By Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
The Minhas Air Force Base at Kamra in the Attock District of the Punjab Province, Pakistan, believed to be one of the centres where Pakistan has stockpiled its nuclear arsenal, was attacked by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militants in the early morning of August 16, 2012. Nine attackers dressed in military uniforms and armed with rocket propelled-grenades and suicide vests targeted the base and the adjacent Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC). The attack commenced at about 0210 hrs, and the Air Base was declared clear only after almost eight hours. Two Pakistan Air Force (PAF) personnel were killed and one Saab 2000 surveillance aircraft was damaged during the clash.
TTP ‘spokesperson’ Ehsanullah Ehsan, meanwhile, claimed that four suicide bombers had carried out the attack to take revenge for the killings of the former chief of TTP, Baitullah Mehsud, and al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. The attackers, Ehsan declared, had succeeded in achieving their targets and had delivered a “lethal blow”. Claiming that dozens of security personnel had been killed in the attack, Ehsan stated, further, that the TTP could ‘attack at will’ and would also target other locations.
These are, evidently, not empty threats. The Federal Ministry of Interior, citing intelligence reports, stated, on August 17, 2012, that the terrorists had chalked out a plan to hit Islamabad and Lahore simultaneously, allegedly with the collaboration of the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS). “Attacks, using explosive laden trucks, will be launched in Islamabad and Lahore at the same time,” sources claimed, adding that the key leader of a terrorist outfit, Yaseen, was the mastermind of the proposed vehicle-borne improvised explosive device attacks. The attacks were planned against a top hotel and a sensitive building in the Red Zone of Islamabad, and an airbase and airport in Lahore.
This is the fourth attack targeting the Minhas Air Force Base since December 2007. On December 10, 2007, a suicide bomber exploded his car targeting a PAC bus carrying PAF employees’ children at the outskirts of the PAC factories on the Qutba-Attock Road. Eight persons, including five schoolchildren, were injured. On January 18, 2008, militants fired four rockets at short intervals. One landed on the roof of senior Non Commissioned Officer’s (NCO) Mess, and two inside the Mirage Rebuild Factory in the PAC. No casualties were reported. On October 23, 2009, eight persons were killed and 17 sustained injuries when a suicide bomber blew up a Police check-post on GT Road near the PAC, when Security Force (SF) personnel intercepted him at the check-post.
The latest assault refreshes the wounds inflicted in the terrorist attacks on Pakistan Naval Station (PNS) Mehran within the Faisal Naval Airbase in Karachi, the provincial capital of Sindh, on May 22, 2011. Ten SF personnel and four TTP militants were killed, and nine SF personnel were injured in the attack. Claiming responsibility, TTP spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan had stated, “We had already warned after Osama’s martyrdom that we will carry out even bigger attacks.”
The first retaliatory attack on a security establishment after the death of Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011, came just after 10 days, when two suicide bombers hit Frontier Constabulary (FC) trainees on May 13, 2011, in the Shabqadar tehsil (revenue unit) of Charsadda District, 19 miles from Peshawar, the capital city of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Province, killing 73 FC personnel and 17 civilians, and injuring another 140. At this stage, TTP spokesman Ehsan had declared, “Pakistan will be the prime target followed by United States (US). The US had been on a man-hunt for Osama and now Pakistani rulers are on our hit-list as we also killed Benazir Bhutto in a suicide attack.”
The reopening of the of the NATO supply routes on July 5, 2012, further instigated the TTP’s resolve to attack the SFs. On July 3, 2012, Islamabad had accepted the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s ‘long pending’ apology for the November 26, 2011, Salala Checkpost incident, in which 24 Pakistani troopers were killed, and which led to the closure of the supply routes.
A few days later, TTP militants killed eight SF personnel at an Army camp near Wazirabad town in the Gujranwala District of Punjab, on July 9, 2012, hours after a protest march by the Difa-e-Pakistan (Defense of Pakistan) Council (DPC) led by the founder of Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and the Chief of Jama’at-ud-Dawa (JuD) Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, passed through the area. A group, Idara Pasban-e-Sharia’h (Centre of the Guardians of the Sharia’h), a TTP offshoot, on July 10, 2012, criticised the political and military leadership for striking a deal with the US, saying the leadership had betrayed the nation by resuming supplies to NATO forces in Afghanistan. The cadres of the group distributed pamphlets in Miranshah bazaar in North Wazistan Agency (NWA) of Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
Other major attacks particularly targeting SFs since bin Laden’s killing include:
July 16, 2012: Army and Police commandos foiled an attack by burqa-clad TTP militants who planned to take over a Police Station in Bannu city, KP. Four Taliban fighters were killed and another captured following a heavy exchange of fire. Two militants wearing suicide vests blew themselves up, while another two were shot dead.
