Pakistani Taliban attack: Why insurgents killed 132 schoolchildren in cold blood

The cold-blooded killing of 132 children at a military-run school in Peshawar was carried out by a weakened organization of what one expert describes as "psychopathic" militants, bent on exacting revenge against the Pakistani army, while trying to prove they are still relevant.

Militant group says attack was retaliation for the government's 'targeting our families'

The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a militant group trying to overthrow the government, claimed responsibility for the attacks against school children, saying it was seeking revenge for a military assault launched in June in North Waziristan (B.K. Bangash/Associated Press)

The cold-blooded killing of 132 children at a military-run school in Peshawar was carried out by a weakened organization of "psychopathic" militants, bent on exacting revenge against the Pakistani army, while trying to prove they are still relevant.

The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a militant group trying to overthrow the government, claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying it was seeking revenge for a military assault launched in June in North Waziristan and retaliation for the government's "targeting our families and females," according to Taliban spokesman Muhammad Umar Khorasani.

"We want them to feel the pain," he said.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Taliban commander Jihad Yar Wazir elaborated that the attack was "perfect revenge" against the school's parents (many of the victims were children of military personnel) whom they blamed for being responsible for the "the massive killing of our kids and indiscriminate bombing in North and South Waziristan."

'We should take them at their word'

"I think we should take them at their word to some extent that they probably very much did this as a revenge attack," said University of Chicago political science Prof. Paul Staniland, who specializes in South Asia politics.

Ebrahim Moosa, professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Notre Dame, added that the TTP was making a dramatic point,"that we'll take your future away by attacking your children."

"They’re trying to signal that they're going to strike back at the innocent because the Pakistani army has been brutalizing and killing their innocents," Moosa said. "I think that is the messaging here. The underlying message is that too many innocent people on our side have been killed and now we’re  going to target the most innocent of innocent."

And while targeting children for death would suggest a new level of brutality, the TTP are no strangers to this type of tactic.

"They’re psychopaths, they're criminals, they’re sadists," said Michael Kugelman, senior program associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "They have targeted kids a lot in the past. Most famously they shot Malala Yousafzai​. They frequently have attacked schools before, not on the scale of this one. They’ve attacked kids playing soccer."

'Trying to instill fear in the population'

"Like most terrorists, they’re trying to instill fear in the population. And the best way to do that is to go after the most seemingly vulnerable aspects of the population one would ever expect to be targeted and that’s kids."

Pakistani-based journalist and author Ahmed Rashid said that by targeting a school, the attack could also have been about sending a message to Yousafzai and her supporters.

      1 of 0

      "The Taliban rejects the education Malala is advocating, and so this young girl stands as a symbol for everything the Taliban hates," Rashid wrote in the Financial Times.

      The killing may also be indicative that the TTP has been expunged of any insurgents who may have been able to provide a moderating influence on the group. 

      "So the folks who were left behind, first of all they’re talking to other people who are just as radical as they are," Staniland said. "So it’s kind of this world in which …people within the organization who may have said ‘this is a really bad idea’ have left. So it’s the really hardcore who remain. And they can talk themselves into this idea that somehow [the attack] is a good idea."

      Sharif vows to 'continue this war'

      It's possible the TTP had hoped the killings might cow the Pakistani government into relenting by showing they can inflict real damage. However, it seems to have had the opposite effect.

      Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif vowed to "continue this war until even a single terrorist is not left on our soil." Sharif also lifted a ban on the death penalty for terrorist crimes, which has been in place since 2008. He and military and civilian law enforcement officials also met to discuss the legal system's "inadequacies in punishing terrorists." 

      "I think they have miscalculated. I don’t see where this becomes a tactical or strategic win for these groups," Staniland said.

      If anything, the attack on the school may have been more of an attempt to signal that, despite being weakened by drone strikes and Pakistan's military offensive, the TTP are still powerful, Staniland said. "Part of this seems to be a reminder that they haven't gone away."

      "I think there certainly something to be said that it wants to take advantage of any opportunity it has to inflict damage given the fact that it certainly is a degraded organization," added Kugelman.

      "So it wanted to take advantage of a soft target, so to speak, a school, albeit an army run school, and essentially do what it can and make the best use its abilities."

      With files from The Associated Press