Just weeks after trumpeting the results of a military offensive in the Swat Valley, the Pakistan army suddenly finds itself under attack on multiple fronts. A day after an elite unit of army commandos secured the release of 39 hostages, bringing to an end a 22-hour siege of its military headquarters that left 25 people dead over the weekend, the Taliban struck again. In the fourth major attack in eight days, a suicide bomber killed 41 people in a marketplace near Swat on Monday, underscoring the militants' enduring ability to strike across the country.
As the army revealed in a briefing on Monday, the Taliban threat has now spread well beyond its northwestern borderlands and grown tentacles that reach deep into the country's heartlands. Five of the 10 attackers who laid siege to Pakistan's equivalent of the Pentagon in Rawalpindi came from Punjab, Pakistan's largest and wealthiest province. It is also home to the bulk of the army. The Punjabi militants involved in the audacious assault were linked to groups that once enjoyed the military's patronage, and until five years ago, the ringleader had been among its very own ranks.
"Aqeel," also known as "Dr. Usman," was already wanted for earlier terrorist attacks. He acquired his medical nom de guerre due to his 16 years as a nurse in the army's medical corps. In 2004, he abandoned the army to join Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), a vicious sectarian terror group from Punjab. "He knew how the army functions," says Shaukat Qadir, a retired brigadier turned analyst. "That's why he organized this attack better than others could have done." The embarrassing breach of the heavily fortified headquarters was made possible through artful disguise, military officials said. The vehicle bore army license plates and the emblem of the General Headquarters (GHQ) on its windscreen. The attackers regaled themselves in army fatigues.
All of the attackers had at some point been trained in South Waziristan, a tribal area along the Afghan border that has long been a training ground for insurgents, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas told reporters at military headquarters in Rawalpindi on Monday. A telephone intercept, "which was recorded between Taliban commander Wali-ur-Rehman talking with some other terrorist revealed that this attack was planned in South Waziristan," he added. "Wali-ur-Rehman was asking for him to pray for the 'fedayeen' attack on the GHQ."
The terrorists were "well-equipped with automatic weapons, IEDs, mines, grenades, and suicide jackets," said Maj. Gen. Abbas. After a 45 minute-long firefight at a checkpoint, Aqeel and his six surviving cohorts took 45 hostages, including several civilians. Taking sanctuary in a security office near the main gate, Aqeel issued a lengthy list of demands. The hostages would only be safe, he threatened, when some 100 terrorists currently in Pakistani custody were released. Other demands included an end to "American bases" inside Pakistan and that former military ruler and president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, be placed on trial.
It was during Musharraf's rule, analysts say, that militants from southern Punjab once favored as proxies by the army turned on their masters. Some of the weekend attackers, said Maj. Gen. Abbas, belonged to "splinter groups" from Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) — another banned terrorist organization that emerged in 2000 as anti-Indian insurgents staging attacks across Kashmir's line of control. As that front simmered down, and U.S. troops arrived in Afghanistan, they discovered a new cause. "There was pressure on the group from inside," says Amir Rana, an expert on Pakistani militancy. "They thought that this was the time to fight alongside the Taliban, not confront them."
Since then, eight breakaway factions of JeM have been involved in fighting the Pakistan army, says Rana. South Waziristan has served as one base and training ground. The Punjabi groups have also appeared in the Bajaur tribal area, where after claiming victory months ago, the Pakistan air force dispatched fighter jets on Monday to strike against a creeping return of the Taliban. Two of the splinter groups were also recently involved in fighting in the Swat Valley; after being scattered in that offensive, says Rana, they are now regrouping in southern Punjab.
Maj. Gen. Abbas was at pains to insist that JeM itself — which was implicated in the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament and the grisly slaying of American journalist Daniel Pearl — was not directly involved. But other observers are not convinced, and say that its fugitive leader, Masood Azhar, is believed to be somewhere in Waziristan. Nor is it clear if the Pakistan army has severed its links entirely with the outlawed terrorist group, as its presence in and around the southern Punjabi city of Bahawalpur grows undisturbed. A heavy concentration of madrassas in the area has become a breeding ground for recruits who are then taken to South Waziristan and trained as suicide bombers.
During the tense, overnight standoff at the military's headquarters over the weekend, Aqeel tried to appeal to his former army comrades. "They were trying to profess their own cause," said Maj. Gen. Abbas. "They were trying to justify their own actions." In reply, hostage army officers tried to convince him that he was "on the wrong side." As dawn rose over the 100-year-old British-built army garrison, an elite unit of commandos surrounded the small room where the hostages were being held. At 6am, they launched a 45-minute operation that saw fierce crossfire. Three of the hostages died, but thirty were freed. Two commandos were killed, and three others sustained critical injuries to which they later succumbed.
Aqeel had managed to shift to another part of the building, carrying a bag of explosives. The commandos followed. At 9am, in an apparent attempt to commit suicide, he set off the explosives, injuring himself and five commandos. The injuries he sustained were severe, but captured alive, the man who was earlier suspected of being behind a March attack on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team in the heart of Lahore may prove crucial in unearthing the elaborate network of terror cells that are suspected to be seeded throughout Punjab.
