Terrorist Groups Are Fast Losing Ground In Pakistan
Umer Farooq discusses how Pakistan was hit by a continuous wave of terrorist attacks for many years, especially after the military’s Lal Masjid operation. The situation improved only after military operations were launched against terrorist groups in different parts of the country.
The fact that Saturday’s terror attack in Chaman was not a suicide attack but appeared to be an improvised explosive device (IED) blast speaks volumes about the changing nature of terrorist threat in the country. The last suicide attack in the country was three months back, which according to experts, means that the planners of terrorism in the country have been fast losing ground.
The military has destroyed the training camps of suicide bombers in the tribal areas and the heavy presence of troops in every nook and corner of the region means that the chances of militant leaders making fresh recruitment efforts has decreased manifold. Two such training camps were destroyed by the army in North and South Waziristan agencies during the military operations in these areas. Qari Hussein, the man considered the mastermind of suicide bombings in the country was killed by the army during an operation in South Waziristan in 2014.
Presumably, this means that terrorist leaders who are planning terror attacks won’t be able to find ready recruits for suicide bombings in any part of the country. Before the military operations were carried out in tribal areas, the terror leaders used to recruit young suicide bombers from the lower strata of the tribal society.
There is no public information available about the identity of those who carried out the suicide bombings between July 2007 and December 2011 — the period which saw a wave of suicide attacks in urban areas of Pakistan in the wake of the Lal Masjid operation.
However, officials confirmed that most of the investigations revealed that a large number of suicide bombers were from the lower strata of the tribal society which was largely influenced by tribal militants before military operations were launched in these areas.
In Saturday’s terror attack in Chaman, at least three people, including the leader of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), were killed and more than a dozen others injured. According to police officials, the bomb was an IED which was planted in a motorcycle parked on the roadside.
With the passage of time, it is becoming clear that the Pakistani state might have succeeded in depriving the terrorist leaders of the capacity to carry out suicide attacks in urban centres of Pakistan.
This seemed apparently evident from the way the leader of a religious party — whose leaders have been the target of suicide attacks in the past as well — was targeted in in an IED attack.
The current situation is very different from the security environment of the region a decade earlier when terrorist leaders seemed to be in a much more dominant position vis-à-vis the security officials.
It was just another sunny afternoon of receding winters in Lahore when the double suicide attacks on Naval War College took place. The gruesome incident occurred at around 1:10 pm, March 4, 2008, when a suicide bomber riding a motorcycle rammed into the college gate. He blew himself up at the gate while making way for his accomplice to move to the parking lot which was packed with official vehicles. The second suicide bomber, who was standing at some distance from the gate, rushed to the parking lot and triggered his suicide jacket. Eight people were killed on the spot in the incident.
The incident was a chilling reminder that a deadly force which was more organised and more brainy than the ordinary lot of seminary students or prayer leaders from villages, was out to instill terror in the hearts of the most powerful institution of the country — the military.
At this point, the military was planning to go after the tribal militants taking refuge in areas adjoining the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Some operations had already started and suicide bombings appeared to be a reaction to those operations and the frequent drone attacks by the US military stationed in Afghanistan.
The concept of double suicide attacks — the first clearing the way for the second to ensure maximum damage —is believed to have been introduced in Pakistan by militants from Iraq, where different types of Sunni extremist organisations were carrying out attacks against US occupation forces. This shows that there existed some kind of linkage between Pakistani militants and Iraq’s Sunni extremist organisations.
Experts say the execution of this type of attack requires a high level of coordination, organisation, training and real-time intelligence. The image of tribal militants as comprising mostly of madrassah students and village level prayer leaders doesn’t fit with the image of highly trained, organised and well-informed terrorist operatives carrying out attacks against the military.
Experts say that this could mean two things: Either our understanding and comprehension of Taliban’s organisational capacity and expertise to carry out terror attacks is flawed, or there exists another deadly force in our society about which we are not much aware.
There are incidents of targeted suicide bombings which could not have been carried out without real-time intelligence available to the handlers and planners of these attacks. This involved suicide bombings, where the vehicles, installations or senior officials/personnel of the military were specifically targeted in suicide attacks.
One prime example of this type of suicide attack was the February 4, 2008, suicide attack on a passenger coach of Army Medical Corps (AMC) in RA Bazaar Rawalpindi. The attacker rammed his motorcycle into an AMC bus, killing at least 11 persons, including six uniformed and civil personnel of AMC, and critically injuring over 45 others. Another attack in the same month targeted a lieutenant general of Pakistan Army in Rawalpindi.
In the absence of any public knowledge about the wave of suicide attacks in Pakistan between 2007 and 2010, the cities and towns were filled with rumours about the possible identity of the attackers.
One set of rumours pointed out that hostile foreign intelligence agencies were aiding and abetting this wave of terror which was primarily carried out by the militants.
