The South Asia Channel

Pakistan under siege

Pakistan under siege


By Imtiaz Gul

In terror-stricken Pakistan, October 15 broke the record for the number of attacks in a day; three dare-devil commando raids on police facilities in  Lahore, the country’s second largest city, and one in Kohat, near Peshawar, where a car suicide bombing on a Criminal Investigation Department (CID) building killed about a dozen earlier today.

This means terrorists have struck seven times against the Pakistan security establishment since October 10, when in the most brazen attempt yet, ten militants staged an audacious attack on the Pakistan army General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi, the garrison town south of Islamabad.

Awe-struck Pakistanis and the world watched helplessly as army commandos eventually freed 39 hostages from the basement of the GHQ after about 20 tension-packed hours. The entire operation cost  23 lives — about a dozen army personnel, three hostages  and eight terrorists.

On October 5, five U.N. World Food Program staff members lost their lives when a suicide bomber dressed in military uniform walked into their offices in Islamabad and blew himself up. At least 52 suicide bombers have also rocked various cities so far this year, killing more than 500 people — half of them members of security forces.

Of the nine terror attacks this month until October 16, seven targeted the army, the paramilitary or the police, suggesting a dramatic surge in attempts by terrorists to inflict as much damage on the security apparatus as possible, ahead of an impending military assault on terror outfits in the rugged and lawless region South Waziristan near the Afghan border. This morning’s coordinated suicide attacks on Peshawar police also fit the pattern.

“These attacks underscore a new strategy by terrorists nestled in areas between South Waziristan and southern Punjab in central Pakistan and require the government to urgently calibrate its counterterror policy,” opined Tasneem Noorani, a former top bureaucrat of the Ministry of Interior.

Like other analysts, Noorani agrees that Pakistan is now dealing with living bombs — youngsters who are extremely motivated and excessively brainwashed to the extent that they are ready to kill and die for their jihadist cause.

Militants have also begun tricking security forces by disguising themselves and their vehicles in Pakistan Army fatigues, with their vehicles carrying official license plates and stickers, making it difficult for security forces to instantly identify and neutralize them.

The other upsetting element of the series of militant attacks is the targets; the assault on the GHQ bore similarities to the terror strike on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore on March 3, 2009 and the attack on the police training school at Manawan, Lahore later that month, underscoring the growing nexus between militants based in Waziristan and central Pakistan regions of southern Punjab, which has been a hotbed of sectarian terrorism since the early 1980s. Most people refer to this terror network as the “Punjabi Taliban.”

The claim of responsibility by the Punjabi Amjad Farooqi group also supports the nexus between the Pashtun and Punjabi militants. Farooqi had belonged to the Jaish-e-Mohammad terror group and was killed in a 2004 shootout with the Pakistani security forces.

The GHQ attack also bore unmistakable signatures of the kind of Fidayeen Attacks that the anti-India Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist organization had unleashed in 1998; it involved ready-to-kill, disguised zealots charging military garrisons, sensitive installations and paramilitary security targets. They simply surprised the targets through their quick unfolding of weapons and use of hand-grenades. The LeT staged scores of such attacks in Kashmir as well as in New Delhi — for example, the siege of the Parliament and those in Mumbai on November 26, 2008.

Pakistan’s long history with militant groups

The journey began with the Saudi funding for the Sipah-e Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) in Jhang, southern Punjab, to counter the Iranian Revolution’s expansion to neighboring countries in the early 1980s. It suited then-dictator Zia ul-Haq and also the American security establishment, which found in parties such as SSP ready volunteers to fight the Russians. The Iranian response to SSP was the Tehreek-e-Jafria Pakistan and then the Sipah-e-Mohammad — the militant arm of the TJP. The SSP response to this emerged in the form of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which provided a lot of leadership for Jaish-e-Mohammad.

 The fact that Punjabi Taliban are now scattered all over FATA, attached either with the TTP or other terrorist outfits also demonstrates the ideological nexus that exists between groups based in and outside FATA.

Soon after former president Gen. Pervez Musharraf proscribed most of the sectarian organizations including the Jaish-e-Muhammad, Sipahe Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Sipah-e-Mohammad (SeM), Lashkar-e- Taiba (LeT) and Harkatul Mujahideen (HM) in a nationally televised speech on 12 January 2002, most of these groups had shifted their assets to FATA.

A number of these Punjabi outfits, except for the Shi’a Sipah-e-Mohammad, had their roots in the anti-Soviet jihad, and had moved to Kashmir after the February 1989 Russian pullout from Afghanistan.  But their contacts with the mujahideen-turned-Taliban remained intact through the training camps that Jaish-e-Muhammad, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Harktul Mujahideen were running in Afghanistan.

Once the international coalition swept the Taliban from power in December 2001, followed by the ban that Musharraf slapped on some of the militant organizations, most of their leadership and hard-core activists gradually sought sanctuary in FATA, where they created alliances with various pro-al Qaeda and Taliban outfits. 

Most of the Punjabi Taliban are associated with groups like Harkatul Mujahideen, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, and al Badar — all focused on the Kashmir militancy until recently.

Scores of activists and fighters of these Pakistani jihadi organizations were based in Afghanistan when the “war on terror” began. They suffered huge human losses, losing important commanders and hundreds of warriors to U.S. and coalition bombing. Harkatul Jihad-e-Islami, losing as many as 340 fighters, was particularly hard hit.

Some 70 citizens of Pakistan have been held at the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison, many of them captured inside Afghanistan and among them suspected members of Harkatul Mujahideen, Jaish-e-Muhammad and Harkatul Jihad, which underscores the presence of hard-core Punjabi jihadis within the militant ranks — both Taliban and al Qaeda. Punjabi militants also supplemented the ranks of Kashmiri militants, who have been battling the Indian forces since 1989 for what they call ‘independence from India.’

The entire state of Pakistan now faces an al Qaeda-inspired militant challenge — from South Waziristan to South Punjab.  Some Pakistani intelligence officials believe that some of the militant outfits are being used by external forces to ‘soften up’ the Pakistan Army and suggest that the U.S., India and Afghanistan, for example, still consider the Pakistani army a source of support for militant groups operating in the region. That is why the U.S. Congress added so many conditions in the Kerry-Lugar bill for Pakistan, they insist.

But precisely how these factors influence and motivate religiously-driven zealots — ready to kill and die — remains a great mystery. What is clear, however, is that the Godzillas — born out of the womb of the Iran-Saudi Arabian proxy war and the U.S.-sponsored anti-Soviet jihad, are now unraveling against their erstwhile supporter.

Imtiaz Gul is the chairman of the independent Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad and the author of The Al Qaeda Connection: Taliban and Terror in Tribal Areas.

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images