Understanding the threat

Published June 15, 2014
The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

AT least two things are quite clear about the lethal terrorist assault that took place on the Karachi airport’s cargo terminal. First, more than one terrorist group was behind this attack. Second, as initial assessments indicate, the terrorists achieved much of what they wanted to by launching this attack.

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan have separately claimed responsibility for the attack. But the possibility of the involvement of more groups than these two cannot be ruled out. The TTP spokesperson had hinted that its local affiliates in Karachi had helped orchestrate the attack.

Terrorists usually set out multilayer operational objectives for an attack which might vary from a minimum to maximum level of achievement. In high-profile attacks, the terrorists’ first priority is to engage the security forces for the maximum length of time to expose the security lapses. This is what happened in the Nairobi shopping mall attack. In such attacks, terrorists take people hostage or capture one or more strategic location in the field of attack and keep striking at their prime target.

The attack on Karachi airport was similar. Though the security forces ended this crisis relatively quickly, the terrorists successfully exposed the vulnerabilities of the security shields, the weak and divided political response, and the confused public opinion.


Al Qaeda is still ignored in threat assessments in Pakistan.


Above all, the incident once again reminded us that the state yet has to fill all existing capacity gaps in the security institutions including those related to threat assessments and early warnings.

Al Qaeda is still ignored in threat assessments in Pakistan and the capabilities of sectarian organisations are underestimated. The gaps in threat assessments hamper countering responses. On the threat matrix, the TTP is considered a major actor with its capacities ranging from conceiving the plan of the attack to its implementation.

There is a perception that the TTP carries out such attacks through its sleeper cells in different cities. The sleeper cells are loosely organised groups of terrorists which blend in with different communities easily and act on their own when they find a suitable environment and the time. Of late, Al Qaeda formed such cells at places where it did not have a sufficient support base or likeminded terrorist groups.

In Pakistan, Al Qaeda or the TTP have no need to form sleeper cells as they have extensive reach across the country through their affiliates and likeminded violent and non-violent groups.

Most high-profile attacks are managed by hit squads. The sleeper cells are only capable of launching low- to medium-scale attacks. These low- and medium-scale operations could cause greater damage and lead to more human deaths such as in a suicide attack or indiscriminate firing. But coordinated large-scale terrorist attacks cause more psychological and moral damage to nations.

Small terrorist groups do not become one organisation because they have different operational specialties, areas of influence and tactical approaches. For example, different Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LJ) factions, especially those concentrated in Karachi and Balochistan, are diversifying their attack tactics.

Traditionally, they have had expertise in targeted killings and preparing and planting IEDs. But increasingly they are tending towards suicide attacks. In suicide attacks, too, they have used different kinds of IEDs. Their capabilities have made them a dangerous force and an important strategic asset for Al Qaeda and the TTP. This tactical transformation in LJ ranks started when the alliance of Qari Hussain Ahmed and Qari Zafar (LJ Karachi faction) emerged some years ago.

The TTP also has expertise in suicide attacks. But its different factions specialise in ambushes and guerrilla-style attacks. They apply this technique in armed clashes with the military or in hit-and-run attacks. These groups can launch small attacks in their areas. But as the TTP holds organisational legitimacy and supremacy over these militant groups, it gives the group the power to decide when and where these groups will launch a big attack.

Different TTP factions across the country especially in Karachi are involved in criminal activities to generate funds. In this context, the TTP with the help of affiliated groups can manipulate its human and logistical resources for launching massive terrorist attacks.

The IMU and other Central Asian terrorists are a lethal force, and are part of the hit squads of the TTP and Al Qaeda with the capabilities to hold nerves, and sustain and control long terrorist attacks. They have showed these capabilities many times in the past as in the Mehran and Kamra terrorist attacks.

The current Punjabi Taliban factions are also considered good as handlers and in creating spaces for hideouts and providing logistics. But in Karachi’s context, Jundullah and the Dr Arshad group have these capabilities with local knowledge as well.

Al Qaeda’s competitive edge in terrorism expertise influenced the Taliban and other terrorist groups in the region. Al Qaeda’s support in the form of improved capabilities and techniques for striking their targets was a virtual lifeline for them. Typically, the influence has impacted smaller groups who had been struggling to survive or had material deficiencies and required external help to survive.

Al Qaeda has been more than willing to help through both ideological and operational support. The major terrorist attacks are an opportunity for smaller groups to learn sophisticated terrorist techniques.

In this context, the sketch of a major terrorist attack in Pakistan may read something like this: the TTP chooses the time and place to launch the attack. It has key assistance from Al Qaeda, which can facilitate in planning and training. The IMU and foreign militants provide the hit squads. Sectarian terrorist groups back up the fighters in the form of suicide bombers. TTP and Al Qaeda affiliates such as Jundullah provide the logistics and intelligence.

Without breaking this operational nexus, preventing big guerrilla-style terrorist operations is an uphill task. Breaking the nexus requires better understanding and vigilance. These are areas which the state cannot afford to ignore.

The writer is a security analyst.

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