Karachi Airport Attack – Eye Opener for Policy Makers

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Karachi Airport, ASF, Policy Maker, TTP, Foreign Fighters,

Pakistan’s largest commercial airfacility, the Jinnah International Airport came under siege last Sunday night, June 8th, when around 10 heavily armed attackers infiltrated the Jinnah terminal and opened indiscriminate fire on the unsuspecting Airport Security Force (ASF) staff on duty.  This attack was yet another breach in our security apparatus, especially in regards to the chain of information-forwarding system which foretells and forewarns of any such attack.

The attack began at 11:15 pm when groups of militants, armed with assault rifles, grenades and RPG’s, entered the premises of the old terminal used for cargo services and Hajj flights from two gates, first pack entered the Fokker gate and the second, the Cargo gate. The militants were also seen using mobile phones and had knapsacks of food, water and medicine from which it was evident they had come prepared for a long siege. The ASF countered the initial attack brilliantly and fought back valiantly until they were reinforced by Rangers and the Police Force some 20 minutes later. An armed forces commando unit was also called in immediately and arrived at the airport around 11:45 pm. The whole operation lasted less than 6 hours and resulted in 38 casualties including the 10 terrorists and 8 people who were trapped inside a private company’s cargo office and were found dead 28 hours after the rescue operation had started; around two dozen were injured.

What was the terrorist’s target?

Both the Fokker gate and Cargo gate grants access to the cargo area in the Airport’s west. One group of the terrorists after their initial squabble with the ASF staff headed for the tarmac where four planes were docked, flanking them on all sides. The second group tried to enter the PIA hanger. Due to heavy resistance by the combined ASF, Rangers, Military forces, the militants had lost nerve at this point and started blowing themselves off. Although Google images showed the burning fuselage of one plane on the tarmac on their site, no reports of complete destruction of any plane have been verified. News reports of some damage to four aircrafts have been confirmed though. Another news report said the militants were found to be in possession of flying manuals but that has not been verified either. However it seems definite that the terrorist’s objective was to target the aircrafts and capture a particular place to make the people hostage.

The motive of the attack:

The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan accepted the responsibility for the attack initially. In their message on their Facebook page they said “The biggest reason for attacking the Karachi airport is because it acts as an air logistics center for supplying goods to the American and NATO forces in Afghanistan”. This attack was carried out “to avenge the death of Hakimullah Mehsood” stated TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid to the press. Some news reports after the DG Rangers press release, suggested Indian involvement in the attack due to the weapons recovered from the militants. The attack could also be linked to BLA clean-up and Ranger operations in Karachi.

No one in their sane minds should have second thoughts over the reality that all terrorist activities are mercenary in nature and behind the scene string are always held by someone else. TTP’s claims presenting it as a religious fanatic group has many effects on the Pakistani society; it helps to divide our people into pro-religious and anti-religious mindsets, which is evident with the division of wise men over talks and no-talks. It also creates a notion in the people that perhaps the government has been wrong in trying to persecute them and see their revenge in the Robinhood perspective. But those who use them may have deeper strategic goals, like to prove Pakistan as an unsafe place for its civil population; which in turn leads to the idea that Pakistan cannot be relied upon to safeguard its nuclear assets; and adds evidence to the idea of Pakistan being a failed state. Creating this ideological hue in the global image of Pakistan favors only those who may have the gory lust for global or regional hegemony.

Was the attack an intelligence failure?

The Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said in his briefing to the press on Thursday, that the Sindh Government had been specifically warned of threats to the Karachi Old Airport. The warning had been issued by the National Crises Management Cell of the Federal Government, not only once but six times, mentioning that terrorists were aware of the lack of security at the airport gates. Our analysts and media experts’ favorite pastime is that any breach in security or attack on important installations in the country is blamed upon the Armed Forces and the Intelligence Agencies. If a warning had been specifically issued as in this case, was it not then the responsibility of the local government to take action? In any case, the airports are under the care of the civilian authorities, the military forming only the third tier of the security protocol.

Was the operation successful?

The Karachi Airport incident was not a first one of its kind in the country. There have been attacks on Pakistan’s security and strategic installations previously, most important of which were the raids on the Pakistan Navy Airbase PNS Mehran, May 2011, attack on Air Force Base Kamra, August 2012 and Bacha Khan International airport Peshawar, December 2012.

Before one terms an operation a failure or success, the fact that in any such attack, the advantage or element of surprise stays with the terrorists, must be considered, which is the most deadly element for counter-terrorism. Also one must understand the science and mechanics involved when doing battle in a confined or built-up area. We can draw comparisons between this incident and those happening in the outside world, as in the initial response time to preempt such terrorist attacks, the number of casualties and the time taken to complete an operation.

