Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Conspiracy Theories Abound In Karachi

Attacks against Pakistan security forces are all too common, but the scale of Monday's operation marked it out as the most audacious since the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden by U.S. forces early this month.

The questions and conspiracy theories about the well-executed attack on PNS Mehran have begun to circulate. But a look at existing patterns, threats and warning signs helps connect the dots.


While other attacks have targeted military personnel, the PNS Mehran attack is different in that it directly targeted the P-3C Orion aircraft. “The attack has rendered the navy deaf and dumb,” said security analyst Ikram Sehgal. “The P-3C aircraft acts as the navy’s ears and eyes. There are three basic elements — anti-submarine warfare, radar capabilities and electronic intelligence.”

The Pakistan Taliban, which is allied with al Qaeda, said the attack was to avenge bin Laden's killing. At least 12 military personnel were killed and 14 wounded.

It was not clear how many of the militants were killed.

"If these people can just enter a military base like this, then how can any Pakistani feel safe?" asked Mazhar Iqbal, 28, engineering company administrator taking a lunch break in the shade outside the complex where a crowd had gathered on a patch of grass to watch journalists set up camp as much as anything.

He said he was from an insecure area of the southern city already infamous as a source of funding for militant groups.

"The government and the army are just corrupt. We need new leaders with a vision for Pakistan."

Karachi has a population of about 18 million people, a volatile mix of rival ethnic groups and political factions, who all to readily resort to violence to settle scores.

Sprawling along the sun-baked coast of the Arabian Sea, the city is also home to Pakistan's main port, financial markets and the central bank.

It is also a transit point for military and other supplies to Afghanistan for the U.S.- and NATO-led anti-insurgency effort there.


The navy base is ringed with a concrete wall with about five feet of barbed wire on top. An aircraft, armed with rockets, hangs on show on a stand outside.

Two white paramilitary ranger vehicles had taken up position outside the main gate, each with a machinegun on top and an officer wearing a black cap and camouflage.

There were about 30 to 40 journalists gathering outside, with seven satellite dishes attached to their trucks. Helicopters buzzed overhead and the main road outside was closed to traffic.

Moin Babar, 35, a technical engineer, said people were trying to understand how the militants made it inside.

"I heard that 15 went in through a sewer," he said.

Kamran Khalil, 48, a civil engineer, suggested, like many others, a conspiracy.

"How can this happen? It's taking them so long to resolve the issue. India or the CIA could have been behind this. They want to show that Pakistan forces are ineffective."

Many in Pakistan were furious with the U.S. operation to kill bin Laden without sharing any intelligence beforehand with Islamabad, which they saw as a severe breach of sovereignty.

"This is all a reaction to American policy in Pakistan," said Atif Ali, a 30-year-old construction worker, standing near one billboard advertising audio equipment in which a beautiful woman says "Let's play" and another advertising pizza.


Pakistan’s armed forces have been under attack by militants for several years now, however the navy has rarely been targeted. In 2008, seven people were killed in a suicide attack at Lahore’s Naval War College. On December 1, 2009, a suicide bomber blew himself up at the naval headquarters in Islamabad.

On April 26, 2011, four people were killed and 26 were injured in twin bomb blasts on naval buses in Karachi. Two days later, six people were killed and seven injured in another attack on a bus carrying naval personnel near the Karsaz base. “These were soft targets,” says Sehgal. “But it should have been questioned as to why technicians, who were going to and from the naval base, were being targeted.”

While Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan claimed responsibility for the attack, Sehgal believes that the beneficiaries of Sunday’s attack are countries that have ‘had designs on Pakistan’, and that this had “India’s Research and Analysis Wing’s signature all over it”. He said it was “far fetched” to believe that the attack could be retribution for the Pakistan Navy’s role in Combined Task Force 151, an international anti-piracy fleet that was commanded by the Pakistan Navy earlier this year.


The security of Pakistan’s military bases has been in question for several years now. The attack on the military’s general headquarters in Rawalpindi in 2009 as well as frequent attacks on security check posts, bases and training centers is part of a pattern, both of infiltration of and radicalisation in the security forces, and the lack of adequate security measures.

