Shari Baloch, a 31-year-old mother of two, reportedly became the first woman to carry out a suicide bombing for the secular, ethnic Baluch rebels seeking independence for Pakistan’s largest and resource-rich province, Balochistan.
She killed three Chinese citizens and their Pakistani driver in front of the Confucius Institute in the southern seaport city of Karachi on April 26.
The attack raised questions about what motivated an educated, happily married, middle-class woman to blow herself up. Many in Pakistan wonder whether the attack signifies a new direction for the two-decade-old Baluch insurgency that is locked in a violent stalemate with Islamabad.
Since 2000, Baluch rebel groups have been engaged in conflict with the Pakistani security forces in the vast southwestern province bordering Afghanistan and Iran and hemmed in by the Arabian Sea. Islamabad blames the rebels for attacks on government forces, installations, immigrants, and laborers from the eastern Punjab Province and even pro-Islamabad Baluch figures.
Baluch nationalists and human rights watchdogs accuse Pakistani security forces of grave human rights violations by adopting harsh methods such as forced disappearances and killings to crush the insurgency.
Continuing violence during the past two decades has transformed the insurgency. It began as a tribal rebellion but has evolved into a handful of shadowy groups now attracting educated, middle-class Baluch professionals.
Shari was one of the news faces of this evolving insurgency.
Reports in Pakistani and international media suggest she was enrolled in a postgraduate program at Karachi University, where she carried out this week's attack. With a master's degree in zoology, she had taught at government schools for years.
Her husband, a dentist, taught at a medical school in southern Balochistan near Karachi. Shari’s father is a retired university registrar, and her eight siblings are educated and pursuing a range of careers in academia and management.
“We were shocked,” her uncle, Ghani Parvaz, told the BBC's Urdu Service. “We had never imagined that Shari could engage in such an act.”
Kiyya Baloch, an exiled journalist covering Balochistan, says the first attack by a female suicide bomber heralds the possibility of similar attacks in the future.
"It is a paradigm shift because until recently, the Baluch nationalists prided themselves in being secular and opposed to the kind of radicalization that results in extreme violent acts such as this one,” he said.
Baloch says a wide-ranging Pakistani crackdown that has included military operations, forced disappearances, and even extrajudicial killings of the insurgency's supporters fuels extreme desperation among those affected by the abduction or killing of their loved ones.
“Both the state and the Baluch insurgents have adopted extreme positions,” he told RFE/RL. "The state appears unwilling to give up its security-centric approach to Balochistan as it continues to prop up an artificial political leadership [in the region]. On the other hand, the insurgents have been radicalized to an extent that they are now resorting to suicide bombings.”
Amir Rana, the head of the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, a think tank that tracks militant groups in Pakistan, agrees. He urges Islamabad not to give up on a dialogue with the Baluch people.
“It will be wise to leave the practice of imposing a government [made up] of favorite politicians,” he told RFE/RL.
Several Pakistani politicians blame the country’s powerful military for propping up the Balochistan Awami Party. Now divided into rival factions, it emerged before the parliamentary election in 2018 and is made up of pro-military figures in Balochistan.
Baluch nationalists had always complained of a lack of autonomy and control over their resources, including hydrocarbons, minerals, their coast, and vital trade routes.
Balochistan is Pakistan's largest but least populated province -- with some 12.3 million people. It is also the country's poorest province. Baluch nationalist grievances have spurred five armed rebellions against Islamabad.
The current insurrection is the longest running and began in 2000 after Pakistani military dictator General Pervez Musharraf’s government launched a crackdown against the supporters of late Baluch nationalist leader Nawab Khair Baksh Marri. By 2004, Nawab Akbar Bugti, another nationalist figure, threw his support behind the armed rebellion. Violence escalated dramatically in Balochistan after his killing in a military operation in 2006.
A Pakistani government crackdown against the large Marri and Bugti tribes eventually forced the insurgency to move into the vast southern coastal region of Makran. The area includes the seaport of Gwadar, which turned into a lynchpin for multibillion Chinese investments in energy and infrastructure, collectively called the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Since 2004, the Chinese have become a major target for Baluch rebels.
The Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), an old insurgent group, transformed into one of the most radical militant groups after its local commanders ditched exiled leaders and adopted suicide bombings and complex commando assaults on Pakistani military bases as new tactics.
After the Karachi attack, the group claimed “to give a clear message to China that its direct or indirect presence in Balochistan will not be tolerated."
Rana says the tactics and operational strategies of the BLA and other Baluch militant organizations are changing fast.
“The leadership of these groups is now in the hands of educated youth. Their rise has undermined the influence of the old tribal elites,” he told RFE/RL. “After the withdrawal of the NATO troops from Afghanistan last year, these groups now have access to a lot of modern weapons.”
He sees the BLA and other Baluch factions adopting new tactics to achieve their objectives.
“[The female] gender provides them with a new, dangerous dimension,” he said.