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Bacha Khan University, after the attacks

Aamir Qureshi / Getty Images

An attack on Pakistan’s Bacha Khan University by Taliban gunmen on Wednesday killed at least 20 people, The New York Times and other major media outlets reported. The attackers reportedly scaled the back wall of the university under the cover of fog and shot students and faculty in classrooms and dormitories.

Wednesday's attack called attention to the troubling practice of militants targeting educational institutions in Pakistan and beyond. Just over a year ago, in December 2014, the Pakistani Taliban killed 150 in an attack on a school in Peshawar, less than 25 miles from the town of Charsadda, where Bacha Khan is located. Between 2009 and 2012, there were at least 838 attacks on schools in Pakistan, more than any other country, according to a report from the Global Coalition to Protect Education From Attack. In most cases attackers blew up Pakistani school buildings.

“This is not a one-off type of attack,” said Diya Nijhowne, the coalition’s director. “Universities, academics, researchers are specifically targeted, deliberately targeted for attacks in situations of insecurity and conflict as a tactic of war.”

“There are a variety of reasons for this,” Nijhowne continued. Universities and schools, which are typically government run, are "soft, easy targets for antigovernment forces," she said. Other times attackers oppose the values represented by the institutions that they attack. Schools or colleges may, for example, be targeted as bastions of free thought or for educating female students. In 2012, Taliban militants shot Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani teenager who had gained worldwide recognition for her advocacy for girls’ education (Yousafzai survived the attack and has since won the Nobel Peace Prize).

“We have to distinguish between attacks on different types of institutions” in Pakistan, said Katharine Adeney, a professor of politics at the University of Nottingham whose research focuses on South Asia. “There have been a number of attacks on institutions that are educating female students. These typically are much smaller attacks, but occur with much more frequency.”

“Then you’ve got the other attacks, which are the bigger attacks, the high-profile attacks. These are the ones that are designed to send a message to the powers that be in Pakistan. We see that most notably with the attack on the Peshawar school in December 2014, which was an army-run school. Lots of children of army officers went there; this was a direct reaction to Pakistan’s army cracking down on the Pakistani Taliban.”

Adeney said she sees Wednesday’s attack as similarly intended to send a message to Pakistan’s government. “The levels of violence and the numbers of deaths caused by terrorist activities have fallen sharply in Pakistan, but what they’re doing by attacking such a symbolic target, and a very vulnerable target, is they’re essentially saying, ‘We’re still here. We’re not going away. We have the ability to strike at the heart of Pakistan.’”

At the same time, Adeney emphasized the fractures within the Pakistani Taliban: one faction claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s attack while another disavowed it as un-Islamic. “There are obviously a lot of divisions within the [Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan] about this strategy,” she said. “It’s a very effective strategy because it really hits Pakistanis where it hurts, but it also hits their support as well.”

The problem of attacks on educational institutions is not unique to Pakistan, even if such attacks are especially prevalent there. In April of 2015 Shabab gunmen killed almost 150 people when they stormed Kenya’s Garissa University College; one year earlier, Boko Haram militants kidnapped nearly 300 schoolgirls in Nigeria. These are among the larger-scale attacks, but there are many others. The Global Coalition to Protect Education From Attack identified targeted attacks on education in 70 countries from 2009-2013, including bombings, shellings or burnings of schools or universities and attacks on individual students or scholars who were killed, kidnapped, injured or arbitrarily arrested. The attacks were variously carried out by state military entities and armed nonstate groups.

Another report specifically on terrorist attacks on educational institutions, issued by the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, found that more than 3,400 terrorist attacks targeted schools and universities in 110 countries between 1970 and 2014, accounting for 2.7 percent of terrorist attacks. Many of the attacks targeted schools and university buildings when they were unoccupied: the average number of deaths per attack was 0.8, compared to 2.3 per attack for all other types of targets.

The Maryland report identified 724 terrorist attacks on educational targets in Pakistan between 2004 and 2013 -- more, again, than in any other country. Most were not lethal.

“There is an epistemological basis to this,” said Rafia Zakaria, who monitors Pakistan for the Scholars at Risk Network, which is affiliated with New York University. “The Taliban opposes the kind of education that’s offered in what they perceive to be Western-style universities, and by that I mean an education that is not centered around theology. They don’t see themselves as anti-education; they see themselves as anti any kind of education that is not theologically centered around their interpretation of Islam.”

Zakaria said there is a battle waging between the two different visions of education -- one that's open and expansive, the other theologically centered. "This is a university that -- in a fairly rural area that’s literally a few hundred miles from the frontline war with the Taliban -- was teaching academic disciplines like sociology, literature, poetry,” Zakaria said of Bacha Khan. “It’s an incredibly difficult thing to do in that context.”

The attack on Bacha Khan came on the anniversary of the death of Abdul Ghaffar Khan, for whom the university is named, a Pashtun leader known as the Frontier Gandhi for his advocacy for nonviolent resistance to British colonial rule of the subcontinent. "The message of peace and universal brotherhood as practiced and preached by Abdul Ghaffar Khan (Bacha Khan) will be the motto of the university to steer the organization in the years ahead which would induct Pakistan into the comity of respectable nations of the world," the university's English-language website says. The university had reportedly planned to hold a poetry event in Khan’s honor on Wednesday.

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