Before the Sri Lankan team attack, Aqeel's group had already won a fearsome reputation as al-Qaeda's footsoldiers in Pakistan and pioneered the terrorist attacks that have now become depressingly common. An offshoot of the Pakistani anti-Shiite Sipah-e-Sahaba militant group, LeJ gained notoriety in 1998 after attempting to assassinate then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. After al-Qaeda leadership arrived along the Afghan border, LeJ underwent a transformation, says militancy expert Rana. "They developed a nexus with foreign militants there. In many major attacks, LeJ was involved, including the killing of 11 French engineers in Karachi and the bombing of a church in Islamabad in 2002. Sectarianism remains their priority, but they also have a global jihadist agenda." Last year, the group and its al-Qaeda handlers blew up the Islamabad Marriott, killing over 53 people.
Pakistan's latest wave of terror has gruesomely underscored the need for the government to take on the Pakistani Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies in the wilds of South Waziristan. But that alone will not put a halt to the renewed campaign of violence. As long as militant groups in southern Punjab also remain undisturbed, the risk to its heartlands is likely to grow.
EDITORIAL: Blocking South Waziristan offensive?
The suicide-bombing on Monday of Shangla, a district of Malakand Division, has killed 41, including six soldiers, sending multiple messages to the people and the state of Pakistan. The deed was done by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) branch of Al Qaeda after the appointment of Hakimullah as the TTP’s new leader. It is clearly a part of the “revival” of the Pakistan Taliban offensive following an eclipse suffered after the death of the earlier leader, Baitullah Mehsud.
There are two or three other ways of interpreting the spike that includes the massacre in Peshawar earlier, the attack on a UN office in Islamabad and the storming of the security barrier at the GHQ. First, the spike is an act by the Taliban signalling an end to the shock of the Pakistan army’s success in the Malakand-Swat region. This is two-pronged. It is a message to the foot-soldiers of the TTP clearly disheartened by the large-scale casualties suffered by them and the arrests made of TTP’s mid-level leaders; and to the stricken population of the area that the war is far from over.
This version is backed by the fact that the Amjad Farooqi Group that attacked the GHQ had a list of demands that included the setting free of a hundred TTP terrorists now in the custody of the army. A very difficult operation was mounted against the GHQ only for the “psychological recovery” of the Taliban movement. Secondly, the killing of the common citizen tells the “army-liberated” communities that the Taliban aim to return and that their “Taliban order” is not yet at an end. The spike also seeks to bring the opinion in the rest of the country under pressure.
A first reaction came on the morning show of a TV channel on Tuesday where an ex-army and ex-intelligence officer stated that South Waziristan offensive should not be undertaken. His reasons were: (1) that he had always opposed the operation; (2) that the army was overstretched in Malakand and Bajaur where the TTP seemed to revive itself; (3) that the act of going to South Waziristan entailed long supply-lines that would be vulnerable to the TTP suicide-attackers; (4) that Pakistan needed to consolidate the areas it has won back from the TTP instead of over stretching itself and suffering.
Therefore we can be sure that the “revival” of the TTP action is also aimed at deterring Pakistan from going into South Waziristan. The region is where the TTP and Al Qaeda elements have congregated and established their stronghold. This area is not only the headquarters from where all Pakistan from Peshawar to Karachi is targeted through careful planning. It is also the place from where Al Qaeda’s operations around the world are orchestrated. If the Pakistan army attacks it, the entire terror enterprise may be jeopardised.
Inside Pakistan, the view over the offensive is developing fissures. The ANP in the NWFP and the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PKMAP) of Balochistan, don’t defend the Kerry-Lugar Bill but advocate the attack on South Waziristan. They also support a move against the terrorist strongholds in Punjab, including, significantly, Muridke in Lahore. Peshawar thinks that without striking at the terrorists in South Waziristan the activities of the TTP elsewhere cannot be stopped effectively. The PPP government says the GHQ operation by the terrorists was planned and rehearsed in South Waziristan.
The army for its own part has made it clear that it intends to cleanse South Waziristan. It had already blockaded the Agency and begun softening up operations as a precursor to the ground offensive. In fact, even as the Pakistan army has shown its concerns over the Kerry-Lugar Bill, calling it intrusive, it has not backed off from its plans to go into SW. But it has to be careful about the timing because the winter could make a ground offensive more difficult to undertake.
Winter is the time when terrorist activity becomes easy in the plains. If Al Qaeda and its terrorists are spared in South Waziristan they will try their best to regain the territory they have lost. It is our experience that the terrorist outreach away from South Waziristan is not effectively countered by the country’s security agencies even when the army has not mobilised itself to attack South Waziristan. A NATO supply convoy was destroyed this week again despite the fact that the army is not “stretched thin”. (Daily Times)
Muhammad Amir Khakwani