Originally Published 2011-05-25 00:00:00 Published on May 25, 2011
The armed assault and siege carried out by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) on Pakistan's highly secured Pakistan Navy's Mehran airbase in Karachi (May 22-23) has raised fundamental concerns about the continuing failure on the part of Pakistan's intelligence and security agencies,
Mehran attack: implications and lessons
The armed assault and siege carried out by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) on Pakistan's highly secured Pakistan Navy's Mehran airbase in Karachi (May 22-23) has raised fundamental concerns about the continuing failure on the part of Pakistan's intelligence and security agencies, including the army, to pre-empt and prevent such attacks on its military and intelligence infrastructure and personnel.

This failure inevitably raises doubts about the State's capability to protect its nuclear infrastructure from terrorist networks which have grown considerably in their strength, capability and experience since 2007.

The following are some of the conclusions which can be drawn from a preliminary assessment of the attack made on the basis of open source material. These observations have lessons not only for Pakistan but also for India which witnessed a similar armed assault and siege by Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT) terrorists on Mumbai in November 2008.

Planned assault and siege: There cannot be any doubt that it was a meticulously planned terrorist attack. The site has been surveyed before hand and entry points and exits carefully mapped. The attackers, 10-12 in number, reached the site keeping close to the perimeter wall overlooking a river. Dressed in dark clothes, they entered the premises after scaling the perimeter wall and cutting the wire fence and kept to the lanes which were not covered by CCTV cameras. They knew the layout of the naval base and therefore easily made their way to the Inspection House where they positioned themselves for a gunfight after throwing grenades and firing rocket. It is highly likely that the naval base could have been downloaded from the web and carefully studied for various installations, routes and general layout. News reports also suggest mock assault practices. This cannot be discounted considering the flawless manner in which the attackers entered the high-security zone and executed their attack. The time chosen for the attack further strengthens minute planning and coordination.

Threat to military and nuclear facilities: The attack raises serious questions about Pakistan's capability to protect its strategic assets, including the nuclear facilities. An attack of this magnitude on nuclear power stations and other nuclear facilities could prove to be cataclysmic. The fact that the terrorists chose to specifically destroy two PC-Orion 3 Maritime Reconnaissance Aircraft parked at the naval base reveal their intention to damage military assets and expose security vulnerabilities. At least three nuclear weapons facilities -at Wah, Sargodha and Kamra-have in the recent past been attacked by terrorist groups.

Capability of TTP: Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan was formed as an umbrella group by several extremist and insurgent groups in December 2007 to avenge the Pakistan Army's military offensive against Pashtun tribal communities in the tribal areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The immediate provocation was the military assault on Lal Masjid, a pro-Taliban madrasa and mosque, in Islamabad in July 2007 in which over 300 students, largely from the Pashtun dominated areas in the west, were killed. Although TTP was largely considered to be a rag-tag group of militants, the group carried out some of the most audacious terrorist attacks on Pakistan's intelligence and military facilities and personnel. Several hundred military and ISI personnel were killed in these attacks. Two of the group's most audacious attacks included the bombing of Marriot hotel and the attack on GHQ in Rawalpindi.

The Mehran attack adds to this list of spectacular attacks carried out by TTP. The attack shows the group, despite intermittent and half-hearted attempts on the part of Pakistan Army to contain its reach and capability, has been able to expand its network, learn from its experience and dare the military-security establishment of Pakistan. The armed assault and siege of the naval base, and some of the past assaults on military facilities, show a military brain trust planning the attacks. This could mean that TTP has former Pakistan Army or police officials or soldiers training the cadre. One such person could be Illyas Kashmiri, a former Pakistani Special Forces soldier who became commander of al Qaeda's local affiliate in Pakistan. There have been reports about former Army officers helping TTP and other terrorist groups sheltered in the tribal areas in explosives training and suicide bombing missions. Some of them raised funds for the group by kidnapping rich businessmen and industrialists from Karachi and other cities for ransom. A few of them had associations with terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT).

