"They were dressed in black, all black," says Inam Mansoor, 33, an ambulance driver who entered a military compound in the Pakistani city of Lahore to recover people wounded in a new wave of militant attacks that killed 37 people on Thursday. "They were carrying guns and backpacks. They had commando-style scarves wrapped around their heads." But if such attacks have lately become an almost daily occurrence as Pakistan's army prepares a new offensive against the Taliban in Waziristan, what was remarkable in Lahore was that three of the attackers apparently were women. Police commandos who spoke to TIME at the scene made the claim, which was later confirmed by Interior Minister Rehman Malik.
The extremist organizations behind the violence are hardly champions of women's equality, but there have been reports in recent months of groups of young women some of them survivors of 2007's showdown between the army and militant supporters at Islamabad's Red Mosque traveling to Dera Ghazi Khan in southern Punjab to cement ties with jihadist groups there. The involvement of women fighters may be peculiar to Punjab-based militant groups. The Taliban forces in the northwest don't tolerate women walking out their homes unaccompanied by male relatives or being educated, much less trained as fighters. But the Red Mosque siege in Islamabad saw women publicly assert their support for the militants.
The Taliban-aligned Amjad Farooqi group claimed responsibility for the Lahore attacks, according to Malik. The little-known group is named after a Punjabi militant linked with al-Qaeda and also took responsibility for last weekend's siege of army headquarters in Rawalpindi.
The Lahore attack marks the fifth dramatic assault by the Pakistani Taliban in just 10 days, and it involved teams of well-trained fighters storming law-enforcement centers in Lahore, the capital of the key Punjab province and also Pakistan's cultural center, in a sophisticated attack that bore some similarities to last November's Mumbai massacre in India.
Soon after 9 a.m., groups of fighters scaled the walls of an élite police-commando training facility in the city's Badian neighborhood, carrying weapons and backpacks. Other groups of attackers were entering two other target locations at the same time. In a brief assault on a police-training academy in Manawan, nine police officers and four militants were killed. The same site was targeted using similar methods on March 30, leading to an eight-hour siege. This time, the police killed one of the gunmen, while three others were killed after detonating their suicide vests to evade capture.
Also attacked were the offices of the Federal Investigation Agency (Pakistan's equivalent of the FBI), where 21 people had been killed in a March 2008 truck bombing. Four government employees and a bystander were killed there on Thursday in a 90-minute siege that ended with the death of two attackers.
The vulnerability of the law-enforcement facilities to Thursday's attacks has yet again highlighted Pakistan's poor counterterrorism capabilities. While authorities were able to mount a swift and eventually successful response and insist that preventing attacks by fighters ready to die is nearly impossible the militants' ability to penetrate such high-profile targets in major cities will inspire little confidence. The latest attack was the fourth major one in Lahore in the past seven months, including the March 3 attack on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team and the May 27 bombing of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency's regional headquarters.
When the firing at the commando-training facility in Badian began, Mohammad Hayat, 30, was cleaving meat at his rickety butcher's stall a hundred yards away. "The attackers came from the back side [of the compound]," he recalls. "I quickly ran and took safety over there," he says, gesturing toward a row of small row shops that were shuttered and abandoned as security forces built up a response. "The police arrived about 10 minutes later, then the army came as well. There was shooting and then explosions. It went on for three hours at least."
When the militants entered the compound, says Lieut. General Shafqat Ahmed, the commanding military officer at the scene, two were killed within moments. The other three climbed atop a roof and began shooting at the police commandos and hurling grenades. "There was a very brave police commando who began firing back straight away," says a police commando, who declined to be named. The police sniper struck down one of the attackers, while the last one blew himself up. The dried fruits found in the militants' backpacks suggested they had prepared for a protracted siege, possibly involving hostages as in Mumbai.
The attack reduced the bustling city to an eerie, spacious silence. Government buildings and shops closed down. In the heart of the city, the provincial legislature had been festooned with vast posters commemorating the sacrifice of the army officers who lost their lives repelling last weekend's attack on military headquarters in Rawalpindi. Now the city has its own martyrs.
"It was not entirely unexpected," laments Salima Hashmi, an artist, professor of art, and lifelong Lahori. "We can no longer say that it's just the northwest part of Pakistan [under attack]. This is now also about Punjab, one surmises. A second chapter in the development of militancy in Pakistan has opened." More forcefully than ever before, the past 10 days have raised urgency about the threat that Pakistan's heartlands face from within. "This is not something that we can blame on other forces," adds Hashmi. "It has been fostered by our internal politics and strategy."
The link between militants in Waziristan and Punjab means the battle against extremism is being waged not only near the Afghan border, but also near the Indian one. Shortly before the attacks in Lahore, a suicide car bomb exploded near a police station in the northwestern city of Kohat, killing three police officers and eight civilians. Shortly after the Lahore violence was over, another car bomb exploded in the northwestern border city of Peshawar, killing a 6-year-old boy and wounded nine others, mainly women and children. Security is being beefed up in Karachi, Pakistan's financial capital and biggest city and the only one to have so far remained immune from the latest wave of terrorist attacks.
With the militants answering the planned army offensive on their northwestern strongholds by sending suicide squads to target the government's soft underbelly in the cities, Pakistanis everywhere are grimly bracing for more violence and pondering their country's prospects. "I have scrapped the lecture I was going to give tomorrow," says art professor Hashmi. "Instead, I am going to just present images to my students. One set will show the Pakistan that these terrorists want. The other will show the type of Pakistan that has been. I'll ask, 'What was Pakistan?' and 'What is Pakistan?' "