CHARSADDA, Pakistan — When Islamic militants stormed the university campus in this Pakistani town, chemistry professor Hamid Hussain was carrying a concealed pistol. Locking his students in his classroom he opened fire on the assailants, buying his pupils enough time to escape before he was gunned down.
The survival of Hussain’s students in a massacre that left 20 others dead is a legacy of a bloodbath that targeted another school in northwestern Pakistan two years earlier. After that 2014 attack, in which 150 people, mostly children, were killed, the government trained educators to carry concealed weapons so they could be a first line of defence — giving security forces time to react.
Hussain, the 32-year-old son of an impoverished shopkeeper who despite his humble heritage earned a PhD in chemistry in Britain, was praised as a hero Thursday for his quick action. His students managed to get away as he single-handedly took on the militants during the assault Wednesday that killed 19 students and another professor and wounded 22.
Hussain was shot twice, once in the head and once in the chest, just above his heart. His brother, Ashfaq Hussain, noticed a cut on his elder sibling’s right hand — an injury, he suggested, that could have been caused when he tried to reload his 9mm pistol and a sign of his limited training.
In his home village of Swebi, Hussain’s relatives mourned the death of a loving family man who dreamed of touring the world. Hussain was the first in his family to finish secondary school, let alone university, and his father had scrimped and saved to fund his son’s studies.
Among the mourners was Hussain’s 3-year-old son, clutching a bag of multi-colored candies. Hussain had celebrated his son’s birthday just a few days earlier, inviting some of his students to the party.
Wednesday’s attack raised grim echoes of the 2014 school massacre in the nearby city of Peshawar, raising questions about whether security forces are able to protect the country’s educational institutions from extremists.
A breakaway Taliban faction claimed responsibility for the assault — the same faction, headed by Khalifa Umar Mansoor, that claimed the Peshawar school assault.
The university in Charsadda is named after one of Pakistan’s greatest secular leaders who often espoused communist philosophy, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, also known as Bacha Khan. The attack coincided with the 28th anniversary of Khan’s death on Jan. 20, 1988.
Girls’ schools have been particularly vulnerable to extremists’ attempts to prevent Western-style education. Malala Yousafzai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize after the teenager was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman in 2012 for her vocal support for gender equality and education for girls. She said she was “heartbroken” by Wednesday’s massacre.
In the Swiss resort of Davos, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said that his country was determined to fight extremism in the wake of the Charsadda attack. “Our resolve to fight against these elements is getting stronger every day,” he said, speaking at a debate moderated by The Associated Press at the World Economic Forum.
Sharif said the attack was the result of “blowback” from Pakistani authorities’ efforts to dismantle extremists’ infrastructure and hideouts. “The terrorists are on the run,” he contended. “Their ability to strike back has been considerably destroyed.”
The army has been pounding militant hideouts in the tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan since June 2014, disrupting operations for the Pakistani Taliban militants, who have been waging a war against the state for over a decade, killing tens of thousands. Because of that campaign, analysts say the extremists have turned to attacking soft targets such as schools.
As families buried the dead on Thursday, Pakistanis observed a day of nationwide mourning, with flags on parliament and other official buildings flying at half-staff.
There was tight security at all Pakistani schools and educational institutions, where schoolbags were scanned and teachers and students checked before being allowed in.
Cricket legend-turned-politician Imran Khan, who heads the party that rules the northwestern provincial government, said it was impossible to provide police guards at every school or educational centre. He said there are around 64,000 educational institutions in his province alone.
Khan added that there had been intelligence reports of a threat to schools some days earlier, although provincial Chief Minister Pervaiz Khattak said the threats were never specific. He said the university administration refused a proposal of setting up a police checkpoint on the campus, but that police patrols toured there twice a day.