An explosion at a political rally on Sunday in northwest Pakistan killed at least 35 people and wounded 200 more, officials said, the latest sign of the deteriorating security situation in the country, where some militant groups have become more active over the past two years since finding a haven in neighboring Afghanistan under the Taliban administration there.
The blast occurred at about 4 p.m. in Bajaur, a district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province near Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, said Feroz Jamal, the provincial information minister. It targeted a political rally organized by Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl, an Islamist party that is part of the governing coalition in Pakistan.
A video from the rally recorded before the explosion shows hundreds of men sitting outside beneath a cloth canopy as party officials addressed the crowd. As one district leader took to the stage, enthusiastic party workers stood up, chanting, “Allah is great,” according to one rally-goer, Sharifullah Mamond, 19. Then an explosion rocked the crowd.
“I lost consciousness for a few minutes because of the power of the explosion,” Mr. Mamond said in a telephone interview from a hospital in Bajaur where he was being treated for minor injuries.
The provincial police chief, Akhtar Hayat Khan, told the local news media that the explosion was set off by a suicide bomber. Initial evidence suggests that the bomber appeared to have been near the stage when he detonated the explosives, according to an intelligence officer in Bajaur who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Toll Likely to Worsen
The death toll was expected to rise, officials said, and a rescue operation to recover the wounded was underway on Sunday evening. “The government is trying to shift critical patients to Peshawar and other hospitals through helicopters,” Mr. Jamal said. A state of emergency was imposed in the hospitals in Peshawar, the provincial capital.
Among those killed was Maulana Ziaullah, a local leader of the political party who was onstage when the explosion occurred. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack. Officials said that they suspected it might have been orchestrated by an Islamic State affiliate in the region that is active in northwest Pakistan.
The group has previously targeted members of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl because of the close relationships the party’s local leaders maintain with the Taliban administration in Afghanistan, experts say.
The Islamic State affiliate, known as the Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K, has attacked the Taliban administration for not instituting what it considers a strict enough interpretation of Islamic principles in Afghanistan. In April 2022, the group renewed its calls for the assassinations of religious scholars and activists associated with Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl in Pakistan.
That is part of ISIS-K’s “broader strategy to eliminate religious scholars from rival sects and religious parties,” said Riccardo Valle, director of research at The Khorasan Diary, an Islamabad-based news and research platform focusing on jihadist networks.
Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the head of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl, expressed his sorrow and regret over the explosion in a statement published by the party’s media wing. Mr. Rehman called on Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and the chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to thoroughly investigate the explosion.
A Surge in Militancy
The blast was the latest attack to rattle Pakistan, where militant groups — including the Pakistani Taliban, known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or T.T.P., and ISIS-K — have become more active in recent years. This year, the T.T.P. has carried out several major attacks that have jolted Pakistanis’ already tenuous sense of security. In January, T.T.P. militants attacked a mosque in Peshawar, killing more than 100 people, and one month later they waged an hourslong assault on the police headquarters of Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi.
The attack on Sunday “is yet another reminder that militancy remains ascendant in Pakistan, and insecurity is likely to rise in the coming months,” said Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace.
“A few different groups — from the T.T.P. to ISIS — are trying to carve out space for themselves in the country, and that creates incentives for each of these groups to try to distinguish themselves” in whom they choose to target, where those attacks happen and the scale of the violence they create, he added.
The rise of militant violence in recent months has stoked tension between Pakistan and the Taliban administration in Afghanistan. While Taliban security forces have cracked down on Islamic State militants since seizing power in August 2021, Pakistani officials have accused the Taliban administration of providing a haven for the Pakistani Taliban. Taliban officials have denied that.
On Sunday, the Taliban administration also condemned the attack in Bajaur. “Such crimes are neither permissible nor justifiable in any way,” Zabihullah Mujahid, spokesman for the administration, said on Twitter.
The attacks have also raised concerns that the deteriorating security situation could dampen political campaigning ahead of Pakistan’s next general election, expected in the fall, and dissuade people from voting.
The elections come after over a year of political turmoil since the former prime minister, Imran Khan, was ousted in a vote of no-confidence in April 2022 and a coalition government led by Mr. Sharif came to power. The elections this fall are considered a critical step toward establishing more political stability after a year of mass protests and a crackdown by the country’s powerful security establishment on Mr. Khan and his supporters.
The attacks “will play on the minds of the public and politicians both,” said Abdul Basit, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies who covers extremism and militancy in South Asia, adding, “It can result in dull election campaigns and low voter turnout, undermining the credibility of upcoming general elections.”
Salman Masood contributed reporting.