The suicide bombings in the tribal areas apparently seemed to be a response to some local incidents of violence that involved rising tensions between tribal militants and security forces. As reported in the media, the militant groups were reacting to the army’s action against their hideouts by initiating suicide attacks in the tribal areas.
According to The News International report of February 2, 2008, “The attack killed al-Qaeda No 3 commander Abu Laith al-Libi and his 12 companions, including Arab and Turkmen nationals.” According to the report, six security men were killed and 15 others, including civilians, were injured when a suicide bomber rammed his explosive-laden vehicle into the Khajuri check post in the troubled North Waziristan Agency (NWA).
The first three months of 2008 were particularly deadly for the military and police force in the big urban centres of the country like Rawalpindi, Islamabad and Lahore. The year started with a suicide attack on January 10, 2008, on a police contingent deployed at GPO Chowk in Lahore to watch over the lawyers protest demonstration in front of the Lahore High Court (LHC). The police personnel were the intended targets of the attack as more than 20 policemen lost their lives when a suicide bomber blew himself up.
Terror gripped Lahore after the incident, but more than that, the police force realised that they had become the targets of the terrorists who were out to destabilise the Pakistani state and society.
Till that point, the police force was the most visible part of the state that was deployed on every nook and corner of the country and terror groups wanted to make sure that their actions instilled terror in the hearts of this force.
The army, being the institution on the forefront of counter-terrorism and counter-militancy operations, was also the prime target of the terrorists during this period. Army personnel have an everyday presence in the big garrison cities like Rawalpindi and this presence benefitted the suicide bombers.
The three years between July 2007 and December 2010 were bloody years for Pakistan. During these three years, over 3,400 Pakistanis were killed in more than 200 bloody incidents of suicide attacks that took place in the aftermath of ‘Operation Silence’ carried out by the army at Lal Masjid in the heart of Islamabad.
This was the period when Pakistani state machinery came under tremendous pressure from suicide bombings. Hundreds of security personnel, including policemen and army personnel, were killed in suicide attacks in every major city of the country.
But the real impact of the suicide bombings were felt when Pakistani state machinery failed to effectively respond to this threat. The police acted as first responders when a suicide incident happened, but they were not trained and prepared to deal with this threat. Often in panic the police and army personnel resorted to aerial firing and straight firing after each attack which resulted in additional causalities.
Government hospitals and their staffs gradually developed the capacity to deal with the emergencies in the wake of suicide attacks. Initially, there were no ambulances and no trained staff to shift the injured of the blasts to the hospitals.
There were no trained personnel to collect evidence from the site of the suicide bombings. Bomb disposal units were mostly assigned the task of managing the process of collecting evidence from the site of the blast.
Pakistani officials in those days were of the view that it was impossible to prevent suicide attacks. However, the failure of the state machinery was reflected in the fact that they didn’t even respond effectively to emergencies in the wake of suicide attacks.
There is a need to explore the situation of Pakistan’s state machinery when it came face-to-face with the threat of suicide bombings. What possible changes and transformations were experienced by the various state departments while dealing with the threat?
Very little public information is available in Pakistan to judge what kind of changes the threat of suicide bombings inspired in Pakistani state machinery. For instance, the then president of the country General (r) Pervez Musharraf ordered a reorganisation of intelligence services. But no public information is available as to what changes were introduced in the structure of intelligence agencies in Pakistan.
Historically, Pakistani intelligence services are basically structured to focus on the task of counterespionage which is very distinct from counter-terrorism.
There is hardly any understanding of how the threat of suicide bombing impacted the structure of intelligence services and what changes were made to deal with the threat.
Further, Pakistani police is barely trained to deal with ordinary crimes like theft, robbery, murder and kidnapping. It had no prior experience of dealing with the threat of terrorism and suicide bombings on such a large scale. As police is a provincial subject in Pakistan, therefore, the provincial governments took the initiative of transforming the existing institutions within the police departments into Counter Terrorism Departments (CTD). Pakistan Army training institutes provided training to the earlier batches of personnel who were deployed in CTDs.
Similarly, the Pakistani media also has been narrating disgusting stories of inaction and inertia on the part of government hospitals which received the injured after suicide bombings. The health sector is one of the most neglected sectors of Pakistan’s economy and the situation of government hospitals is pathetic to say the least. There are such places in Pakistan’s remote areas where health facilities are completely lacking. Therefore, when a suicide bomber hit a religious shrine in the vicinity of Quetta city, ambulances were not able to reach the place for the next 24 hours as there were no paved roads there.
Intelligence services have played a key role in the government efforts to prevent the threat of terrorism from destroying the social fabric of the society. Publicly, they remain on the sidelines. However after 2008, the intelligence chiefs started to play a key role in the decision-making process when they started to sit on the official committees at the provincial level which were formed to deal with the threat of terrorism.
Umer Farooq is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist. He writes on security, foreign policy and domestic political issues.