In a year that seemed likely to set terrifying new records in environmental change (such as the world’s hottest year ever, record amounts of greenhouse gases pumped into the atmosphere, and China’s per capita emissions surpassing those of Europe for the first time), so too did atrocities against civilians around the world plumb ghastly new depths in 2014.

In Nigeria the abduction in April of some 270 schoolgirls from Chibok by the militant Islamists of Boko Haram put that festering conflict on the world map where previous massacres, bombs and slave raids on defenceless villagers had failed to catch the world’s imagination (President Goodluck Jonathan has recently blamed his oil-rich government’s failure to combat the insurgency on a lack of US aid, according to Foreign Policy).

The west African extremists’ crimes were eclipsed by the scale of horrors visited on civilians by their fellow Islamists in Iraq and Syria. Islamic State, as the militants styled themselves after they had declared the formation of a caliphate, but better known as Isis, Isil or by their Arabic acronym Daesh, killed 1,878 people, mostly civilians, in just Syria over the second half of 2014, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring organisation,Reuters reported. It also killed hundreds of captured enemy fighters, journalists and activists, and sexually enslaved thousands of women and children, largely from Yazidi and Christian communities.

Not to be outdone, the Pakistani Taliban staked a late claim for the single most shocking atrocity of the year by massacring 141 pupils and teachers in Peshawar on 16 December—132 children and nine members of staff. Most of the children killed were between 10 and 16 years old. There were so many injured in the Taliban’s deadliest attack in Pakistan that the death toll had passed 160 within two weeks, surpassing the Karachi attacks of 2007 to become the worst terrorist attack in Pakistan’s since the ‘war on terror’ began. (Pakistan’s intelligence agencies told the Supreme Court in 2013 that 49,000 lives had been lost since the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.)

The Pakistani Taliban, Tehrik-i-Taliban, claimed responsibility for the massacre, saying it was a response to the army’s offensive in North Waziristan: ‘This is a reaction to the killing of our children and dumping of bodies of ourmujahideen [fighters].’

The school was evidently regarded as a legitimate target because it was for the children of army personnel. But as theGuardian’s Jon Boone explained: ‘Schools have long been in the crosshairs, however. More than a thousand have been destroyed by Islamist militants from one faction or another in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the past five years. The institutions symbolise government authority and are seen as un-Islamic … It is a soft target, but one with powerful psychological impact.’

Accounts of the Taliban’s barbarism make difficult reading: one teacher, Hifsa Khush, was reportedly doused in petrol and burnt alive—while her pupils were made to watch.

Seven attackers, wearing police uniforms and suicide vests, used a ladder to enter the compound of the Army Public School, the BBC reported. Shots were heard and the militants burst into the main hall, where pupils were being trained in first aid. About 100 children were killed in the auditorium, as the gunmen sprayed bullets and then methodically searched for survivors hiding under desks.

The gunmen then went from classroom to classroom, shooting children. Pupils said the headteacher, Tahira Qazi, had helped a number of them before going back into the compound to help rescue more of the children. Her son said later that she suffered blast burns and had been shot in the head.

Speaking from a hospital, Shahrukh Khan, 16, told the AFP news agency that he hid below a desk when gunmen entered his classroom and then played dead after being shot in both legs—stuffing his tie into his mouth to stifle his screams of pain. ‘All around me my friends were lying injured and dead. I saw a pair of big black boots coming towards me.

‘The man with big boots kept on looking for students and pumping bullets into their bodies. I lay as still as I could and closed my eyes, waiting to get shot again. I saw death so close—I felt as though it was death that was approaching me.’

He told Reuters: ‘One of my teachers was crying, she was shot in the hand and she was crying in pain. One terrorist then walked up to her and started shooting her until she stopped making any sound.’

A military source told NBC News: ‘They burnt a teacher in front of the students in a classroom,’ he said. ‘They literally set the teacher on fire with gasoline and made the kids watch.’ At least two of the children killed in the attack were beheaded, according to medical staff, the Daily Telegraph reported.

