On May 11, the Pakistani Taliban carried out a twin suicide bomb attack against a police training center in Shabqadar, Charsadda district, in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier province. That attack claimed the lives of 80 police personnel, in a Pashtun region of Pakistan that is renowned as a center of Taliban and al-Qaeda activity.
Yesterday, on Sunday evening (around 10 p.m. local time) a group of paramilitary Taliban terrorists attacked a Pakistan naval base at the other end of the country, in the port city of Karachi, capital of Sindh province in southeast Pakistan. The PNS Mehran base is a naval airbase, and around fifteen to twenty assailants armed with guns and grenades advanced from three sides simultaneously to mount the attack. For such a small group of people, the base was unprepared to resist the assault. The siege finally ended after 17 hours.
The news is carried by Bloomberg, Associated Press via CTV, the Pakistan Tribune, the Guardian, the BBC, Dawn, the Daily Times and numerous other sources.
It has been reported that three aircraft were destroyed in the raid, either by placing bombs or using rockets against them, and some Chinese workers were taken hostage. Twelve Pakistani military personnel were killed in the assault. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility, stating that the act was carried out as revenge for the killing of Osama bin Laden.
There is still some confusion in the reports. Apparently eleven Chinese and six Americans were trapped in the base during the attack. These were safely rescued. Though most say the siege took more than 16 hours, some downsize the length of the raid to 12 hours. The number of aircraft destroyed varies from one to three.
The aircraft that were destroyed were American in origin, Lockheed Martin -manufactured P-3C Orion anti-submarine warfare and marine surveillance aircraft. These aircraft have four turbo-propellor engines and a distinctive spike jutting out beneath the tail, used for magnetic detection of submarines.
This Taliban action in Karachi comes on the heels of a rise in the group’s activities in the city. On April 26, 2011, days before Bin Laden was killed, the Pakistan navy came under attack. Two buses carrying navy officials were hit by a pair of remote-controlled roadside bombs. 54 people were injured, and four people died.
There has been a growing influence of radicalism in the city over the past decade. Karachi is the political home of the late Benazir Bhutto, who was killed on December 27, 2007 in a suicide blast. Bhutto and her husband Ali Asif Zardari, the current president of Pakistan, both had reputations for financial and political corruption, but were still technically “moderate.” Karachi is also regarded as Pakistan’s financial hub, and it is in Karachi that Pakistan’s stock exchange is located.
The comparative wealth of Karachi has attracted migrants from other regions of the nation, including a large contingent of Pashtuns. Some estimates claim there is a population of 7 million Pashtuns in the port city, whose total population numbers 17 million. The Pashtun areas of Karachi have been associated with Islamist influence. There are ethnic tensions between Pashtuns and the local “Mohajir” people. Occasionally these tensions have erupted into violence, as on July 7, 2008, when a series of explosions injured about fifty people. The blasts apparently were set up to provoke ethnic tension. A month after those blasts, a local politician claimed that there was no Talibanization taking place in Karachi. History appears to have proved him wrong.
By that time, Karachi had already been a center for some of the activities of the terrorist group Jundallah (army of God). This group is primarily based in Baluchistan province in the southwest of Pakistan, and probably started around 2003. It was set up to attack Shia-dominated Iran whose border adjoins southern Baluchistan, to “liberate” Sunnis living in Iran. It has mounted cross-border raids and bomb attacks into Iran. In June 2004, twelve Jundallah activists were arrested in Karachi. These later admitted plotting to attack the U.S. consulate in Karachi, as well as U.S. military interests.
The southwestern province of Baluchistan (Balochistan) is rich in gas and oil reserves, and there is already a separatist movement, the Baluchistan Liberation Army, which seeks to secede from Pakistan and exploit the potential wealth
Jundallah has been involved in kidnapping of Iranian soldiers and holding them hostage in Pakistan; for example, in January 2006 the group kidnapped nine Iranian soldiers, and in June 2008 sixteen more were abducted. In Karachi, Jundallah activists could gain some anonymity.
