Suicide bombings: a shifting pattern?
By Zaffar Abbas; Dawn, March 5, 2008
THE double suicide attack at the Naval War College in Lahore —within a week of a twin bomb attack in Mingora that first killed a police officer, then another fifty people at his funeral the same evening — suggests a more organised, sophisticated and deadly shift in terror tactics.
In between the two incidents was also a ferocious attack on a tribal jirga in Darra Adamkhel, which too suggests that the religious militants within the tribal society are not concerned about the old Pakhtun tradition of not touching such gatherings.
However, it is the Lahore incident which indicates that the new breed of Pakistani suicide bombers, or their trainers and mentors, are perhaps taking a cue from the emerging patterns of such attacks in strife-torn countries like Iraq.
Preliminary investigations show the first bomber rammed his vehicle at the outer gate of the War College, with the intention to clear the way. Within no time a second bomber slipped through and blew himself up in the parking area. It was sheer luck that the bombers could not go beyond a certain point. Otherwise, the casualties could have been much higher.
In comparison, Mingora was a soft target and resulted in heavy casualties. But here, too, attacking a funeral procession of a victim indicated a new trend in terror attacks.
Suicide bombing is a relatively new phenomenon in Pakistan, which has picked up in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq. With the pro-Taliban militants already on a warpath, Pakistan’s support for the so-called war against terrorism clearly made the security forces a prime target. With the passage of time, some of these groups have changed style and tactics to cause maximum damage.
Earlier, during a number of terror incidents militants often used a secondary, and more deadly, explosive device with the aim to kill those gathered at the site for relief work. This tactic too was imported by local militants either by studying the pattern or through their own linkages with militant groups operating elsewhere. And the latest incidents also suggest a kind of copy-cat action by local of militant operating in other countries.
Although there have been several such incidents, a planned double suicide attack was first noticed in Iraq in early 2004 during an assault on a coalition base in Hilla near Baghdad. The first vehicle that approached the outer gate was fired at by the security guards, killing its driver before he could detonate the device. Within no time another vehicle appeared into the first truck, blowing both of them up and killing eight soldiers and injuring forty four others.
The base commander later admitted that the first vehicle was meant to clear the way for the second bomber. The following years have seen a number of other double suicide attacks, both against the occupation forces and against Iraqis.
The recent surge in such planned, and somewhat diversified, attacks from Swat to Rawalpindi and Darra Adam Khel to Lahore have shaken the entire country. And in some ways they have not only exposed the limitations of the country’s intelligence network in identifying and busting the groups involved in recruitment and training of such bombers, but also of the entire security establishment in its ability to protect its own assets, not to talk of providing protection to members of the public.
It’s too early to say if these attacks are the work of one particular militant group, or different networks that were allied for a ‘common cause’, or various groups operating out of different areas were pursuing their own separate agendas.
LACK OF RESOLVE: But what is clear is that the way the Pakistani authorities have often capitulated under pressure during the ongoing anti-militant operation has only encouraged those involved in running and promoting what have come to be known as the jihad factories of the tribal areas.
Security officials privately confirm that almost all the 24 people set free last year in exchange for the safe return of over two hundred Pakistan army troops taken hostage by Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan were directly or indirectly linked to various incidents of suicide bombings in the country. It’s also true the demand to release another six more deadly terror suspects was turned down, but officials admit that handing back such a large number of trained militants to Mehsud may have indirectly encouraged those masterminding such terror campaigns. So far what the intelligence agencies have been able to gather is that among the leading players in this terror campaign is one Qari Hussain, who is believed to be a close associate of Mehsud.
He is regarded by the security agencies as the person who may have recruited and indoctrinated the largest number of people to carry out suicide attacks in the country. His last training centre was believed to be in Kotkai, South Waziristan, before it was over-run by the Pakistan army. But the Qari fled to another safe haven in the Mehsud territory.
Indeed, security officials have a point when they say it is almost impossible to prevent a suicide attack, particularly at security check posts, like the one at the Naval War College, or at more open public places.
Then, such incidents are not a problem in itself. According to analysts, suicide attacks are mostly the symptom of a bigger malaise. But what may perhaps help improve the situation could come in the form of improved intelligence about the so-called jihad factories, and elimination of the people involved in the recruitment and indoctrination of unemployed youngsters in the country’s north-western region.
But now when the Pakistan army has decided to completely withdraw from civilian political affairs, should we expect a more vigorous effort to tackle the country’s biggest internal security challenge?