Why Pakistan Must Widen Hunt for Militant Bases

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Fayaz Aziz / Reuters

Hospital staff are helped by a soldier and police officer to move a man injured in a bomb attack in Shangla district to the Lady Reading hospital in Peshawar, Oct. 12, 2009

Just weeks after trumpeting the results of a military offensive in the Swat Valley, the Pakistan army suddenly finds itself under attack on multiple fronts. A day after an élite unit of army commandos secured the release of 39 hostages, bringing to an end a 22-hour siege of its military headquarters that left 25 people dead over the weekend, the Taliban struck again. In the fourth major attack in eight days, a suicide bomber killed 41 people in a marketplace near Swat on Monday, underscoring the militants' enduring ability to strike across the country.

As the army revealed in a briefing on Oct. 12, the Taliban threat has now spread well beyond its northwestern borderlands and grown tentacles that reach deep into the country's heartlands. Five of the 10 attackers who laid siege to Pakistan's equivalent of the Pentagon in Rawalpindi came from Punjab, Pakistan's largest and wealthiest province. It is also home to the bulk of the army. The Punjabi militants involved in the audacious assault were linked to groups that once enjoyed the military's patronage, and until five years ago, the ringleader had been among its very own ranks.

Aqeel, also known as Dr. Usman, was already wanted for earlier terrorist attacks. He acquired his medical nom de guerre due to his 16 years as a nurse in the army's medical corps. In 2004, he abandoned the army to join Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), a vicious sectarian terror group from Punjab. "He knew how the army functions," says Shaukat Qadir, a retired brigadier turned analyst. "That's why he organized this attack better than others could have done." The embarrassing breach of the heavily fortified headquarters was made possible through artful disguise, military officials said. The vehicle bore army license plates and the emblem of the General Headquarters (GHQ) on its windshield. The attackers dressed themselves in army fatigues.

All of the attackers had at some point been trained in South Waziristan, a tribal area along the Afghan border that has long been a training ground for insurgents, Major General Athar Abbas told reporters at military headquarters in Rawalpindi on Monday. A telephone intercept, "which was recorded between Taliban commander Wali-ur-Rehman talking with some other terrorist, revealed that this attack was planned in South Waziristan," he added. "Wali-ur-Rehman was asking for him to pray for the fedayeen attack on the GHQ."

The terrorists were "well-equipped with automatic weapons, IEDs, mines, grenades and suicide jackets," said Major General Abbas. After a 45-minute firefight at a checkpoint, Aqeel and his six surviving colleagues took 45 hostages, including several civilians. Taking sanctuary in a security office near the main gate, Aqeel issued a lengthy list of demands. The hostages would only be safe, he threatened, when some 100 terrorists currently in Pakistani custody were released. Other demands included an end to "American bases" inside Pakistan and that former military ruler and President, General Pervez Musharraf, be placed on trial.

It was during Musharraf's rule, analysts say, that militants from southern Punjab who were once favored as proxies by the army turned on their masters. Some of the weekend attackers, said Major General Abbas, belonged to "splinter groups" from Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) — another banned terrorist organization that emerged in 2000 as an anti-Indian insurgent group staging attacks across Kashmir's line of control. When that front simmered down, and U.S. troops arrived in Afghanistan, they discovered a new cause. "There was pressure on the group from inside," says Amir Rana, an expert on Pakistani militancy. "They thought that this was the time to fight alongside the Taliban, not confront them."

Since then, eight breakaway factions of JeM have been involved in fighting the Pakistan army, says Rana. South Waziristan has served as one base and training ground. The Punjabi groups have also appeared in the Bajaur tribal area where, after claiming victory months ago, the Pakistan air force dispatched fighter jets on Monday to strike against a creeping return of the Taliban. Two of the splinter groups were also recently involved in fighting in the Swat Valley; after being scattered in that offensive, says Rana, they are now regrouping in southern Punjab.

Major General Abbas was at pains to insist that JeM itself — which was implicated in the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament and the murder of U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl — was not directly involved. But other observers are not convinced, and say that its fugitive leader, Masood Azhar, is believed to be somewhere in Waziristan. Nor is it clear if the Pakistan army has severed its links entirely with the outlawed terrorist group, as its presence in and around the southern Punjabi city of Bahawalpur grows undisturbed. A heavy concentration of madrasahs in the area has become a breeding ground for recruits who are then taken to South Waziristan and trained as suicide bombers.

During the tense, overnight standoff at the military's headquarters over the weekend, Aqeel tried to appeal to his former army comrades. "They were trying to profess their own cause," said Major General Abbas. "They were trying to justify their own actions." In reply, hostage army officers tried to convince him that he was "on the wrong side." As dawn rose over the 100-year-old British-built army garrison, an élite unit of commandos surrounded the small room where the hostages were being held. At 6 a.m., they launched a 45-minute operation that saw fierce cross fire. Three of the hostages died, but 30 were freed. Two commandos were killed, and three others sustained critical injuries to which they later succumbed.

Aqeel had managed to shift to another part of the building, carrying a bag of explosives. The commandos followed. At 9 a.m., in an apparent attempt to commit suicide, he set off the explosives, injuring himself and five commandos. His injuries were severe but he was captured alive. The hope is that Aqeel, who was earlier suspected of being behind the March attack on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team in the heart of Lahore, may prove crucial in unearthing the elaborate network of terror cells that are suspected to be seeded throughout Punjab.

Before the attack on the Sri Lankan team, Aqeel's group had already won a fearsome reputation as al-Qaeda's foot soldiers in Pakistan and pioneered the terrorist attacks that have now become depressingly common. An offshoot of the Pakistani anti-Shi'ite Sipah-e-Sahaba militant group, LeJ gained notoriety in 1998 after attempting to assassinate then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. After al-Qaeda leadership arrived along the Afghan border, LeJ underwent a transformation, says militancy expert Rana. "They developed a nexus with foreign militants there. In many major attacks, LeJ was involved, including the killing of 11 French engineers in Karachi and the bombing of a church in Islamabad in 2002. Sectarianism remains their priority, but they also have a global jihadist agenda." Last year, the group and its al-Qaeda handlers blew up the Islamabad Marriott, killing over 53 people.

Pakistan's latest wave of terror has gruesomely underscored the need for the government to take on the Pakistani Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies in the wilds of South Waziristan. But that alone will not put a halt to the renewed campaign of violence. As long as militant groups in southern Punjab also remain undisturbed, the risk to its heartlands is likely to grow.