In January 2010, four Jundallah terrorists were arrested in Karachi. They admitted their part in a series of three bomb blasts in the city which left 45 people dead in December 2009. The blasts had taken place during the festival of Ashura, which is sacred to Shia Muslims. When the four Ashura bombers were sent to trial in June, 2010, six armed men, who had grenades, attacked the courtroom and freed the defendants.
There is some cross-pollination between Jundallah and other sectarian terror groups, particularly Sipah-e-Sahabah and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which carry out terror attacks against Shia Muslims and incites violence against Christians in Pakistan. It has widely been assumed that Jundallah is a spent force politically. It may carry out random acts of terror and involve itself in sectarian conflict, but in the Pakistani media and in counter-terrorism activities, it has become eclipsed by the Pakistani Taliban. In Karachi, however, Jundallah still has a presence. According to an article from September, 2010, the group was reforming itself in Karachi. The article’s author claims Jundallah was founded in Karachi by a student at the university, called Attaur Rehman. He was assisted in forming the group by the student wings of the Jamaat-e-Islami party.
Attaur Rehman (Rahman) had been among 11 Islamists who were sentenced to death in February 2006 for their part in the attempted murder of a Pakistani army general. In June 2004, militants with assault rifles and bombs attacked the motorcade of Lt. Gen. Ahsan Saleem Hayat. The general surived the assault, but 10 people died in the attack, six soldiers, three police officers and one bystander. Subsequently the general was raised to second in command of the military. The defendants accused of the failed attack against the general cried out “God is Great” as their sentences were handed out. An article by the Associated Press from February 28, 2006 quoted Rahman as saying: “If one Attaur Rahman dies, many more will come to replace me in this way of jihad.”
The Rise of the Taliban in Karachi
Mullah Omar, the official head of the Afghanistan Taliban.
So far, the resurgence of Jundallah as an organized terror force appears not to have happened, but the attack by the Pakistani Tehreek-i-Taliban upon the air force base suggests that the Taliban have already overtaken Jundallah as the main Sunni terror organization in the city.
One senior Taliban figure was “accidentally” discovered in Karachi in late January 2010. This individual is Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. He was said to have been found in a raid on a house outside the city. Baradar, described as the second-in-command of the Taliban, is said to have been the main organizer of the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. The only person more senior than him was one-eyed Mullah Omar.
Baradar was one of the four men who founded the original Taliban. The original leaders of the Afghan Taliban had been educated at the Haqqania madrassa in Pakistan, run by Sami ul-Haq (Mullah Omar had not failed to complete his course). Baradar also had links to the ISI, according to the BBC. Baradar was believed to be the deputy of Mullah Omar. The BBC states that Baradar was captured in a madrassa in Karachi, not in a “house”. On April 22, Pakistan’s ISI announced that American investigators were allowed access to Baradar. The date of Baradar’s arrest is also contested. Apparently, he had been arrested in a madrassa in Loni Kot, Karachi, on February 8, 2010 as a result of a joint Pakistani-U.S. operation.
In January 2009, an article by the Jamestown Foundation had claimed that the Pakistani Taliban had been targeting Peshawar and Karachi as these were seen to be important locations along the supply-line for U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
The author, Andrew McGregor made mention of a raid that took place on January 15 in Karachi upon suspected Taliban safe-houses. Two people had been killed and seven wounded. Nearly eighty suspects had been arrested. The raids had taken place to locate a kidnapped Iranian commercial attaché. However, it has recently been claimed that this raid had been carried out to free a prominent Hindu film-maker called Satish Anand.
The raid in Karachi on January 15, 2009 had been upon Taliban members who had been working in conjunction with Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. The raid had uncovered a suicide vest, 32 kilograms of C4 plastic explosives, detonators, Kalashnikovs and a large quantity of hashish.
