In the most high-profile attack on an elected official in recent years, Pakistan's Religious Affairs Minister survived a brush with death after gunmen opened fire on his official car in the heart of Islamabad on Wednesday. The minister, Hamid Saeed Kazmi, was shot in the leg, but is stable and undergoing treatment at a nearby hospital. The attack killed his driver.
Wednesday's shooting has raised fears of a renewed campaign of violence in Pakistan's major cities after a lull following the counterinsurgency operation in the northwest Swat Valley and the assassination of Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in a CIA drone strike on Aug. 5.
Today's attack took place at 3 pm, moments after Kazmi left his ministry. At the scene, his black car lies badly damaged on the side of the road. There are bullet marks on three sides of the vehicle, the front windscreen, and on both sides of the backseat. Broken shards of glass lie strewn on the road nearby. The steering wheel is smeared with blood, as are the cars seats. The minister's blood-stained turban and prayer beads were left abandoned as he was rushed to hospital.
According to Muntazir Khan, a policeman at the scene, two suspected gunmen were on motorbikes. They shot at the driver from the front, apparently killing him instantly. As the vehicle veered to the left side of the road, the attackers turned their guns on the minister, sitting behind blacked-out windows on the back seat. On the left side, eight bullets are punched into the window, four on the right side. The gunmen then managed to speed away.
"This shows that the militant elements have become active again," says Hasan Askari-Rizvi, a security analyst. "It also shows that there are serious security problems. If this type of attack can take place in the center of Islamabad," he added, then nowhere in Pakistan is safe. Police at the scene of the attack say that the minister had not been accompanied by his usual police escort. The attack took place in a sensitive area of the city, just minutes away from major government buildings, and the Inter-Services Intelligence agency's headquarters. The city's many checkpoints, manned by armed policemen, failed to stop the attackers.
The attack on the minister comes a day after the Interior Ministry said there were unspecified reports of a Taliban campaign to target religious and political leaders. Analysts say that the notoriously vicious new leader of the Pakistani Taliban Hakimullah Mehsud is keen to assert himself after assuming the leadership of the organization. But there is also speculation that any new campaign might be the work of al-Qaeda. Last week, Saudi Arabia's deputy interior minister survived an al-Qaeda suicide bomb attack in the port city of Jeddah.
"It's difficult to say whether it was done by the Taliban or other group," says Askari-Rizvi. "What is clear is that it is an attack on a religious leader who has been very critical of the Taliban's use of violence, which seems to be the reason for the attack." Moderate religious leaders who have spoken out against the Taliban's brutality have been repeatedly targeted in recent months. In June, a suicide bomber killed Sarfraz Naeemi, who belonged to a sufi strain of Islam, in his mosque office in Lahore.
Fellow members of the ruling Pakistan People's Party are convinced that Kazmi was targeted for his outspoken opinions. "[Kazmi] has been at the forefront of our government attempt to unify all the senior most Muslim leaders of this country who are all opposed to the militant viewpoint on Islam," says presidential spokesperson Farahnaz Ispahani. "He has been out there, he is a mild and soft-spoken man who has spoken out publicly about the sufi Islam that is the true Islam of Pakistan."