Pakistani Taliban Renew Attacks on Punjabi Heartland
Aug 23, 2012
After an extended pause, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) resumed attacks in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populated, prosperous, and centrally-located province. The boldest attack was a complex operation on August 16, 2012, on Pakistan Air Force Base Minhas (PAF Minhas), located in the northern Punjab city of Kamra. Two additional attacks occurred in July, one of which was a drive-by shooting that killed seven Pakistani soldiers in the central Punjab city of Wazirabad.
Pakistani counterterrorism intelligence and policing have improved in recent years at the federal level as well as in most provinces, including in Punjab. Nevertheless, a number of factors hinder the province’s fight against terrorism, including a justice system ill-equipped to handle terrorism cases, poor prison security, aid to militants from a powerful Deobandi religious network, public antipathy toward military operations, and the absence of a clear-cut anti-jihadist strategy.
The Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province remain the primary targets of domestic terrorists in Pakistan. Yet attacks in Punjab could increase during the next few months due to TTP fear of impending military operations against it in North Waziristan Agency and as Islamabad proceeds in partnering with Washington on Afghanistan. Attacks in Punjab are one of the most effective ways for the TTP to retaliate, sending a direct message to Pakistan’s leadership and citizens.
This article explains the significance of the August 16 attack on PAF Minhas as well as the difficulties in combating terrorism in Punjab Province.
A Preemptive Strike by the TTP in Punjab?
On August 16, 2012, nine militants—including six suicide attackers—launched a complex attack on PAF Minhas, located along Punjab’s border with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. The base, home to dozens of fighter jets and surveillance aircraft, was previously attacked by terrorists in 2009 when a suicide bomber blew himself up at the gate, killing eight people.
The most recent attack lasted nearly six hours, with both the Pakistani military and the TTP stating that all nine terrorists were killed. An unnamed source told Pakistan’s Express Tribune that the driver of the militants’ vehicle escaped, a point that clashes with the official government narrative. The militants were armed with hand and rocket-propelled grenades (RPG), mines, and automatic weapons. Local security personnel were aided by commandos from the Special Services Group (SSG) flown in from the Tarbela Ghazi airbase. Two Pakistani soldiers were killed, and RPG fire damaged a Saab-2000 Airborne Early Warning and Control plane. This was the second attack in a year-and-a-half that targeted Pakistani aircraft, which are difficult for the government to replace without foreign financial assistance. On May 22, 2011, for example, the TTP launched a complex attack on the PAF Mehran naval base in Karachi, destroying two P3C Orion surveillance aircraft.
The TTP’s show of strength took place on the 27th of Ramadan, which is the date Muslims believe most likely is Laylatul Qadr (The Night of Power), the holiest night in the month and the most probable night in which the Qur’an is believed to have been revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. The importance of this date in the Islamic tradition suggests that the TTP aimed to send a message to its members, sympathizers, and other Pakistanis that the execution of a spectacular attack on this day was demonstration of its “righteousness.” Additionally, the TTP likely saw the night as providing an opportunity to exploit security weaknesses. The attacks took place after midnight on a holy night when many Muslims stay awake for much or all of the night to perform extra prayers and supplication. As a result, base personnel were reportedly dispersed praying at the time of the attack.
The TTP stated that the attack was conducted to exact revenge for the killings of former TTP leader Baitullah Mehsud and former al-Qa`ida chief Usama bin Ladin. In another interview, spokesman Ihsanullah described the attack on the airbase as revenge for the aerial bombing of the tribal areas by the Pakistani air force.
Beyond revenge and symbolism, there could be broader strategic objectives behind the TTP’s attack. The resumption of attacks against the state in Punjab comes after Pakistan announced the restoration of the NATO supply route from Pakistan to Afghanistan in early July. Additionally, the summer of 2012 is effectively the last fighting season with the “surge” troops present in Afghanistan—perhaps a final opportunity for the United States and Pakistan to strike militants in North Waziristan with a “hammer and anvil” approach. The TTP is possibly retaliating against the Pakistani state for restoring cooperation with the United States and demonstrating that Islamabad will have to pay high costs in its heartland if it expands operations in the North Waziristan tribal area where TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud is believed to be based. If Pakistan defers anti-TTP military operations in North Waziristan until next year, it could allow the TTP to conserve strength during the winter. Indeed, in August, as the NATO supply route reopened, Hakimullah Mehsud reportedly ordered an increase in terrorist attacks in Punjab, focusing on its largest city, Lahore. Mehsud is alleged to have disbursed over $260,000 for attacks on a Pakistan Air Force base and other government installations in Lahore, a considerable distance away from Kamra.
