in terrorism-related cases.”

Pakistan has had a moratorium on executions since 2008. Currently there are approximately 800 people on death row in Pakistan in terrorism related cases. The move comes following the widely held perception that terrorists are never brought to justice in Pakistan. Many times, the judges and witnesses are too scared to come forward and award due sentences to the terrorists. And even when the terrorists are convicted and sent to prison, the frail policing system of Pakistan has seen many jailbreaks, including the Bannu and Dera Ismail Khan jailbreaks, in which many high profile terrorists escaped.

David Griffiths, Deputy Director for Amnesty International Asia-Pacific opposed the decision, saying “Resorting to the death penalty is not the answer – it is never the answer. This is where the government should focus its energies, rather than perpetuating the cycle of violence with the resumption of executions.”

Retaliation

– Retaliatory UAV and air-strikes

Since the school attack, the combined unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and air-strikes on terrorists have been geared up, and the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is on a manhunt for Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief Mullah Fazlullah; he narrowly escaped a UAV strike on 25 November. On 17 December, the PAF’s F-16s and JF-17s jets engaged in bombings against terrorist hideouts in the Tirah Valley, close to the Afghan-Pakistani border targeting 57 terrorists. Twenty additional aerial bombing missions were carried out using dynamic targeting. On 16 December, a United States CIA UAV strike killed four TTP terrorists in eastern Afghanistan.

On December 20, another UAV strike targeted and killed five suspected terrorists in North Waziristan, and according to officials, the death toll was expected to rise. During the same time, around 21 TTP terrorists were reportedly killed by PAF strikes in Khyber Agency as they attempted to escape to Afghanistan. On 20 December 2014, an unconfirmed media report stated that Fazlullah was killed by PAF air-strikes in Afghanistan. Air Intelligence and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) have not commented on the report; no official response was given by Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) over the reports.

Candle light march by engineering students in Ambala, Haryana, India, condemning the attacks in Peshawar.
Candle light march by engineering students in Ambala, Haryana, India, condemning the attacks in Peshawar.

– Targeted killings of Tehrik-i-Taliban terrorists

Reports were circulating widely in televised news media about law enforcement agencies tracking down the militants and targeting TTP operatives in a series of police encounters taking place in all over the country. After the school attack, Pakistani intelligence agencies chased down and apprehended four TTP terrorists in Quetta, before they could make their escape to Afghanistan. In a police encounter with Karachi Metro Police and the Crime Investigation Department (CID), the TTP leader, Abid Muchar,[63] was chased and gunned down along with his three associates in Musharraf Colony. In a separate action in Karachi, the CID teams, in a high-speed chase in Hawke’s Bay Beach, pursued and apprehended five members of Al-Qaeda’s South Asian chapter who are suspected of planning an attack on Karachi Naval Dockyard in September. On December 20, a team of Pakistan Rangers personnel raided a safe house in Manghopir area of Karachi and killed five members of the TTP in a shoot out.

During the afternoon of 20 December, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Police (KP Police) and the special agents of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) raided a safe house in Shabqadar, a town located 30 km (19 mi) north of Peshawar. In an exchange of fire at the safe house, the KPK police and other law enforcement agencies gunned down the six TTP fighters, including their commander and two other high-value targets who assisted in the school attack. Acting on Pakistani Military Intelligence information, Special Service Group Navy (SSGN) teams were inserted into the secret hideout in Khyber Agency and stalked the six terrorists led by Saddam Jan — the mastermind of the Army Public School attack. In a late night operation, the SSGN teams reportedly killed Jan along with his six militants. An unnamed senior Pakistan Government official confirmed the report.

On 9 January 2015, the CID teams gunned down four Al-Qaeda operatives after another high-speed car chase took place in Qayyumabad in Karachi. In another separate midnight action in Lahore, teams of FIA agents, assisted by the Punjab Police, raided a house located in Burki Road. After an almost two-hour gun battle, the FIA agents gunned down Roohullah (alias: Asadullah) – the mastermind of the Wagah border attack – along with three of his associates. Since the attack on the school, the FIA had been on the hunt for Roohullah, and he was finally killed in a police encounter in Lahore.

– Communications with Afghanistan and ISAF

On 17 December, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif, accompanied by the Director General of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Lieutenant-General Rizwan Akhtar, went to Kabul to meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and General John F. Campbell, the commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan. According to news sources in Pakistan, General Raheel asked for the handover of the TTP leadership and asked the Afghan government to act against hideouts of the Taliban terrorists in its territory. At the meeting with Afghan officials, General Raheel delivered a message to Afghan National Army’s Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Sher Mohammad Karimi, “to take decisive action against sanctuaries of the TTP or else Pakistan would go for a hot pursuit.” One intelligence official confirmed the message relayed to the Afghan president and reportedly cautioned that “if Afghan authorities fail to act this time, we will explore all options, including hot pursuit.” In further talks, General Raheel told the Afghan president that “Pakistan’s military could eliminate TTP’s sanctuaries in Kunar and Nuristan Province on its own but was showing restraint due to Afghanistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. President Ghani assured General Raheel that his country would take all the necessary steps to root out the terrorists. A joint operation against the Taliban was also discussed with the Afghan leadership. In a media report published in the The Nation, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan released a separate statement to Afghan president on a “hot pursuit” and has sent a message to Kabul reportedly stressing: “Wipe out Taliban or we will.”

The Pakistani military went into active pursuit in the form of manhunt missions after the attack. On the night of December 18, the Pakistan Army’s military units stalked the fleeing terrorists and immediately launched a simultaneous ground offensive in the Khyber Agency and the Tirah Valley when the terrorists were on the run to Afghanistan. In the assault, there were reports that some terrorists had fled and had left behind the dead bodies of their fellow terrorist companions – photos of which have been circulating on social media. In a separate air strike in Khyber Agency on the same night, the PAF’s fighter aircraft reportedly hunted and killed a top commander and 17 other terrorists who were attempting to flee to Afghanistan.

On 14 January 2015, five men were arrested in Afghanistan over suspicion of being involved in the attack in Afghanistan by Afghan security forces after the Pakistani authorities provided intelligence information.

– 21st Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan

On 6 January 2015, both houses of the Parliament of Pakistan unanimously passed the “Constitution (Twenty-First Amendment) Act 2015”, which was signed into law by the President on 7 January 2015. The Amendment provides a constitutional cover to the military courts that were established in the country for speedy trials of the terrorists. The Amendment contains a “sunset” clause and will cease to be part of the Constitution after two years on 7 January 2017.

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