This incident has close resemblance with the Mumbai attack, 2008 incident and the terrorist attack at Westgate Mall Nairobi, Kenya in the sense that terrorists had come prepared for a long siege and had formed groups or pairs. Both the Mumbai and Nairobi Mall incidents lasted approximately three days and resulted in heavy casualties. In neighboring Afghanistan the combined military might of the US and NATO, despite having their unmanned drones, modern weaponry and sophisticated counter-terror protocols have suffered heavy damages and humiliation during the  incidences of the Kabul Attack, Bagram Airbase and Khost Airbase Attacks. Another example is the siege of Beslan where the Russian forces had to kill a number of hostages along with the militants.

Two factions of TTP claiming responsibility for the attack:

Just as the police nominated the leadership of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan in their FIR of the attack on the old Karachi airport, another group The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) claimed responsibility for the attack. Uzbek militants are affiliated with the TTP and have been hiding in North and South Waziristan for years and both groups have the same handlers. Eye witnesses of the Airport Attack described some of the militants as fair skinned and possibly of Uzbek descent. However, to create confusion amongst the general public of Pakistan who are already divided between the pro-Talks and anti-Talks narrative, first the TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid issued one statement claiming responsibility for the attack and calling it revenge for Hakimullah Mehsood’s death and then another saying it was a combined effort of the TTP and IMU.  The Uzbek group in their statement said the attack was revenge for Pakistani airstrikes in Mir Ali NWA that targeted areas populated by Uzbeks and other foreign militants.

Media’s role:

Media again played a very irresponsible role in this whole episode, going for sensationalism which is part and parcel of their mad quest for ratings. Some news channels went as far as reporting from inside the terminal, not only putting their reporting staff’s lives in danger but putting the whole operation in jeopardy by showing the images on their respective news channels, thereby, alerting the miscreants of the security staff’s procedures and relative positions. Apart from this some people “claimed” to be reporting from the “allegedly hijacked” commercial airplanes sitting on the tarmac of the main terminal, by rapidly updating their Facebook statuses and tweeting about the situation.

The cold-storage deaths incidence:

On the eve of June 9th, the next day after the operation, hype was created by the media regarding some people trapped inside the cargo terminal’s cold storage. 7 employees of a private company had apparently hid inside a cold storage or an adjacent building, to take refuge from the terrorist’s activities. Some media houses aired interviews of relatives of the people trapped inside, claiming they had received calls from their loved ones as late as the afternoon of 9th June, saying the security forces had left them there after declaring the area clear. They also said the authorities would not let them inside the building to rescue their loved ones.

The part of the cold-storage or the adjacent building where the unfortunate employees took refuge from the gunfire had apparently no door opening mechanism from inside. Also, it housed some chemicals and a huge consignment of mobile phones. Witnesses reported that apparently the batteries from the cell-phones had starting exploding first, setting the stored chemicals on fire and generating great amounts of heat. Forensic reports show that the recovered bodies were charred beyond recognition which could not possibly happen in three-four hours. Thus the deaths according to forensic reports had already occurred before 5 am, before the area was declared clear.

Some people tried to drag the military in this episode also. Firstly, the headcount of the staff was the responsibility of the individual private companies and then the HR department of the Civil Aviation Authority, as the parent organization. Nevertheless, it was again a failure of the civil administration as they had no means of breaking down the doors and gaining access inside the building. A thorough investigation of this tragedy is required. Data from cell phone companies can place the calls with their exact timings.

Conclusion

It is quite evident from the terrorist’s activities that they are not relenting in their stance despite discord amongst their ranks and dividing into different splinter groups. One cannot say whether the government’s dialogue with the terrorists was successful at some level or not, although certain pro-Talks parties consider this a feather in their caps. The splintering might have lessened the terrorist’s strategic might but it has also created uncertainty which may result into more chaos and terrorism in the country. The time is ripe for the nation to have a unified stance against terrorism. Not only this, but the political parties and their supporters must also refrain from taking part in blame games. When there is confusion amongst the masses, the real enemies of the state who are forever present and hidden amongst our ranks do not get exposed. They ride people’s sentiments to take advantage of the situation.

The much coveted dialogue with the TTP has already taken place. The groups or factions who have decided to put down their weapons and those who still want to fight the State have been differentiated. General Raheel Sharif, in his recent meeting with the Prime Minister stressed upon the Government to give the go-ahead for an all out military operation against the militants. Further deliberation may result in more incidences like this and loss of precious lives. The Government should tackle the issue of terrorism on priority basis; power crises, metro-busses, privatization of units and furthering of business deals with India can wait.

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is a Telecommunications Engineer and is part of the editorial team at PKKH. She can be reached at nadia.pkkh@gmail.com and tweets @NadiaWadud

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