Originally Published 2003-12-30 06:43:44 Published on Dec 30, 2003
The two assassination attempts in quick succession on Gen.Pervez Musharraf, the President of an Islamic state, who is a key ally of the United States in the war in Afghanistan, came at a time when the US-led coalition forces in Iraq were rejoicing over the capture of Saddam Hussein, the enemy number two only after Osama bin Laden.
Musharraf's Frankensteins Come Home To Haunt Him
The two assassination attempts in quick succession on Gen.Pervez Musharraf, the President of an Islamic state, who is a key ally of the United States in the war in Afghanistan, came at a time when the US-led coalition forces in Iraq were rejoicing over the capture of Saddam Hussein, the enemy number two only after Osama bin Laden.

The unchecked attacks on sectarian (Shias) and religious (Christians) minorities and foreigners in Pakistan after September 11, 2001, have periodically been accompanied by assassination attempts on the President himself. Five attempts have been reported ever since Musharraf became an ally of the US and abandoned overnight Pakistan's policy of support to the Taliban.

The first was in April 2002 when a Suzuki pick-up truck with explosives was left on the route of his convoy at Karachi, but the terrorists could not detonate it due to a malfunctioning of the remote control mechanism. Three jihadi terrorists were arrested in this connection and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment in October this year. They reportedly belonged to a splinter group of the banned Harkat-ul-Mujahiddeen (HUM), which used to operate in Afghanistan and now operates in India's Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).

Last year itself, a jihadi terrorist, reportedly of Arab origin, was arrested for filling explosives in a flag rod prior to a presidential rally at Karachi. In yet another incident, a sniper gun and a telescope were recovered from the roof-top of a house. The Pakistani authorities believed that they were meant to be used to target the President's motorcade again at Karachi.

Then came the attack on him on December 14 when a series of explosions damaged a bridge at Rawalpindi, after Musharraf's motorcade had crossed it followed by a daring attack on December 25 by two suicide bombers who rammed their vehicles carrying explosives into the presidential motorcade while he was commuting between Islamabad, where his office as the President is located, and the adjoining cantonment of Rawalpindi, where the GHQ of the army and his residence are located.

While no fatal casualties were reported on December 14, the attack with the suicide car bombs on December 25 resulted in the death of six police officers, four military personnel and eight civilian passers-by. The fact that this serious attempt came within 11 days of the earlier attempt spoke clearly of a severe breach of presidential security, but the General has denied any such lapse. He has contended that it is difficult to detect suicide bombers who are like 'mobile bombs'. However, his denial could not conceal the fact that the intelligence and security personnel responsible for his security were taken by surprise by the attacks of December 14 as well as December 25.

After the arrest in Karachi and the handing-over of Al Qaeda operative Ramzi bin Al Shaibah and four others to the US in September last year, Musharraf's personal security had been strengthened due to fears that Al Qaeda and terrorists belonging to other jihadi groups might try to kill him. Before the President's motorcade sets out, security personnel are deployed along the entire route to check for any suspicious persons or vehicles and all people and vehicles are cleared from the route. Helicopters are used to keep a watch for any suspicious activity on the route. Route security personnel are deployed on different routes to make it difficult for any would-be assassin to guess which route the President would be taking. This has remained the standard practice and it is, therefore, not clear how amidst such tight security the perpetrators could plan and execute their attacks twice in quick succession, which, however, failed to kill him.

The attack on December 25 resembled the bombings in Turkey in November in that the terrorists used vehicular suicide bombs. One Suzuki pick-up truck and a van loaded with 44 to 66 pounds of explosives were rammed into the President's cavalcade one after the other. Apparently, there was careful planning because there was reportedly a back-up vehicle waiting even when one car failed to hit the President's limousine.

A disturbing factor for Musharraf is that the attacks on him have now shifted from Karachi to Rawalpindi, which is heavily guarded because of the location of the army headquarters in the town. In the past, the Pakistan army had a reputation of being a disciplined force devoid of any radical Islamic influence, but doubts about the possible infiltration of jihadi elements into the Army have often been expressed, especially after the death of General Zia ul Haq in a plane crash in 1988.

