Pakistan suffered the worst terrorist attack of a seven-year Taliban insurgency Tuesday when militants rampaged through an army-run high school in the northern city of Peshawar, killing at least 141 people, mostly students, in what the militants described as revenge for months of airstrikes on their tribal-area strongholds by Pakistan warplanes and CIA drones.
Many of the dead eighth- through 12th-graders were the sons of Pakistani army officers who’ve been waging a decisive campaign since June against militants of the insurgent Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan group and its al Qaida allies in the North Waziristan tribal area, bordering Afghanistan.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif described the attack as a “national tragedy unleashed by savages” and declared three days of national mourning for the victims.
“These were my children. This is my loss. This is the nation’s loss,” he said.
A spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban said the army-run school had been targeted because “we want them to feel the pain of how terrible it is when your loved ones are killed.”
“We are taking this step so that their families should mourn as ours are mourning,” Taliban spokesman Mohammed Khurasani said in a statement.
Gen Asim Bajwa, chief spokesman for the Pakistani military, confirmed that there were seven attackers, all shot dead by commandos.
A security alert issued a week earlier by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial government had warned of an imminent assault on the Army Public School on Warsak Road, a heavily guarded garrison area of Peshawar.
The raiding militants used subterfuge to evade guards, arriving in a tightly populated suburb to the rear of the school in a car, which they then set alight.
Dressed in paramilitary uniforms, they ran through a graveyard and scaled the rear wall of the large school campus, splitting up into two-man teams who scoured rooms in the school’s five buildings, shooting students and staff on sight.
The most lethal attack was in the auditorium, which the militants entered via the school’s canteen at about 10.30 a.m. local time, as hundreds of eighth-, ninth- and 10th-grade students gathered to attend a workshop on first aid conducted by army medics. One militant detonated the suicide-bomb vest he was wearing, while others unleashed a hail of automatic gunfire.
Hundreds of students in other buildings were evacuated by responding army special forces during lulls in firing, stumbling across wounded and dead students, teachers and other staff as they fled.
Pakistanis were shocked into realization of what was unfolding in Peshawar at 11 a.m., when cable news TV channels broadcast images of small groups of traumatized students, clad in school-uniform green sweaters, as they walked several hundred yards to safety.
Distraught parents thronged the city’s major hospital, Lady Reading, searching for their children as the reported death toll rapidly escalated over the course of the day.
Survivors said the militants had sought out the sons of serving army officers from the survivors they’d held hostage until the raiders were killed at around 6:30 p.m. local time, seven hours after the attack began.
The military has said that about 1,700 militants have been killed since the launch of a massive operation in North Waziristan, billed as the final chapter in a five-year counterinsurgency campaign that’s claimed the lives of more than 60,000 Pakistanis.
Since 2009, Pakistan has been under often-publicized pressure from the U.S. to seize control of the territory, which housed elusive al Qaida leadership figures and the command center of the Haqqani network, an Afghan faction notorious for truck bombs and other high-profile attacks on Afghan and U.S. government and military installations in Afghanistan.
The Pakistani military had dithered, largely because it lacked the intelligence resources there to mount a successful campaign and feared massive casualties.
More than 100 Pakistani troops have died since June, but the campaign has largely been characterized by aerial bombing of towns and villages held by the Pakistani Taliban, al Qaida operatives from Central Asia and local allies of the Haqqani network.
To minimize military losses, Pakistani ground forces have moved into population centers only after they’ve been obliterated by air power.
After intense talks in November in Washington between Pentagon officials and the Pakistani army chief of staff, Gen. Raheel Sharif, the campaign was transformed into a manhunt for militant leadership figures based in Pakistan’s tribal areas and adjoining provinces of Afghanistan.
Pakistani warplanes and CIA drones have since targeted top militants in North Waziristan, narrowly missing the Haqqani network’s top local ally, Hafiz Gul Bahadur, and killing the spokesman for al Qaida’s South Asia arm, Umar Khalid.
The Pakistani media reported that Khalid had been killed in a CIA drone strike, but the military said he was killed in an air force bombing.
The son of a former Islamist party member of Parliament, Khalid first sprang to prominence in December 2009, when it emerged he’d harbored five militants who’d attacked a prayer congregation in Rawalpindi predominantly attended by serving and retired military personnel, killing 37 and wounding 61.
As was the case Tuesday in Peshawar, the Taliban had said the mosque attack was staged to avenge the November 2009 death of their commander, Baitullah Mehsud, in a CIA drone strike, carried out amid a military offensive against the then-militant-stronghold of the South Waziristan tribal area.
Mehsud’s death has since proved to be a turning point in Pakistan’s war on terrorism.
All three Pakistani Taliban chiefs to date have died in CIA drone strikes.
The ongoing manhunt led Pakistani forces to the South Waziristan hiding place of raised-in-America militant Adnan el Shukrijumah, who died in a botched attempt Dec. 6 to capture him. He’d left his family’s home in Miramar, Fla., in 2001 to become a top leader of al Qaida.
Since late November, CIA drones have extended their search for Pakistani Taliban leaders to eastern Afghanistan, where the two largest factions of the group have relocated to escape the military campaign in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
A drone strike Nov. 25 on a village in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province narrowly missed taking out Mullah Maulana Fazlullah, the current chief of the Pakistan Taliban. He’d been chairing a meeting that had been called to coordinate the reinforcement of besieged militants in the neighboring tribal area of Khyber, home to the legendary pass, but he’d been alerted to drone flights in the area and left “five to 10 minutes” before missiles struck the venue, according to leaked intelligence reports.
Fazlullah is notorious for ordering the shooting in October 2012 of Malala Yousafzai, the teenage Pakistani girls’ education activist who’s the joint winner of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize.
Meeting the first family at the White House in October 2013, Yousafzai told President Barack Obama that CIA drone strikes were fueling terrorism in Pakistan.
“Innocent victims are killed in these acts, and they lead to resentment among Pakistani people,” she said.