On May 11th 2019, terrorists stormed into Zaver Pearl Continental Hotel, Balochistan’s sole five-star hotel located in the strategic port city of Gwadar, at around 5:00 PM local time. Dressed as military officers, the objective of the terrorists was to target ‘Chinese and other foreign investors’ supposedly staying in the hotel by dismantling the building. Baloch Liberation Army’s (BLA) splinter faction claimed responsibility for the attack in which five persons, four hotel staff and one navy personnel, were killed and six others injured, including four personnel of security forces. The attack is one of most high profile terrorist attacks in Gwadar, which owes its strategic importance due to the seaport seen by China as sine qua non for its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an ambitious Chinese project aiming to connect China with three continents – Asia, Africa and Europe – through land and sea routes.
Being the sole five-star hotel in the entire Germany-sized province, the hotel was the go-to staying point for foreigners. Established in 2005, the hotel was the main spot for hosting all high-profile national and international events of Gwadar. Located on hilltop with a single road leading to it, the five-star hotel is considered as one of the most sensitive establishments in Gwadar. Multiple checkpoints are in place leading towards the hotel, which highlight the importance of this hotel in Gwadar’s landscape.
Following the attack, a video was released by BLA (Bashirzeb Baloch faction) in which the terrorists who were involved in Gwadar’s five-star hotel attack have been showed undergoing training. In the video, the terrorists accuse China of exploiting Baloch land and supporting Pakistan Army in suppressing the Baloch people. Highlighting the local issues, the terrorists said that the people of Gwadar do not have water to drink and their sole source of income (implying the fishing sector) is suffering from the CPEC. The terrorists said that Majeed Brigade will continue their attacks against both China and Pakistan until they leave Balochistan.
Irrespective of the fact that the terrorists failed to inflict maximum human losses, the attack itself is a major morale boosting victory for BLA’s splinter faction and the ethno-nationalist insurgency itself. Projected as ‘New Dubai’, the five-star hotel was at the heart of promoting Gwadar among international investors, projecting as the game changer for Pakistan and perceiving it as sine-quo non for China in terms of BRI. Consequently, the hotel was targeted because it was viewed as a ‘symbol of Baloch exploitation’.
Since coming into spotlight more than a year ago, BLA’s splinter factor, which was founded by Aslam Baloch and is now headed by Afghanistan-based Bashirzeb Baloch, has proved to a be a lethal militant outfit. The lethality of the outfit has been enhanced by Majeed Brigade, which is a unit of suicide bombers who are specifically employed to target Chinese nationals and Chinese targets.
In addition to targeting of Chinese consulate in Karachi last November, the Gwadar hotel attack demonstrates another major shift in modus operandi (the other being the use of suicide bombers) of BLA (Bashirzeb Baloch faction). Instead of focusing on hit and run attacks, which is the common modus operandi of all Baloch sub-nationalist group, BLA’s splinter faction is now focusing on targeting places which will grab international headlines by aiming to inflict maximum human losses and internationalize Balochistan’s ethno-nationalist insurgency.
In its detailed statement, Bashirzeb Baloch’s BLA confirmed about the assistance offered to it for attack by Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) and Baloch Republican Army (BRA). While assistance by BLF is not something strange as both BLA (Bashirzeb Baloch faction) and BLF are cooperating under the grand alliance of Baloch Raaji Ajoi Sangar (Baloch National Freedom Front), support from BRA is strange since the emergence of the differences between the two outfits following the killing of Balach Marri in November 2007. Without any substantial evidence, some BLA cadres believed that Brahamdagh Bugti, which is heading BRA, had a role in the killing of Marri, who was the chief of BLA at the time of his killing.
The attack will no doubt cause a psychological impact on current and prospective investors. In addition to the Makran Coastal highway attack, the latest terrorist attack will badly impact the tourism sector of the city as the five-star hotel itself was frequented by foreign travelers. Without ignoring the fact that had security forces not responded promptly in successfully hampering down efforts of terrorists to inflict maximum losses, the result would have been catastrophic. In recent months, Gwadar has witnessed several terror attacks. Therefore, there is need to revisit the current security plan of the city and its nearby surroundings in view of the recent attack. Specific intelligence-based operations need to be conducted for locating facilitators of sub-nationalist groups who are residing in plain sight.
Pakistan needs to share evidence regarding the activities of sub-nationalist groups in Afghanistan and Iran with China so that the latter can build pressure on Pakistan’s western neighbours to conduct crackdown against these outfits. Similarly, China should be apprised of activities conducted against Balochistan province by hostile foreign intelligence agencies. Apart from security-oriented solutions, there is a growing need to benefit local population from CPEC and to remove their genuine apprehensions about the megaproject through legislative and socio-economic measures.