These doubts are likely to be strengthened by the fact that the two daring attacks of December had taken place in the cantonment town of Rawalpindi. These attacks raise obvious questions about the likely role of disgruntled army personnel, who might resent what they perceive as the growing American influence on Musharraf's policies. Significantly, within two days of the first attack, Musharraf reshuffled the top brass of the army, replacing, among others, his military intelligence chief, the Chief of the General Staff and his personal secretary.

The possibility of an accomplice of the perpetrators inside the army or the police cannot be ruled out considering that the perpetrators were well aware of the route the President was going to take. Initial investigations are also reported to have revealed that one of the attackers of December 25 had received two calls on his mobile phone, giving rise to the suspicion that someone was passing on information.

After the explosion under the bridge on December 14, the Pakistani authorities, apart from blaming the local jihadi groups, had also pointed the needle of suspicion at Al Qaeda. The modus operandi of the two blasts fall in line with similar kinds of blasts in Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which had been attributed to Al Qaeda. Among other organisations suspected were the HUM, now operating under the name of Jamiat-ul-Ansar, and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Sunni terrorist organisation.

Several radical Islamic groups in Pakistan have vehemently opposed Musharraf's support to the US in the so-called war on terrorism. In fact, it was due to considerable domestic pressure that Musharraf decided against sending Pakistani troops to Iraq. Undoubtedly, the radical Islamists feel that he has betrayed the cause of the country and Islam with his pro-American foreign policy and his recent rapprochement efforts with India Thus; it would not be too far fetched to infer that any of the Islamic militant groups still active in Pakistan could have carried out the attack on Musharraf.

The two suicide bombers, who killed themselves, have reportedly been identified by the investigators as a Pakistani from the Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir belonging to the Jaish-e-Mohammad and an Afghan from the Panjsher Valley of Afghanistan. It is not clear so far how the two came together and whether they undertook the attack on their own or at the instance of any organisation. The Al Qaeda angle as well as the involvement of a disgruntled section of the army cannot also be ruled out at this stage of the investigation. In an audio tape released two months ago, Bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al Zawahri, had called for Musharraf's ouster.

The reported use of the C-4 plastic explosives in both the attacks and the sophistication displayed in the planning and the execution of the two attacks give rise to a suspicion of a possible Al Qaeda involvement. According to Pakistani officials, these explosives have not been used in Pakistan before, thereby indicating that Pakistani jihadi groups could not have had access to these explosives unless they had been helped by a trans-national terrorist group like Al Qaeda.

A study of the terrorist incidents of 2003 in different countries such as Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey indicates that Al Qaeda is not in a position to operate on its own without local complicity. Whether Al Qaeda is ultimately proved to have been involved or not, the hand of the local anti-Musharraf elements is a very strong possibility.

Musharraf, who has agreed to discard his second hat as the Chief of the Army Staff by 2004-end, would need to choose a successor, who would be amenable to his control and through whom he could ensure that elements in the military disgruntled against him do not indulge in conspiracies against him in collusion with Al Qaeda and the local jihadi terrorist groups.

The fact that there appears to be sympathy for Al Qaeda inside the Army became evident earlier in 2003 when there were reports of the arrest of three junior army officers on a charge of helping Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, supposedly the operational chief of Al Qaeda, who was arrested in Rawalpindi in March and handed over to the US. Subsequently, there were also reports that about 20 other Pakistani army officers, including 6-7 Lieutenants-Colonels, had been arrested in Sind and Rawalpindi for being questioned on suspected links with Al Qaeda. (31-12-03)

(The writer is an M.Phil research scholar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and, presently, a member of the staff of the International Terrorism Project of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF). She is based in New Delhi. E-mail address: [email protected] ) (31-12-03)

* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Observer Research Foundation.
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