Upping the ante: the Islamabad attack and al Qaeda involvement

Posted in Pakistan | 29-Sep-08 | Author: Faryal Leghari| Source: Gulf Research Center

Men walk past the damaged Marriott hotel in Islamabad September 21, 2008.

On Saturday, September 20, 2008, Islamabad witnessed one of the most horrific suicide attacks in Pakistan’s history, which targeted the Marriott hotel less then two kilometers away from the Parliament, the Presidency and the Prime minister’s house. As an explosive laden truck detonated at the barricade set up at the hotel’s entrance, it caused a powerful explosion that left more than 60 dead and 250 injured, among them many foreign nationals including Libyans, Saudis, Turks, British, Germans, Danes and Americans. The Czech ambassador and two American Marines were among those killed.

While Pakistan has faced other high level attacks in the past, this attack marked a new chapter in terrorism in Pakistan. More importantly, this attack was planned to coincide with the President Zardari’s first parliamentary address. There is strong reason to believe that the hotel was a secondary target and the original target was the parliament where the top political and military leadership had gathered for the address. Due to two crucial security checkpoints and the high alert in force near the parliament, the attacker instead decided to zero in on the hotel that was considered a high-value target catering as it did to the political, diplomatic and the civilian elite.

The message that the attack intended to deliver was directed at the United States, the government and the public. It has resonated loud and clear and echoes the anger building up over the spate of air strikes and the ground operation (on September 3 ) of US forces at Angoor ada inside Pakistan. In retrospect, this attack should not come as a surprise because warnings of reprisals had been repeatedly issued by the militants from FATA. The surprise element of this attack was in its planning and operation.

If we look at the history of terrorist acts, we find that this attack heralds a new stage in the quality of operations. The operation and planning of the September 20 attack leaves little doubt that there is an obvious al-Qaeda involvement. This attack, as noted by top security specialist Mustafa Alani, was one that was highly organized, carefully planned and based on pre-inspection of the target.

The hotel, a high value target that has been targeted before, was highly protected. The fact that despite this, the terrorist groups were very successful in achieving their objectives reflects that there was detailed planning of the number of stages that are typically employed in staging a terrorist operation. These include target selection, pre-inspection and monitoring – that in cases involving high value targets such as this could take up to six months – the study of the penetration point for the attacker, the vehicle and the kind of explosives that are used along with the timing. These are all crucial factors in the success of a terrorist operation. In this case, the operation was highly successful principally due to its intensity and the result it achieved. It is believed that nearly 600 kg of high grade plastic explosives may have been used in combination with TNT and aluminum powder in a military style bomb that caused a crater 25 feet deep and 50 feet wide besides considerable damage to surrounding buildings as well.

The attack struck an ominous tone, for the confrontation between security and terrorist groups has reached a stage where one can judge that the terrorists are gaining an upper hand. They have shown a greater degree of flexibility, adaptability and persistence in carrying out operations against specified targets. This was apparent in the case of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in December 2007 as she was targeted a month and a half prior to her death.

Though no one has claimed responsibility so far, the attack is obviously a message to the government to deter from implementing US diktat and to cease military operations in FATA. The Interior Ministry had already held the Taliban responsible for the attack. Intelligence sources however have pointed to the possible involvement of Harkat ul Jihad Islami (HUJI) operatives; the organization was allegedly responsible for similar high impact suicide attacks in Lahore on the FIA building and the Naval War College. HUJI leader Qari Saifullah, who had links with al Qaeda, was arrested earlier this year for possible links to Bhutto’s assassination to be released later in June on the pretext of there not being any evidence in this regard. It is rumored that his release was a bid to halt the wave of suicide attacks unleashed by his organization following his arrest.

Even more than Musharraf, the current political regime is viewed by even that section of the Pakistani public considered “moderates” as one that is susceptible to ceding to American interests. It is perhaps to distance the military from such a perception that General Kayani, the Chief of Armed Forces, took a stand and vowed to retaliate against further transgressions with force, besides reiterating that there would be zero tolerance of US strikes in Pakistani territory.

The current escalation of the security crisis along with the tension marking US-Pakistan relations and the reigning confusion as far as policy making is concerned has worsened the situation. The government is yet to define and commit to a firm stand in support of national interest and needs to take immediate action to insist on a complete stop to any strikes by foreign forces on its soil. The fight against terrorism is likely to be a long drawn out one, and will need resolve, commitment and perseverance. What is important at this point is to prevent the moderates from turning towards extremism that threatens to engulf larger sections of the population with the continuing buildup of an impotent rage and feeling of helplessness as more civilians are killed in continued air strikes. Without succumbing to either the militants’ challenge to the state, or accepting the aggressive US policies that are being implemented at present to somehow redress the failure of the international forces eroding control in Afghanistan, Pakistan needs to strike a balance and fight terrorism that is and has been its own war for a while.