Four days ago, eleven trekkers — reportedly one American, one Lithuanian, three Ukrainians, two Slovakians, two Chinese, one Nepali, and one Pakistani— were murdered at the Nanga Parbat basecamp in Pakistan. They were purportedly forced to kneel and then shot in the back of the head. A faction of the Taliban has claimed responsibility for this despicable act of depravity.
The horror of the incident is impossible to fathom, and the grief of family and friends will be immeasurable. Newspapers and magazines are already scrambling to get gruesome first-hand accounts of the massacre from the few survivors. Violence has once again pushed the normally obscure world of mountaineering onto the front page.The mountains are no longer safe. Shangri-la has been shattered. And in response, Pakistan has evacuated climbers from the area, closed Nanga Parbat to expeditions for the rest of the summer, and said winter attempts will be subject to new security review. The country is also considering closing K2 and other peaks.
“Forget tourism for another 10 years,” Additional Inspector General of Police Sarmad Saeed Khan told the International Business Tribune. “Hundreds of sectarian killings could not do the damage that the killing of 10 foreign tourists has done. Thousands of families will have to seek some alternate means of livelihood.”
But back up. Why were these trekkers murdered? Simply because they were trekking in Pakistan? Of course not. According to a Taliban statement, they were killed in retaliation for American drone attacks in Pakistan. To terrorists, trekkers and climbers are Westerners. In killing these individuals, they were striking back at “the West” and all that their propaganda says it stands for. It is immaterial that only one of the victims was actually American. Lacking the means and munitions to fight a conventional war, one of the core tactics of terrorism is to kill innocent people, not combatants, precisely because it is seen as immoral and thereby incites outrage and attention.
With deep sorrow for the families of the victims, I must say that I have climbed in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, India, Tibet, Nepal, Burma, Bhutan, and throughout western and central China, and it is almost unheard of for climbers or trekkers to be targeted by terrorists. Why is it so rare? Not because climbers are any different to terrorists than any other tourist — civilian soft targets — but simply because they’re often in remote locations. If you want to bring notoriety to your cause, it’s much simpler to kill a tourist walking along the street in Mumbai than searching him out high in the mountains. Sadly, in this case, the latter is exactly what happened. Still, I suspect that the only reason the trekkers were killed was because it was the most expeditious thing these vile thugs could come up with.
That they were killed on Nanga Parbat is also irrelevant (other than that the fact that the mountain is in Pakistan). Nanga Parbat is in Baltistan province, which is bordered by the Wakhan corridor of Afghanistan due north, Kashmir on the south, and Kyber province to the west. Kyber is directly next to the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan which are controlled entirely by the Taliban and al Qaeda, not the government of Pakistan. Because the tribal areas have harbored so many al Qaeda leaders, it has been the target of hundreds of American drone attacks. The trekkers presumably presented the easiest opportunity for revenge.
Illustrative precedents are few. The killing of climber/skier/explorer Ned Gillette in 1998 in Kashmir was apparently not terrorist motivated. The kidnapping of the four American climbers in Kyrgyzstan in 2000 was also not terrorist motivated. The beheading of journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in 2002 was executed by al Qaeda, but Pearl was actively researching the connection between al Qaeda and the Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber.” There are parallels to the Luxor Massacre in Egypt in 1997, when 62 tourists were murdered by radical Islamists; the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kenya in 1998 killing 224, and the two Mubai massacres, in 2006 and 2008, which killed almost 400 people.
But remember: Most victims of terrorism are not Westerners, not tourists, and they die in their own hometown — look at Sudan, Somalia, Mali, Iraq, Syria. Given the vast number of innocent men, women, and children killed by terrorism around the globe every day, I would maintain that, despite these unspeakable murders, trekkers and climbers are at no more risk in the mountains than ordinary tourists in the cities of the Middle East. We mountaineers, after all, are really just tourists who prefer natural cathedrals, mosques, and synagogues to their manmade counterparts. Those of us who choose to climb in politically unstable regions must do so with a heightened awareness and some sense of personal responsibility. Terrorism, although sometimes well-planned, is often opportunistic.
As the media machine cranks up, I believe it is important to recognize that the story beneath this sickening act of cowardice and cruelty is not about trekkers or climbers or the safety of the world’s mountains, but about the connection between this inexcusable atrocity and drone attacks, drone attacks that are largely a consequence of the wise unwillingness of the U.S. to put soldiers on the ground, which is in part a result of the Iraq debacle (4000 American soldiers dead; 107,000 innocent Iraqi civilians killed by American forces, the country still a mess)…which was a misguided over-reaction to 9/11…following this thread will lead you to some very uncomfortable facts. None of which has much to do with climbing, as is the case here.
Jenkins adds: “And for jingoistic readers who will insist on misinterpreting my words, I have traveled extensively in Afghanistan, including traversing the entire Wakhan corridor on foot, and I utterly despise the homicidal Taliban.”
Jenkins is a frequent contributor to National Geographic. Nanga Parbat photo by Shutterstock