Smoke rises after militants launched an early morning assault at Jinnah International Airport in Karachi. (Rizwan Tabassum/AFP)
ISLAMABAD — Developments over the past couple of weeks have led analysts to expect “a wave of attacks” by the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), of which the assault on the airport in Karachi from Sunday night into Monday appears to be the first.
After the recent fracturing of the TTP, a discarded peace accord and the June 4 murder of two senior Army officers by the TTP, Claude Rakisits, director at Politact, a Washington-based advisory firm that focuses on South Asian issues, said the changes taking place within the wider Taliban network mean “a wave of attacks throughout the country” should probably be expected.
The airport attack is but the first, he said, and “demonstrated that the Pakistani security authorities are not adequately prepared to deal with terrorist attacks.
“Given the latest developments in the military’s decision to retaliate against the militants in the tribal areas, one would have expected security to have been tightened around critical national assets, including Karachi airport,” he said.
Analyst Haris Khan of the Pakistan Military Consortium think tank, who is familiar with the layout of the airport, says from what he has observed there were “gaping holes in security” and “complacency” on the part of the defenders. He called the attack an embarrassing intelligence failure.
“The airport was not at all well-guarded. These terrorists were very well versed about the security setup and chose the time when shifts were changing to attack,” he said.
“[The attackers] entered through some soft spots and one of groups went straight through gates adjacent to PIA Cargo hanger between the old terminal and terminal 3. This is a most vulnerable dangerous location in the airport since there are four 55,000-imperial-gallon above the ground Jet A1 fuel tanks.”
He says matters were made worse because the airport has become a “junkyard for PIA, other defunct Pakistan airlines to abandon aircraft. There are close to 30 junked aircraft including two PIA B-747s, one DC-10, and several B-737, A-300 and A-310s. Some of them are even parked in front of [the Air Force’s hardened aircraft shelters] on the right of runway 07L.”
He also says the attackers were remarkably well-armed and trained.
“These were very well trained attackers with a clear objective to attain. They were equipped with auto-assault rifles, grenades, 40mm Russian VOG-25 under barrel grenades, RPG-7s, some other IEDs which they had planned to plant, and had rations to sustain for a long-haul mission.”
Contrary to official statements he is disinclined to believe the attack failed.
“When the outer perimeter defense is breached the initial object has been successful,” he said, highlighting the lack of equipment of those guarding the airport whom he says should have had their own armored cars rather than waiting for the Army to arrive with its AFVs.
He also pours scorn on claims by Pakistani officials that the attackers used Indian weapons, calling it “total rubbish” intended to deflect legitimate criticism for the failure.
Nevertheless, though it was the Amy that eventually brought the situation under control, Khan offers some praise for the Airport Security Force that he believes handled the situation better than did the military during the May 2011 attack on the nearby Mehran naval aviation facility.
That attack was only discovered when the first aircraft exploded and the attackers were well inside the base.
Matters are set to worsen, Rakisits said, because the TTP and allies know they have the upper hand and are pressing their advantage.
“This attack confirms, if confirmation is still required, that the terrorists are in no mood to negotiate. They know that the government and the military are divided on how to deal with the militant issue and, accordingly, the terrorists are taking advantage of these differences.”
Rakisits says terrorists know that Karachi is Pakistan’s commercial hub and that attacks there would scare off foreign investors and bring the economy to its knees.
He says Pakistan needs to brace itself for the worst.
“We can expect more of these urban attacks in the future, especially given that Gul Bahadur, a non-TTP group which had until recently a peace accord with the military, has recalled his fighters from Afghanistan to focus on the Pakistan front. Now that negotiations between the government and the TTP are effectively off, various TTP factions will probably also execute terrorist attacks in other urban centers, such as Lahore, Islamabad and Peshawar,” he said.
Terrorists will aim to cause maximum civilian casualties and further exacerbate the divisions between the government, which still wants to pursue talks with the TTP, and the military, which would prefer to wipe them out.
“These terrorist acts are adding further stress to a government already in deep trouble,” he said, citing the government’s failure to deliver basic needs like power, water, transportation and housing.
“My biggest worry is whether the civilian leaders are fully aware of the enormity of the problem they are facing because in light of what they are doing to deal with it, it would appear that they are not quite cognizant of the problem. This can only mean more trouble down the road.”
Whether successful or not, Khan said there is one type of target that will be at the top of the terrorists list, and one which will cause Pakistan the most damage: its nuclear facilities.
“My biggest fear is, what if they attack a nuclear installation? How will the world react then?” ■