Some observers point toward other TTP-affiliated jihadists as having organized the attack. The most notable suspect is Adnan Rashid, a former technician at PAF Minhas who was arrested in 2004 for alleged involvement in an assassination attempt on then-President Pervez Musharraf. Rashid was freed from prison in the city of Bannu in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province in a large, daring escape along with more than 200 other inmates. The raid focused on Rashid, who reportedly used three cell phones, got married, and fathered a child while in one of Pakistan’s notoriously lax prisons. During his incarceration, Rashid was also reportedly in contact with Dr. Aqeel, who is accused of plotting the complex attack on the Pakistan Army’s General Headquarters in 2009. In a video released shortly after his escape, Rashid is shown in the North Waziristan cities of Mir Ali and Miran Shah, near where Hakimullah Mehsud is reportedly based.
Pakistani intelligence reports suggested that attacks in the month of August were being planned, but the reports were conflicting and inconclusive. Reports preceding the PAF Minhas attack pointed to two different TTP cells based in Miran Shah, one led by Qari Aslam and the other led by Qari Yasin, and possibly even the Ilyas Kashmiri Group. According to one report, the PAF Minhas attack as well as two other smaller-scale attacks in Punjab, including an August 1 attack on a fruit stall in Lahore, were in response to the killing of militant leader Ghaffar Qaiserani by Punjab police. Qaiserani was killed in an encounter with Multan police on August 1, 2012.
Prior to the killing of Qaiserani, the TTP conducted two major attacks in Punjab in the month of July. On July 9, it executed a drive-by shooting, brazenly killing seven Pakistani soldiers who were camped in the central Punjab city of Wazirabad while on a search and rescue mission. Ironically, a rally of the Lashkar-i-Tayyiba-led Defense of Pakistan Council was close by. It is possible that the perpetrators of these killings hid among the other militants and religious party activists. Separately, on July 12, TTP terrorists stormed a building housing Pakistani police cadets and killed nine people.
The Fight for Punjab
Pakistan’s Pashtun belt bordering Afghanistan has borne the brunt of the post-9/11 insurgent and terrorist wave. Yet given the size of the province, the fight in Punjab is almost as important as the one in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.
Punjab is home to Lashkar-i-Tayyiba as well as the various Punjabi Taliban groups. The Punjab police have made some important arrests in the past year. In November 2011, the Punjab police arrested 17 suspected TTP commanders. Qari Azmat, the mastermind of many attacks in Lahore, was apprehended in July. In early August, five alleged TTP members were arrested in the southern Punjab city of Multan. Intelligence gathering and police training have improved, but Punjab-based politicians are reluctant to muster public support for the war and instead defer to and even feed into the conservative tendencies of the urban Punjab populace. In 2010, Shahbaz Sharif, the powerful chief minister of Punjab, asked the Taliban for mercy and to spare his province from violence. Sharif said, “If the Taliban are also fighting for the same cause [i.e., opposing Musharraf’s policies and foreign interference in Pakistani politics], then they should not carry out acts of terror in Punjab.”
A failing judicial and prison system emboldens militants and either results in their undeserved release from detention or allows them unwarranted access to the public. Malik Ishaq, a self-confessed culprit behind the murder of many Shi`a, was acquitted on 34 out of 44 murder counts and released on bail on the remaining 10. He once again openly calls for the murder of Shi`a and rebellion against the government in public speeches. Much like Adnan Rashid, Omar Saeed Sheikh, who was allegedly involved in a number of plots, including the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, is said to have had access to three mobile phones, six batteries, and 18 SIM cards while in prison. In 2008, he managed to call Pervez Musharraf’s personal cell phone and threaten his life.
Rather than directing their focus on threats within, many Pakistanis are pointing their fingers outward. Hamid Mir, a popular television talk show host, singled out the New York Times’ Pakistan bureau chief Declan Walsh for allegedly following the CIA’s agenda after he suggested that PAF Minhas stored some of the country’s nuclear weapons.
Popular support for counterinsurgency operations is also waning, dropping from 53% in 2009 to 32% in 2012. Only 49% of those polled in Punjab Province see the Taliban as a threat, compared to 94% in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. The decline in attacks seems to have reversed public support for the war, but rising anti-American sentiment, growing economic troubles, and overall war fatigue could also be factors.
In September 2012, Pakistan could launch military operations in North Waziristan to target the TTP before the end of the current fighting season this winter. Direct operations against the Haqqani network, based in the same tribal area, appear unlikely. The Pakistani military has restricted counterinsurgency operations to militants that primarily attack the Pakistani state—with reasonable effectiveness. In Malakand Division and much of FATA, the TTP no longer serves as the de-facto government. Moreover, the multiple intelligence reports received about a potential threat to PAF Minhas demonstrate that Pakistani intelligence networks are active and working. The inability of the base attackers to penetrate deep into the base, destroy, and kill large numbers of personnel point toward an improvement in security of high-profile targets—a marked contrast to the military’s failure to secure the PNS Mehran naval base in May 2011.
The TTP umbrella organization has splintered into smaller factions that often rival one another. Funding for the organization has reportedly dried up, possibly resulting in less spectacular attacks. Still, the TTP has shown great resilience. It continues to operate in both North and South Waziristan as well as Dir, Chitral, and adjacent safe havens in Afghanistan—and it often reminds Punjab that it still exists through violence.