Local and Insider collusion: This raises the possibility of TTP's increased networking with local terrorist and extremist groups like LeT, Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) which have better `local` intelligence and support system to execute an attack of the magnitude of the one witnessed in Karachi early this week. TTP has been successful in establishing alliances with various local extremist and criminal networks across Pakistan, particularly in Punjab and Sindh, besides sharing resources and personnel with more established terror groups like LeT and JeM. In fact, many of the early members of TTP were trained in training camps set up by LeT and JeM in Dir and Upper Dir areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2006. These camps were set up with the help of ISI after the camps run by LeT and JeM in Pakistan occupied Kashmir were destroyed in the October 2005 earthquake. Close to 3000 terrorists belonging to these groups were shifted to these new camps. TTP since then has established networks across Pakistan, particularly in key Punjab towns like Faisalabad and Gujranwala where it has been operating mainly through extremist madrasas and clerics. For instance, the attacks on the Sri Lankan cricket team (2009) and the ISI office in Lahore (2009) were traced to TTP and its allies operating out of these towns.

The possibility of insider collusion can also not be discounted. It is now known that Pakistan military, including navy, has witnessed a steady infiltration of radical ideology and motivations. Last year, a Navy marine commando from the tribal areas was arrested by the naval intelligence officials for planning to attack naval installations during the visit of a foreign delegation. Prior to the Mehran air base attack, the navy had suffered two attacks in the past 30 days. In both the cases, the insider role is suspected. The killing of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer in January this year by a member of an elite Punjab Police unit revealed the extent of extremist takeover of security forces in Pakistan. Recently, a US diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks spoke of `Islamists among the ranks of `` Pakistan Air Force personnel who were sabotaging the F-16 maintenance. Several PAF personnel were involved in the assassination attempts on former President Pervez Musharraf in December 2003. In the Mehran case, it is still an open question whether one or more of the security personnel responsible for guarding the naval base, either at the perimeter wall or inside the control room, had any role to play in the attack.

Intelligence failure: The attack firmly points a finger at the colossal intelligence lapse at the federal as well as the local level. This was not the first time that a military facility in Pakistan had been attacked. There have been a series of such attacks ever since the military attacked the Lal Masjid in July 2007. The Mehran attack clearly underlined the fact that authorities had not taken the previous attacks seriously enough to secure military infrastructure. The failure is compounded by the fact that the new al Qaeda leadership had issued a threat to attack military and intelligence facilities in Pakistan for the Abbottabad incident.

Insurgency: Perhaps the most critical question which is not being asked is how much of the present day terrorism in Pakistan is insurgency? TTP, which has claimed responsibility for most of the terrorist attacks in the recent past, is predominantly a Pashtun group operating out of the tribal areas with networks in other provinces in Pakistan where Saudi/UAE funded-Wahhabi madrasas act as conduits for recruitment, training and fund-raising. These groups began targeting the military and intelligence after the Lal Masjid offensive in July 2007 and the military operations in the tribal areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In the initial days, TTP and other allied groups targeted Frontier Corps, a ill-equipped and ineptly trained force of Pashtun soldiers commanded by Army officers. But this trend stopped shortly as TTP expanded beyond the tribal areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to Punjab with the objective of hitting the Punjabi-dominated ISI and Army which it saw as the `near enemy`. The continuing Drone attacks on the Pashtun areas have only sharpened this very visible divide between the Pashtun tribal communities and the Punjabi dominated security-intelligence set up.

Instability of Pakistan: Incapacity and inability of intelligence and security agencies to pre-empt and prevent such major attacks on key government installations has created a sense of paranoia and fear among the people of Pakistan. This over-riding feeling of insecurity has weakened the already unsure civilian leadership, leaving the Army to consolidate its position as the sole caretaker of an embattled state. Nothing could be more ironic. Terrorist attacks like the Mehran attack are the direct result of Pakistan Army's policy of spawning terrorist groups as `strategic assets`to influence events and policies in the neighbourhood and to shore up its stranglehold over the country's resources and leadership. Like in the case of the Abbottabad raid, when Army chief Ashfaq Kayani asked the civilian leaders to carry the burden of accountability, the army and ISI would keep away from owning up responsibility for the manner in which military facilities have been under attack from terrorists operating out of Pakistan. This civilian-military disconnect and the rising capabilities of terrorist groups like TTP to challenge the authority of Pakistan Army and ISI have grossly undermined the stability of the country like never before.
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