July 12, 2012: Militants shot dead nine trainee jail staff and wounded three after storming a building in the Ichra complex in Lahore, where they were sleeping. TTP claimed responsibility for the attack.
May 4, 2012: A suicide attack targeting SFs killed at least 29 persons, including four Policemen, and injured another 73 at Khar Bazaar in Khar town, Bajaur Agency, FATA. The target of the attack was the Levies Force. TTP claimed responsibility for the attack.
January 5, 2012: TTP militants killed 15 FC personnel in Mir Ali area of NWA in FATA to avenge, in the words of a TTP spokesman, the death of one of their ‘commanders’ at the hands of SFs, in another tribal area.
September 19, 2011: At least eight people were killed and 30 injured in a suicide car bomb attack targeting Senior Superintendent of Police [SSP, Crime Investigation Department (CID)] Chaudhry Aslam in the Darakhshan area of Karachi. TTP claimed responsibility for the attack on Aslam’s residence, saying Aslam had arrested and killed many of its fighters.
September 7, 2011: At least 26 people were killed and over 60 were injured in two suicide attacks targeting the residence of the Deputy Inspector General of FC, Brigadier Farrukh Shehzad, in Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan. The TTP claimed responsibility for the twin attacks.
June 25, 2011: Ten Policemen were killed and another five sustained injuries when two suicide bombers, one of them burqa-clad, blew themselves up inside a Police Station in Kolachi Town of Dera Ismail Khan District, KP. TTP claimed responsibility for the attack.
May 25, 2011: Nine persons were killed and over 39 were injured when militants drove a car packed with explosives into a CID Police Station at University Road in Peshawar. The TTP claimed responsibility for the attack.
While bin Laden’s killing and the reopening of NATO supply routes have had an escalatory impact on TTP attacks, the group has, in fact, relentlessly targeted Pakistani SFs from the moment of its formation in the wake of the Army’s Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) Operation in 2007. It was from this point on that suicide bombings targeting the SFs increased dramatically. According to data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management, militants have carried out a total of 22 major attacks against SFs since 2007.
Crucially, several of these attacks have been successfully executed despite the availability of definite intelligence well in advance. In the latest case, the attack at the Kamran Base, intelligence reports received by the Home Department on August 9, 2012, noted that the TTP was planning attacks on the PFA base and other military and security establishments in Lahore before Eid. The intelligence reports, which have been forwarded to the Inspector General of Punjab Police and other officials concerned, stated that at least two TTP teams had been deployed for these attacks, in revenge for the killing of Ghaffar Qaisarani alias Saifullah, a TTP leader, in a shootout with the Police at Dera Ghazi Khan District in Punjab on August 1, 2012. According to another report, members of the Qari Yasin Group, initially a part of the Harkat-ul -Mujahideen (HuM), which started in Punjab and was later based in Miranshah, were planning to attack the PAF base and installations near the PAF Market on August 21 or 22. Another intelligence report dating back to August 1, 2012, also indicated that TTP Chief Hakimullah Mehsud had decided to increase terrorist attacks in Punjab, with emphasis on inflicting maximum damage, especially in Lahore. In a covert meeting held at Asad Khel village in NWA, Mehsud allocated PKR 25 million to carry out attacks on the PAF base in Lahore, and the Inter-Services Intelligence, Military Intelligence, Intelligence Bureau and the Counter Terrorism Department offices in the province. The meeting was attended by prominent Taliban ‘commanders’, including the Qari Yasin aka Qari Aslam group, a group mentioned as a high-profile terrorist outfit. Another intelligence report exposed TTP plans for attacks similar to the one on the PNS Mehran Base. The attackers had allegedly already carried out reconnaissance of the PAF base, with some local employees collaborating with the terrorists, while weapons and ammunition were to be provided by concealing them using cargo companies.
Indeed, Federal Minister of the Interior Rehman Malik claimed, on August 17, 2012, that because of advance warnings about a possible attack on PAF installations, the terrorists’ attempt to harm assets at Kamra was foiled and all the attackers were killed. Malik disclosed that four of the assailants had been identified. They had received training in Waziristan and the raid, he said, could be traced back to North and South Waziristan Agencies.
Nevertheless, Corps Commander Lieutenant General Khalid Rabbani, on August 16, 2012, dismissed as ‘speculative’ reports of an impending military operation in the militants-infested NWA and insisted that no decision had been taken so far.
Islamabad is evidently fighting a losing battle with self-inflicted terrorism, and, as its core security assets are targeted with increasing frequency, the capacity to contain this threat appears to be diminishing, aggravating international concerns regarding the security of the country’s nuclear arsenal, and the capacity of Army to maintain the tenuous stability that still survives in the country.
Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management