The cell was said to be linked to Waziristan, in the tribal areas of NWFP adjoining Afghanistan, where the Pakistan Taliban traditionally has its roots. Satish Anand, the kidnapped movie maker, was released in April 2009, six months after he was first captured en route to the Karachi press club. Anand was freed after a ransom was paid, apparently after negotiations were made with Ilyas Kashmiri (pictured above) who heads his own terror group (Harkatul Mujahideen-Al-Islami) and was once tipped as a successor to bin Laden. Though kidnapped in Karachi, Anand had been held as a hostage in Miranshah in North Waziristan.
In his Jamestown article, McGregor quoted Mullah Omar, who had said in the summer of 2008:
“We are very strong in Karachi; our network could come in action once the central Amir of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan [Baitullah Mahsud] ordered the Taliban for action. We want to help improve law and order and maintain peace in Karachi. The Taliban could surface in Karachi if foreign hands do not stop interfering in the city… We are capable of capturing any city of the country at any given time.”
On November 20, 2009, the Washington Times reported that senior American officials had claimed that Mullah Omar, head of the Afghan Taliban, had fled from Quetta in Baluchistan to a safe region in Karachi in the previous month. Omar had been assisted in this move by Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI. It should be noted that the ISI did indeed help to set up the Taliban inside Afghanistan. The story was also reported in the Pakistan Daily Times.
According to one U.S. counterterrorism official:
“There are indications of some kind of bleed-out of Taliban types from Quetta to Karachi, but no one should assume at this point that the entire Afghan Taliban leadership has packed up its bags and headed for another Pakistani city.”
Though Pakistan denied the report, and Mullah Omar was never found, his son-in-law Motasim Agha Jan was reported to have been arrested in Karachi in March 2010. On the same day, police reported that a senior Pakistan Taliban member called Alam Mehsud had been arrested in Karachi.
On Sunday, May 22, 2011, shortly before the attack upon the PNS Mehran base in Karachi, an Afghanistan TV news station claimed that Mullah Omar had been killed. The news had originally been sourced from the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s intelligence service, via its spokesperson Lutfullah Mashal. The Afghan TV channel, TOLO, had claimed that Mullah Omar had been killed while he was traveling in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. Mullah Omar had apparently been on his way from his hide-out in Quetta, where many believe he has spent the last decade, to North Waziristan. Hamid Gul, the Taliban-supporting former head of the ISI, had ridiculed the claim. The TOLO TV report had claimed that Mullah Omar had been escorted by Hamid Gul on his trip to the northwestern frontier when he was killed.
The Afghan Taliban has also denied the report, releasing this statement:
“Claims and rumors were spread this morning by the Kabul stooge regime’s intelligence directorate, other officials and some media outlets that the esteemed Amir ul Mumineen was martyred in Pakistan. We strongly reject these false claims of the enemy.”
The raid upon the PNS Mehran base in Karachi could be seen as a dramatic attack, motivated by anger at bin Laden’s death. It is true that the attack has highlighted how weak and unprepared the Pakistan military must be. There are also rumors that for the attack to be successful, there could have been “inside help” at the base.
Even though Sunday’s attack upon the naval airbase is spectacular, it nonetheless is consistent with an ever-increasing tally of terror attacks and sectarian atrocities in the city of Karachi.
Recent Terrorism Attacks in Karachi
On the evening of November 11, 2010, a bomb struck at the headquarters of the police’s Crime Investigation Department in Karachi (pictured).
At a press conference on December 14, 2010, Pakistani police displayed a man who had been arrested in the Sohrab Goth neighborhood of Karachi (below). The man, Hajj Rehman, was said to be a member of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. A quantity of explosives had been seized. Rehman and his five accomplices had allegedly planned to set off bombs during Ashura processions. The five accomplices had escaped. Rehman had moved to Karachi from Orakzai Agency, one of the FATA or tribal areas in NorthWest Frontier Province.
Two weeks before, on November 29, 2010, four alleged Taliban activists were arrested in the same district of Karachi. Three suicide jackets, rifles, pistols and explosives were retrieved during the arrests. The men were not natives of the city of Karachi. A police chief said that they admitted that the (Pakistan) Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud had sent them to Karachi to carry out terror attacks.
