One of the most brazen and audacious militant attacks in Pakistan’s history came to an end in the early hours of this morning when commandos freed dozens of hostages who had been held for hours in the army’s own headquarters.
The remarkable yet embarrassing 22-hour drama was concluded when troops moved in sometime before dawn to end the stand-off and release around 40 hostages who had been held overnight. Three hostages, two commandos and four militants were killed in the rescue but army officials said that one of the gunmen, named as Aqeel with an alias of Dr Usman and said to be the group’s ringleader, had been captured alive.
The hostage drama, which followed an assault by an estimated nine militants dressed in army fatigues and armed with automatic weapons on the army headquarters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, came as troops prepare to launch a major assault on the Taliban and al-Qa’ida stronghold of South Waziristan, and it had international reverberations.
At a press conference in London today, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the British Foreign Secretary David Miliband voiced their concern that such insurgent attacks presented a direct challenge “to the authority of the state.” "The insurgencies that Pakistan faces are a mortal threat to that country," Mr Miliband said.
Officials had warned to expect attacks from militants in response to the operation and it even emerged the authorities had received intelligence that militants in the country’s Punjab province were planning to disguise themselves as soldiers and attack the headquarters.
As such, the assault on Saturday, in which the militants poured from a white van bearing army licence plates and shot their way into the compound, was both an embarrassment for the army and a reminder of the militants’ ability to penetrate high value targets. Last week, a suicide bomber slipped past security to kill five people at the offices of the UN World Food Programme in Islamabad while another bomber killed more than 50 people in Peshawar.
Early suspicions over this incident are being cast on Taliban-linked militants from Punjab province. A security official in Punjab said the captured gunman was believed to be a member of the notorious Lashkar-e-Jhangvi group. That group is one of several similarly-minded outfits that have increasingly forged close links with the Pakistan Taliban leadership, sheltering in the mountains of Waziristan.
The sophisticated methods deployed in Rawalpindi resembled those on display at the start and end of March in two spectacular attacks in and near the city of Lahore. On March 3, international cricket in Pakistan was dealt a grave blow when well-trained marksmen ambushed the visiting Sri Lankan team’s bus, killing eight policemen.
Just weeks later, gunmen disguised in police uniform laid siege to a police academy, before being eventually overwhelmed by paramilitary troops and police commandos. On both occasions, the handlers may have been traced to the wilds of Waziristan, but the attackers came from Punjab.
Over recent years, militants groups once nurtured by the Pakistan army to lead an anti-Indian insurgency in Kashmir and vicious sectarian groups have drawn closer to the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qa’ida. Splinter groups of Jaish-e-Mohammad were recently involved in fighting against the Pakistan army in the northwest’s Swat Valley. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, considered al-Qa-ida’s franchise in Pakistan, is believed to have been involved in attacks on the Islamabad Marriott and the Sri Lankan cricket team.
Their decades of training make them a potent threat to Pakistan not just in Waziristan where many are based, but also in the heartlands. This is home to the bulk of industry and the population. There are fears that in southern Punjab in particular, where there is the heaviest concentration of madrassas, recruitment continues apace. But it remains to be seen how Pakistan will face up to a challenge emerging from not mountains along the Afghan border, but the very areas from where most of the army is drawn.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik said an offensive against militant targets in South Waziristan offensive was now inevitable. “We are going to come heavy on you,” he warned the militants.
Yet as the series of recent attacks has shown, claims that military operations and US drone strikes have broken the back of the militant resistance appear utterly misplaced. Indeed, with each incident it appears the militants are learning how to better carry out their attacks, changing and updating their tactics. While the militants killed a total of 11 people in this incident in the heart of the military establishment, the death toll could have been very much worse.
In turn, it appears the training and tactics of Pakistani security forces - in stark comparison to those of Sri Lanka - remain sorely inadequate. Rawalpindi, just a few miles from Islamabad, for instance, is filled with security checkpoints and police roadblocks designed to halt such attackers on route. If it is confirmed the militants vehicle was bearing military plates, it would mean army security may have been more seriously compromised.