A precedent for involvement by military personnel exists. Investigation into an assassination attempt on former president General (retd.) Pervez Musharraf found that the ammunition had been taken from a Pakistan Air Force (PAF) depot. Seven military officials — six of whom were from the air force — were convicted by a military court along with six civilians. According to a Dawn report in 2010, explosives used in the attacks on Karachi’s Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine were ‘sophisticated military explosives’.

A US embassy cable from 2006, which was released this month by WikiLeaks, highlights radicalisation in the air force. The cable quotes then-Deputy Chief of Air Staff for Operations Air Vice Marshal Khalid Chaudhry as saying that the airmen, most of who came from rural villages, were being radicalised by extremist clerics.

The cable quotes Chaudhry as saying, “You can’t imagine what a hard time we have trying to get them to trim their beards.”

The cable also reveals that Chaudhry claimed “to receive monthly reports of acts of petty sabotage, which he interpreted as an effort by extremists among the enlisted ranks to prevent PAF aircraft from being deployed in support of security operations in the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas along the Afghan border.”

Radicalisation in the security forces was highlighted earlier this year when Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer was assassinated by a member of the Elite Force squad in Islamabad on January 4. A Los Angeles Times report in February highlighted the case of Zahid Manzoor Bajwa, a Punjab police official who had access to intelligence reports and is believed to have passed them on to the Taliban.

The PNS Mehran attack would have also required significant surveillance, which militant organisations have been able to conduct in the past, given their success at attacking the military’s Rawalpindi headquarters and buildings belonging to the Inter-Services Intelligence, Federal Investigation Agency and the Crime Investigation Department.

In the early 2000s, al Qaeda operatives had reportedly surveyed Karachi’s ports in preparation for a planned attack on the Strait of Hormuz and other ports used by the US Navy, according to the files of Guantanamo Bay detainees published by WikiLeaks.


The Obama administration strongly condemned on Monday the terrorist attack on a naval base in Karachi but avoided getting involved in the media debate on the security of Pakistan`s nuclear weapons.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner noted that the attack underscored the need for continuing cooperation between the US and Pakistan in the war against terror despite differences over the May 2 raid on Osama bin Laden`s compound.

“We strongly condemn this terrorist attack and we`re committed to working with Pakistan… in a joint effort to combat this kind of violent extremism,” Mr Toner told a briefing in Washington.

“It just illustrates that Pakistan is under enormous pressure and threat from these kinds of groups. And they suffer… considerably from this kind of violent extremism,” he said.

The attack also “speaks to the ongoing need for close counter-terrorism cooperation, even or in spite of some of the questions raised by the Bin Laden raid,” he added.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague also noted that the “attack once again demonstrates the seriousness of the threat that Pakistan faces from domestic militancy and extremism.”

Like the US, Britain also offered to help Pakistan combat violent extremists responsible for this and other attacks in the country.

While officials were cautious in their reaction, media outlets across the globe linked the Karachi attack to the question of security of Pakistan`s nuclear arsenal.

“And what does it imply for security at other key installations, not least those associated with Pakistan`s nuclear deterrent?” asked BBC`s defence and diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus.

The Washington Examiner newspaper adopted an alarmist approach, claiming that “the attack points out to the increasing radicalisation of the armed forces of Pakistan, as such an attack could not be planned and executed without some inside help from someone inside the Pakistani Navy”.

The newspaper warned that “if the terrorists can get hold of any IRBM and nuclear materials, a few Indian and Israeli cities, and a few thousand Nato soldiers in Afghanistan might go up in smoke.”

The attack “underscored the insurgents` ability to penetrate fortified security installations,” The Washington Post noted. It quoted several analysts as saying that “it was likely they were helped by people inside the base.”

The incident “dealt another embarrassing blow to a powerful military that has faced harsh domestic criticism over the US operation that killed Bin Laden,” the Post added.

“The Bin Laden raid also raised questions about the safety of Pakistan`s nuclear arsenal, and defence analysts said the Karachi assault renewed those doubts,” the Post added.

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