Last month, on April 8, 2011, Dawn newspaper reported that two suspected Taliban activists, originally from Mohmand agency in NorthWest Frontier Province, had been arrested in the Sohrab Goth district of Karachi. They had guns and were said to have been involved in murders in Karachi, police claimed.
On April 21, fifteen people were killed and thirty were injured when a bomb ripped apart a gambling den in the city.
After the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbotabad on May 2, the violence in Karachi continued. Three people were killed and almost thirty injured in a grenade attack in the city on May 6. The attack seemed to be aimed at people who may have been engaged in gambling and other “un-Islamic” activity.
On May 10 this year, a Saudi consulate official was shot dead in Karachi. Two grenades had been thrown at the consulate. The Pakistan Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack in a phone call, with a spokesman stating: “Until America stops chasing Al Qaeda and stops drone strikes we will keep carrying out such attacks.”
On May 20 this year, police announced that three militants from the Pakistani Taliban had been arrested in Karachi. These had been preparing to carry out a suicide bombing, it was claimed. They came from Swat, again in NorthWest Frontier Province, and had fled to Karachi from heavy military action in the Swat valley.
The attack upon the naval air force base in Karachi is a sign that the Pakistan Taliban are no longer to be considered to be mostly housed in the tribal regions of northwest Pakistan or in Quetta. Karachi appears to have become as integral part of the Taliban’s network as Waziristan or the Swat valley. Military actions and American drone attacks seem to be pushing activists to expand southward. However, migration of certain activists does not mean the Taliban have been driven out of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of NorthWest Frontier Province. Far from it. The move south is an expansion of operations, and when kidnap victims are transported the entire length of the nation, policing the activities of the group will become more difficult.
Sirajuddin Haqqani, acting leader of the Haqqani movement, has had close relations with the Pakistan Taliban.
The Taliban (the word literally means “students”), could be rapidly growing into an international movement like al-Qaeda, rather than merely being a localized, centrally governed force. In the south, the group seems ready to share operations with other Islamist groups, such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Sipah-e-Sahaba and Jundallah. In the north of Pakistan and into Afghanistan, the Taliban shares its influence with the Haqqani network. In Waziristan, the Taliban has shared territory, personnel and ambitions with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an al-Qaeda-related group with a network extending into the Central Asian nations of Kyrgystan and Uzbekistan, and also the Harkatul Mujahideen-Al-Islami of Ilyas Kashmiri.
A recent event at a checkpoint in Quetta, Baluchistan, suggested that the Pakistani jihad is drawing international recruits. On May 18, it was reported that five Chechens were killed by bullets fired by the Frontier Corps, after they had apparently thrown grenades. In terms of the jihad in Pakistan, Chechens are said to have been involved in training activities with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, along with other nationalities, in the northern tribal regions of Pakistan. What is unusual is to find alleged Chechen activists so close to the southern border with Afghanistan.
There are questions that need to be answered by the Pakistani authorities in relation to the incident involving the Chechens. Three of the five who were killed were women, and one of these was pregnant. To complicate matters, eyewitnesses have claimed that the Chechens were unarmed. A photograph of one of the Chechen women raising her arm indicated that she had survived the bullet rounds, but she was subsequently shot, despite her apparent gesture of surrender. Kavkaz Center, a website that publicizes jihad activity by Chechens and other peoples in the Russian Caucasus, has condemned the killing of the Chechens in Quetta.
While doubts remain on the true facts behind the Quetta incident, what is certain is that the Pakistan Taliban is no longer a small offshoot of the Afghanistan Taliban. From its first appearance in Pakistan media in the winter of 2005-2006, the group now exists throughout Pakistan, and has strong links to other Islamist groups in neighboring nations.
The United States and the Pakistan government should take note of its growth, and its connections to other jihadist groups. After bin Laden was discovered in Abbottabad, under the nose of the Pakistan military, tensions between Pakistan and America worsened. The two nations should work out a strategy that supports their mutual interests, for the road ahead is going to get very rough indeed.