Transcripts released by the army revealed a chilling banality to the killing. ‘We have killed all the children in the auditorium. What do we do now?’ one of the attackers told his commander, who was far from the slaughter. He told them: ‘Wait for the army people—kill them before blowing yourself up.’

Army commandos had quickly arrived at the scene and hunted down the militants while trying to avoid explosives planted by the Islamists, declaring all the attackers dead after eight hours. Major General Asim Bajwa said the militants’ stock of weapons and food indicated they had been prepared to withstand a siege for some time.

The prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, declared three days of mourning and travelled to the scene in Peshawar, saying: ‘These are my children and it is my loss.’ He promised to eradicate the terrorists, in marked contrast to his recent policy of offering to negotiate with the Taliban.

The armed forces quickly launched air strikes against suspected Taliban fighters, with at least 10 attacks within the first hour, and Sharif lifted the six-year moratorium on the death penalty for civilians involved in terror-related cases.

Amid a chorus of condemnation from world leaders and religious authorities, even the Afghan Taliban denounced the actions of its supposedly kindred Pakistani organisation. The International Business Times reported that the Afghan group, which calls itself the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, said in a statement: ‘The intentional killing of innocent people, women and children goes against the principles of Islam and every Islamic government and movement must adhere to this fundamental essence.’

 There were signs of Pakistan coming together in a rare display of unity among usually fractious political rivals, with a national plan announced and a committee formed to represent each party, the armed forces and intelligence agencies. Importantly, Sharif announced that the old distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban would be dropped (ie moderates who could be negotiated with to divide them from the more extremist elements).

Maulana Fazlullah, the Taliban leader widely held responsible for planning the slaughter, was also behind the attempted assassination of Malala Yusufzai, the 15-year-old girl shot in the head in 2012 for defying the Taliban’s prohibition on educating females who was subsequently awarded the Nobel peace prize.

As reported in Commonwealth Update in 2008, Fazlullah had previously been placated by the Pakistani army and Islamabad after he had led an Islamist insurgency, which included him securing the release of Maulana Sufi Mohammad, Fazlullah’s father-in-law and founder of the banned Islamist Tehrik Nifaz-e-Shariat Mohammadi movement, and being allowed to impose sharia law in his native Swat valley.

After these major concessions failed to halt his campaign, the army increased the reward on his head tenfoldthe following year. The Daily Telegraph reported that other highlights of his earlier career included murdering traditional dancers, hanging policemen from pylons, destroying some 400 schools that taught girls, and ensuring that Pakistan remains one of only three polio-endemic countries in the world by killing health workers trying to vaccinate children against the crippling disease.

The Peshawar massacre could be seen as the culmination of a remarkably sustained campaign against education itself in Pakistan, or at least schooling outside the narrowest all-male hardline Sunni interpretation of it found in theDeobandi madrassah or religious seminary.

A report of the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, a coalition of organisations including Human Rights Watch, Save the Children and Unicef noted, described the Taliban campaign against education as ‘alarmingly efficient’. All schools in Punjab have been shut down. According to the journalist Mohammed Hanif, more than 25 million children do not attend schools in Pakistan. The country’s Human Rights Commission reported more than 500 schools damaged or destroyed just in 2009, leading to the world’s second-largest proportion of children not attending school after Nigeria.

As a Guardian editorial said: ‘There can be no worse or more barbaric stage in any conflict than when one side or the other deliberately kills the children of their enemies.’

It seemed that this was Pakistan’s 9/11 moment, galvanising public opinion in the same way that the 2001 attacks on the US seem a great turning point, even if opinion had appeared to be swinging against the militants for several years. The Pew Research thinktank’s 2013 survey found that ‘for the first time, worries about the Taliban are essentially as high as worries about India, long considered by Pakistanis to be the country’s biggest threat.’ Pew found 93% of Pakistanis thought that terrorism was a big problem and more than 60% feared that the militants could take over the country.