Pakistan faces a long-term challenge from militancy and terrorism, which is not restricted to the border regions with Afghanistan. Militancy is bolstered by religious, social, and political networks in Punjab—most notably, the spread of Deobandism and conservative nationalist politics. Rather than looking to face the threat within, the urban Punjab populace is directing its support toward anti-war politicians like Imran Khan, who call for a quick, negotiated settlement with Pakistani jihadists. Based on polling data, Punjab’s urban middle class is largely averting their eyes from the threat, hoping that terrorism and radicalism in Pakistan were caused by the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and will end when U.S. forces depart the region.
Arif Rafiq is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute and president of Vizier Consulting, LLC.
 “Taliban Carry Out Brazen Attack on Pakistan Base,” Associated Press, August 16, 2012.
 “Gunmen Kill Seven in Attack on Pakistan Military Camp,” Reuters, July 9, 2012.
 U.S.-Pakistan relations have improved since early July following Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s apology for the accidental killing of two dozen Pakistani soldiers in a U.S. raid on November 26, 2011. The Pakistan-based NATO supply route has reopened and high-level meetings between U.S. and Pakistani officials have resumed.
 “Taliban Claim Attack on Minhas Base; Nine Militants Killed,” Dawn, August 16, 2012.
 Irfan Ghauri, “Lingering Questions: Is Something Being Hidden about the Militants’ Approach?” Express Tribune, August 17, 2012.
 Shakeel Anjum, “Nine Militants Killed in Raid on Kamra Airbase,” The News International, August 17, 2012.
 Hanif Khalid, “Damaged Awacs Aircraft Repairable,” The News International, August 17, 2012.
 Faraz Khan, “PNS Mehran: Official Naval Complaint at Odds with Ministry,” Express Tribune, May 25, 2011.
 Shaheryar Popalzai and Nabil Ansari, “Tehreek-i-Taliban Claim ‘Revenge’ Attack on Kamra Airbase,” Express Tribune, August 16, 2012.
 “Targeting Punjab: TTP Chief Wants Increase in Attacks,” Express Tribune, August 1, 2012.
 “Taliban’s Attack on PAF Base Kamra: Pity the Nation Whose Security is in the Hands of Dangerous Duffers,” Let Us Build Pakistan, August 17, 2012.
 Fida Adeel et al., “Prison Break: Taliban Attack Bannu Jail, Nearly 400 Inmates Escape,” Express Tribune, April 15, 2012.
 Syed Adnan Ali Shah Bukhari, “Pakistan’s New Most Wanted: A Short Sketch of Adnan Rasheed,” Militant Leadership Monitor 3:5 (2012); “Reforming Pakistan’s Prison System,” International Crisis Group, October 12, 2011.
 Asad Kharal, “Pre-Warned: Attack was Expected,” Express Tribune, August 17, 2012.
 “Alleged Terrorist Killed in DG Khan,” The News International, August 2, 2012.
 “Gunmen Attack Army Camp, Kill Seven,” Agence France-Presse, July 9, 2012.
 Arif Rafiq, “The Emergence of the Difa-e-Pakistan Islamist Coalition,” CTC Sentinel 5:3 (2012).
 “Taliban Claim Lahore Attack Killing Nine Personnel,” Dawn, July 12, 2012.
 The “Punjabi Taliban” is a generic term that refers to Tehrik-i-Taliban Punjab as well as splinter groups emerging from the anti-Shi`a Lashkar-i-Jhangvi as well as the once Kashmir-focused Jaysh-i-Muhammad and Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami.
 “Punjab Police Arrest 17 Suspected Militants from Various Cities,” Express Tribune, November 17, 2011.
 “‘Mastermind’ of Several Bomb Attacks in Lahore Arrested,” Press Trust of India, July 8, 2012.
 “5 Alleged TTP Men Arrested in Multan,” Express Tribune, August 4, 2012.
 Zeeshan Haider, “Punjab Minister Asks for Mercy from Taliban, Earns Woman’s Scorn,” Reuters, March 17, 2010.
 Owais Raza, “Sectarian Clashes: LeJ Chief Malik Ishaq Placed Under House Arrest,” Express Tribune, September 22, 2011.
 “Plot to Kill Musharraf Unearthed,” Geo TV, December 18, 2008.
 “Capital Talk,” Geo TV, August 16, 2012. Hamid Mir said, “Now if any Pakistani journalist expressed an opinion that was according to the line of the ISI or the army, they would say that he is an ISI agent. But if Declan Walsh is following Leon Panetta’s line, then we cannot say that he is a CIA agent, because if we were to do so, it would infringe upon his journalistic freedom.” This translation was made by the author.
 “Pakistani Public Opinion Ever More Critical of U.S.,” Pew Research Center, June 27, 2012.
 “Pakistan Military Plans to Open New Front: Panetta,” Associated Press, August 14, 2012.
 Kathy Gannon, “Expert: Pakistan Taliban are ‘Weak and Divided,’” Associated Press, December 4, 2011.
 “Pakistani Public Opinion Ever More Critical of U.S.”