It is doubtful the minibus driver paid any attention to the inconspicuous woman standing by the roadside as he drove his vehicle towards the entrance of Karachi’s Chinese cultural center on Tuesday.
You may not even have seen the next moment, captured on CCTV, when the veiled woman, dressed in traditional clothing and with her back to the oncoming vehicle, took a small step to the side and detonated the explosives-laden bag that was grabbing.
The video shows the Suicide bomberidentified as Shari Baloch, a 31-year-old mother of two, disappeared instantly in a ball of flames that passed through the minibus.
Four passengers were killed, including a Pakistani driver and three Chinese citizens who were on their way to teach Chinese at the Confucius Institute at the University of Karachi.
The attack was quickly claimed by the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), a banned group fighting for independence from the troubled province of Balochistan in Pakistan. He often addresses Chinese staff.
In an email to Al Jazeera, the group said: “The mission was carried out by the Brigade’s first female fidayeen (martyr).”
“Targeting the director and officials of the Confucius Institute, the symbol of Chinese economic, cultural and political expansionism, was to send a clear message to China that their direct or indirect presence in Balochistan will not be tolerated,” the email added.
In its statement, the BLA warned China to immediately stop what it called its “exploitation projects” in Pakistan. Otherwise, the group warned, hundreds of its “highly trained male and female members” are ready to carry out “harsher” attacks in the future.
BLA’s first female suicide bomber
The Majeed Brigade, the BLA’s wing tasked with organizing suicide attacks, said it was the first operation carried out by a woman.
The arrival of a female suicide bomber has alarmed Pakistani security analysts, who say the attack demonstrates the “ruthless radicalization” of separatists who have waged a bloody rebellion for more than 20 years.
Until recently, Baloch separatists denounced suicide bombings, especially by women.
They see themselves as secular nationalists and have little in common with Muslim armed groups, such as the Pakistani Taliban, which have long made extensive use of suicide bombings.
Mohammad Amir Rana, a security analyst from Islamabad, said the Baluchi rebellion increasingly resembled Peru’s Shining Path, a leftist armed group known for using brutal attack methods.
The main leaders of the Peruvian group often give examples of revolutionaries such as Che Guevara, Nelson Mandela and Bhagat Singh when speaking of resistance movements. They also denounce religious extremism.
“The group [BLA] it is not concerned with using the operational tactics used by Islamist militant groups as long as it serves the purpose,” Rana told Al Jazeera.
Shari Baloch is emblematic of how the separatist movement, once led by tribal chiefs, has come to be dominated by middle-class, often highly educated, Baluch professionals.
According to a document shared with Al Jazeera by one of Pakistan’s security agencies, Baloch was a school teacher with a master’s degree in zoology. At the time she blew herself up, she was enrolled in another postgraduate program at the University of Karachi.
Baloch’s husband is a dentist and professor at Makran Medical College in southern Balochistan. His father is a retired civil servant who worked as a registrar at Turbat University, his hometown.
His three brothers are doctors, deputy director of a government-funded project, and civil servant. One of her five sisters teaches English at Turbat University.
His uncle is a retired teacher, a renowned author, poet, and human rights activist.
At least two of his relatives are known to have been involved in armed struggle in Balochistan.
Opposed to Chinese investments
There have been five rebellion movements in Baluchistan since independence from Pakistan in 1947. The current one, which started in 2000, is the longest.
The fighting has killed thousands. Many people suspected of supporting the rebellion have been subjected to illegal “disappearances” by the Pakistani security forces.
In 2018, the leader of the ethnonationalist Baluchistan National Party (BNP), Akhtar Mengal, submitted a list of 5,000 alleged victims of enforced disappearances to the then government of Prime Minister Imran Khan.
However, Mengal split from Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf-led coalition government of Pakistan two years later, accusing him of failing to find the missing people.
The Baloch nationalists are opposed to chinese investing heavily in the region’s roads, power plants and the port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea. They accuse Beijing of looting and taking away their resources without providing benefits to local residents.
The BLA also accuses China of not only helping Pakistan but strengthening it in its fight against the rebels by providing equipment to the Pakistani army.
Separatists fear the wave of investment will encourage people from other parts of Pakistan to move into the province, making them a minority on their traditional lands.
There have been a series of attacks against Chinese citizens in Karachi and Balochistan in recent years.
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif condemned the latest attack and visited the Chinese embassy in Islamabad to express his sorrow. “[This incident] would be promptly investigated and the country would make an example of the culprits behind this horrific attack,” he tweeted.
The prime minister also ordered the authorities to increase the security of Chinese residents and institutions in Pakistan.
Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif visited the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad and met with Chinese Chargé d’Affaires Ms. Pang Chunxue to express his sorrow and condolences for the deaths of Chinese citizens in the Karachi University attack. pic.twitter.com/rzahc31q0o
— Prime Minister’s Office (@PakPMO) April 26, 2022
Michael Kugleman, a US-based Pakistan expert, said China would not be put off by such attacks.
“China is willing to tolerate a lot of risk in its investment strategy, including terrorism concerns,” he said. “This horrific attack will not prompt China to pack up and leave Pakistan.”
‘This is not the time not to push for peace’
The Majeed Brigade has been behind most of the recent suicide attacks in Pakistan, including an armed assault on the Chinese consulate in 2018 and a similar attack on the city’s stock exchange in 2020.
The group was founded in 2011 and is named after Abdul Majeed Baloch, who tried to assassinate former Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1974 for ordering a military operation against Baluch nationalists a year earlier.
Pakistani security forces killed Majeed before he could kill Bhutto.
With an intense military crackdown on the Balochistan rebels, security analysts believe the BLA is likely to refocus its energies on Karachi and make greater use of female fighters who can operate without arousing suspicion.
“It is certainly the worst security situation China has faced in Pakistan since the late 2000s, but now the economic presence is much larger and the stakes are much higher for both sides,” said Andrew Small, an expert on China and transatlantic member of German Marshall. Fund Asia program, he told Al Jazeera.
Islamabad-based columnist Mosharraf Zaidi said Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s new government should approach leading Baloch politicians to try to compromise with the separatists.
“The main challenge of the wave of terrorism in Pakistan today is the need for the government to engage with the separatists in the Baluchi belt,” Zaidi told Al Jazeera.
“There is no time not to push for peace.”
The suicide bombing of a Baluchi woman has also caused fear among other women in the community protesting in several Pakistani cities for the release of their loved ones kidnapped by Pakistani intelligence agencies.
“This change in the insurgency is scary,” said Sammi Baloch, 23, the daughter of Deen Muhammad, a missing doctor since mid 2009.
Sammi was just 10 years old when her father was kidnapped from his clinic in the Khuzdar district of Balochistan. Since then she has been protesting in Islamabad, Karachi and Quetta for his release.
“The families of the missing persons are already under the radar. Such an attack by a Baluchi woman allows the Pakistani authorities to crack down on peaceful women, who have been fighting peacefully for the safe recovery of their loved ones for many years,” she told Al Jazeera.