But it seems that even this most heinous of crimes has not been able to completely refocus Islamabad’s policymakers’ minds. After years of playing a double game by promoting terrorist groups abroad to destabilise and assert its influence over its regional rivals such as India (in Kashmir and in the 2008 Mumbai attacks) and Afghanistan, the first reaction of many commentators in Pakistan seemed to look elsewhere for the causes. Deutsche Welle said: ‘The assault … provided a great opportunity for the Pakistani authorities to do some introspection and re-evaluate the country’s decades-old security policies. Islamabad, however, chose to put the blame on “external elements”, yet again.’

Nevertheless, there are hopeful signs of greater co-operation between Islamabad, Kabul and Washington. One Pakistani journalist, Ahmed Rashid, noted: ‘After years of false starts, are we on the brink of a breakthrough in improving relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan, with the Taliban and al-Qaeda on both sides of the border suffering an array of defeats and deaths?

‘Suddenly both Pakistan and the US appear to be collaborating to root out al-Qaida in a manner not seen since 2002-04 when the Pakistan army killed or captured many al-Qaida operatives.

‘The US has begun obliging Pakistan too. For the first time the US is targeting Pakistani Taliban insurgents who had earlier taken refuge in Afghanistan from where they carried out strikes into Pakistan. According to senior Afghan sources, they were clandestinely being supported by the government of former Afghan President Hamid Karzai in a tit-for-tat revenge game for Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Taliban.’

Rashid sees a real possibility that resetting Afghan-Pakistani diplomatic ties through co-operation over security, such as reining in Taliban attacks in Afghanistan and allowing Afghan negotiators to meet the Afghan Taliban leaders living in Pakistan, could also bring fresh impetus to the long search for peace in Afghanistan.

Jon Boone noted that the ‘speed with which the army’s chief of staff decided to visit Kabul is significant, raising the question of whether Pakistan is finally prepared to work with the new Afghan president.’

The Guardian reported in late December that an arrest warrant had been issued for Maulana Abdul Aziz, the radical cleric who heads the Red Mosque in Islamabad, for allegedly threatening civil society activists demonstrating outside the mosque over his refusal to condemn the Peshawar massacre in a TV interview. Later, in a sermon, he explained the massacre away as a legitimate reaction to the army’s ‘un-Islamic’ assault against militants in North Waziristan: ‘O rulers, O people in power, if you will commit such acts, there will be a reaction.’

The Red Mosque, which is near the parliament buildings in the capital and has long been a centre of militant Islamists (Commonwealth Update passim), was the scene of a week-long military siege against radicals that left more than 100 people dead in 2007. In December 2014 female seminary students affiliated with the mosque issued a video statement praising Islamic State and calling on it to avenge the death of Osama bin Laden, who was assassinated in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad in 2011.

But the release of Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, of the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba and the main suspect behind the Mumbai attacks, was, for Cyril Almeida, assistant editor of Dawn, a sign of Islamabad’s continuing vacillation over whether militant Islamists are the enemy or an ally. ‘Ultimately, Pakistan’s problem with militancy is not denial. It is not even ignorance … It is the widespread belief that militants fighting the Indian state, militants fighting to free “Indian-held Kashmir”, militants fighting the Afghan government and militants fighting to “free” Afghanistan are not militants. They are the good guys. The righteous ones.

‘Pakistan remains wilfully blind to [the fact that] every single one of the militant groups fighting the Pakistani state today was once at some point in recent history considered to be a good militant/good Taliban.’

Asma Jahangir, a human rights lawyer in Pakistan, wrote: ‘The cancer of religious militancy is deeply entrenched in Pakistan’s institutions and society. The challenge of reversing it is daunting and requires a major shift in the country’s security policies. More important, traditional mindsets within the establishment will have to be radically changed.

‘Important opinion-makers, backed by the establishment, continue to be in self-denial, or at least pretend to be. They repeatedly blame the existing violence on regional and international conspiracies against the country. Political leaders hesitate to denounce Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan by name, despite the fact that the TTP itself claimed responsibility for carrying out the killings.’

Perhaps the most optimistic conclusion this writer can cling to in surveying this heart-wrenching tragedy is that Pakistan’s most famous citizen is a teenage girl from Swat, Malala Yusufzai, whose bravery in the face of the Taliban’s war on education won her the admiration of the world. She is a more fitting emblem of Pakistan than her benighted compatriots.