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Militant cells in Karachi

June 13, 2014

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MUCH before the terrorists stormed Karachi airport late Sunday night, a debate had been going on about the level of militants’ penetration of the metropolis. On one end were proponents (such as the MQM) of the idea that a TTP takeover of Karachi was imminent. On the other end the sceptics claimed that this was little more than ethnic scaremongering. But in the aftermath of the airport assault, the debate has gained critical importance. It appears that while Karachi may not quite be on the point of falling to extremist militants, ignoring the threat further can have devastating consequences. Karachi is a melting pot of languages, cultures and ethnicities, where it is relatively easy for the potential militant to melt away into the urban sprawl, attaching himself to tribal or ethnic affiliates. Perhaps this is why in the years since 9/11, several terrorist cells have been busted in the city. Some high-profile Al Qaeda and Lashkar-i-Jhangvi militants have been apprehended from the metropolis. Hence the disturbing possibility that operatives of the outlawed TTP are lying in wait for an opportune moment to strike is not one that should be dismissed easily. Militants from the tribal areas and KP have practically disabled the ANP in Karachi. Instead of the secular Pakhtun nationalists, in many of the city’s peripheral areas with large Pakhtun populations it is the TTP that calls the shots.

Furthermore, with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan officially claiming the airport assault, a new, equally ruthless and determined player has been added to the militancy mix in Karachi. While Uzbek militants were believed to be involved in 2011’s Mehran base attack, their claim of responsibility reflects a new confidence in now publicly owning strikes. Unfortunately, although the militants have been consolidating their positions in Karachi, the security apparatus appears to have buried its head in the sand. What is worse is the blame game between the Sindh and federal governments over the airport debacle that reflects poorly on both administrations. Both Sindh and the centre are equally to blame. While Islamabad deserves to be censured for a massive intelligence failure, the Sindh government also had its eyes closed. From here on, the intelligence apparatus will need to do a much better job of keeping track of militant activities in Karachi. Despite its difficulties, this is a challenge the state has to accept. Otherwise, we will ignore the militant threat at our own peril.

Published in Dawn, June 13th, 2014