The Pakistani Taliban dramatically escalated their wave of terror on Thursday, mounting five deadly gun and bomb attacks that killed a total 37 people and rattling the country in an apparent attempt to stave off an impending military offensive targeting its base in the mountainous wilds of South Waziristan. In the fifth day of bloodshed in the past 10 days, teams of well-trained gunmen trained their weapons on three high-profile law-enforcement buildings in Lahore, the cultural capital, in a sophisticated attack that chillingly resembled last November's assault on Mumbai.
Soon after 9am, groups of gunmen spilled over the walls of an elite police commando training facility in the Badian neighborhood in southern Lahore. As they emerged, clasping sophisticated weapons and carrying backpacks, two other groups of attackers did the same in two other locations. For the first time, they revisited targets they had assaulted before. In a brief attack on a police-training academy in Manawan, on the outskirts of the city, nine police officers and four militants were killed in the fighting. 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 killed detonated their suicide vests to evade capture.
Terror arrived in a different form at the offices of the Federal Investigation Agency (Pakistan's equivalent of the FBI), the same spot where a truck laden with a heavy payload of explosives slammed into the building, badly damaging its structure and killing 21 people in March 2008. Four government employees and a bystander were killed in the hour and half long siege that ended with the death of two attackers.
The vulnerability of the trainees, commandos, and investigators to the attacks has yet again underscored Pakistan's poor counterterrorism apparatus. While authorities mounted a swift and eventually successful response, the militants' ability to penetrate such high-profile targets in major cities will inspire little confidence. It was the fourth time that major terrorist attacks have wounded Lahore, including a 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 apart at his rickety butcher's stall a hundred yards away. "The attackers came the side," he recalls. "I quickly ran and took safety over there." Hayat gestures toward the row of small shops that were shuttered and abandoned as security forces built up a response. "The police arrived about ten minutes later, then the army came as well. There was shooting and then explosions. It went on for three hours at least."
Outside the 8-foot-tall perimeter walls, the army's Lahore corps had deployed an imposing presence. Two khaki-painted tanks rumbled in the shade of towering green trees. Over a dozen large army trucks were parked in a row as the soldiers they carried patrolled the streets, replete in combat gear and bristling with weaponry. Paramilitary troops and police commandos had also been deployed to scene.
"They were dressed in black, all black," says Inam Mansoor, 33, an ambulance driver who entered the compound to recover the wounded. "They were carrying guns and backpacks. The had commando-style scarves wrapped around their heads." Surprisingly, Mansoor says that the attackers included three women, citing the police commandos he spoke to inside the compound. Police commandos present elsewhere at the scene said the same, though the claims later appeared to be inaccurate. Still, in recent months there have been reports of groups of militant young women some once belonging to Islamabad's Lal Masjid traveling to Dera Ghazi Khan in southern Punjab and deepening ties with groups there.
The Taliban-linked Amjad Farooqi group has claimed responsibility for Thursday's attacks, Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters in Lahore. The relatively little-known group is named after a Punjabi terrorist who developed links with al-Qaeda through two militant groups from southern Punjab. The same group claimed responsibility for last weekend's siege of the military headquarters in Rawalpindi.
When the militants entered the compound, said Lt. Gen. 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," said a police commando, declining to be named. The sniping commando struck one of the attackers down. The last attacker blew himself up. The attackers appeared to be prepared for the long haul, carrying dried fruit with them, and intent on taking hostages.
Lahore, a usually bustling sprawl known as the "city of living hearts," was reduced to an eerie silence. Its routinely choked thoroughfares, often a cacophony of rickshaw engines and car horns, suddenly seemed spacious. 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 in the military headquarters attack in Rawalpindi. Now the city had its own martyrs.
"It was not entirely unexpected," laments Salima Hashmi, an artist, professor of art, and life long Lahori. "We can no longer say that it's just the northwest part of Pakistan. 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 last ten 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 northwest-Punjab militant nexus became brutally illumined on Thursday as the violence swung from near the Afghan border, to the edges of the Indian one, and back again. Before the attacks in Lahore, a suicide car bomb exploded near a police station in the northwest's Kohat city, killing three police officers and eight civilians. And when the Lahore violence was over, another car bomb exploded in Peshawar, killing a six-year-old boy and wounded nine others, mainly women and children. Security is also being beefed up in Karachi, Pakistan's financial capital and biggest city and the only to have so far remained immune from terrorism.
But the violence is not likely to fade away anytime soon, and those Pakistanis who cherished a peaceful lull in recent months are now searching for answers about the current state of their country and what lies ahead for it. "I have scrapped the lecture I was going to give tomorrow," says 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?'"