PESHAWAR: On a foggy morning on Jan 20, four militants scaled the rear wall of Bacha Khan University Campus in Charsadda before going on a shooting spree, killing 18 students and a faculty member.
Two days later, an apex committee ordered an inquiry into the attack. The terms of reference (ToRs) framed to fix responsibility, however, did not include the role of law enforcement agencies in possibly averting and responding to the unfolding tragedy at the campus.
Dawn carried out its own investigations; visited the campus, undertook background checks, spoke to multiple sources within the security apparatus, interviewed witnesses and examined the Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) footage in an effort to reconstruct and sequence the events leading to and the aftermath of the attack.
The sources spoke to Dawn on background basis due to the sensitivity of the issue. Dawn also approached the police and solicited its version on the attack.
The three-member committee, headed by the Peshawar Commissioner, was tasked to “investigate the flaw and negligence in security arrangements, fix responsibility and submit report within five days”, thus effectively shifting the onus of security on the campus administration, while avoiding the events that unfolded on the day of the carnage.
There is just one passing reference to this aspect in a supplementary statement to the committee filed by the BKU campus administration director, Dr Shakeel Ahmad. “In his supplementary statement, he stated that on the day of the occurrence, police were informed via SOS (Save Our Soul) call, who reached after one hour but refused to go ahead on the plea that it was the responsibility of the Pak Army,” the inquiry committee report said.
“The security guards of the university engaged the terrorists till the arrival of Pak Army. Despite meagre weapons, the security guards fought bravely,” Dr Shakeel, who is overseeing security of the campus, said in his supplementary statement. No attention was paid to the statement and no further action was taken to broaden the scope of the inquiry to see if the statement was correct and indeed, if that was the case, could a timely action helped save more lives.
“It was not in our ToRs,” a senior official, who was part of the inquiry committee, said.
A probe body member says role of law enforcement agencies was not part of the terms of reference
In a written response to Dawn’s query, the police denied the accusation and asserted that not only did they reach the campus well in time, they immediately launched an assault and killed two of the four attackers. This claim was, however, disputed by multiple law enforcement and security sources.
Here is how it all began.
The CCTV footage shows that Camera 9 caught the first glimpse of the militants walking through the thick fog at 9.13am, with one of them looking at his watch.
At 9.17 am, Camera 8 shows militants firing, heading toward the annex. Network support engineer, Muhammad Faisal, who oversaw the IT lab that housed the CCTV monitoring system, made the first call to the Army Support Cell, after hearing heavy gunfire inside the campus. This is presumed to be the first round of gunfire.
Unlike the inquiry committee report that suggests that the IT lab that was found locked, it was from here that two female students and four others were rescued. This has been corroborated by two other individuals.
At roughly 9.22am, militants were seen heading towards the Administration Block. The police reached outside the campus at around 9.42 am. 102 Brigade of the Pakistan Army rushed to the spot from Peshawar and reached the campus between 10.48am and 10.50am.
The encounter with the militants commenced immediately after the military personnel entered the campus, together with another batch of soldiers arriving from Mardan.
By all accounts, including those of the campus administration, students, police and other law enforcement officials, the security guards with whatever weaponry they had, fought bravely. Had they not engaged the militants and not provided enough time to the security forces, the casualty figure would have been much higher.
It is the events unfolding between the arrival of the first police party, the arrival of the military and the beginning of the Close Quarter Combat (CQC) that remain in dispute.
According to the police version, all those stranded in the administration block were rescued and evacuated by the police and terrorists were not allowed to enter the academic block where 300 to 400 students were present.
“From this point, terrorists retreated towards the hostel and the police party followed them where during the exchange of fire, two of the terrorists were killed by the police party,” the police said in the written response to Dawn.
The police reiterated the same position at a follow-up law and order meeting chaired by Chief Minister Pervez Khattak on January 21, the day after the attack.
“The terrorists were initially engaged by the police and the army joined the close quarter combat immediately,” the police added in its written response. As proof, they say, one head-constable was wounded when militants lobbed a hand grenade at him. He is being treated at Al Shifa for multiple wounds.
These claims are, however, rebutted by the faculty, students and even security sources.
After killing the caretaker at the annex, the militants headed towards the administration block, still firing. The administration director, along with students and a guard, made way to the roof of the academic block and took shelter inside a small post. The guard, who had one magazine, fired a burst of bullets to stop the militants in the staircase. There is no evidence to suggest the presence of 300 to 400 students in the block as the police version claims.
In fact, the administration director, students and guard present on the rooftop claim they begged the police just below the security guard room on the ground floor to toss up some weapons to defend themselves and it was after a lot of shouting back and forth that a 9 MM pistol was tossed up.
They also claim that they had asked the police to throw the volleyball net, about thirty meters away, to help climb down to the ground floor but to no avail. One of the students, in desperation, jumped from the roof and broke his limbs, they say. The police deny the claim.
Multiple sources say that while the police helped with the cordon, it was the military that carried out the CQC and killed the four militants in the boys’ hostel.
Because of the thick fog and extremely poor visibility, it was initially difficult to ascertain which direction the militants had gone. “It was when students volunteered to wear bulletproof jackets, surrounded by soldiers, that they were able to pinpoint the location of the militants,” these sources said.
The militants, on entering the boys’ hostel, forced open some rooms and carried out a bloody carnage before trying to make it to the rooftop to take positions — an attempt foiled by a military helicopter that provided the ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) to the troops that had taken positions on overhead water tanks and those chasing them from the ground floor.
It was there in the roughly 45 minutes of CQC that three of the militants were killed on the staircase of the first floor, while a fourth was shot dead at its foot-end.
The three killed on the first floor had their bullet riddled-faces charred, apparently hit by a rocket propelled grenade. There were bullet holes everywhere, indicating firing from troops closing in from the ground floor.
When asked how the four militants met their fate within a few feet of each other, if their claim of having shot and killed two of them before the military could join the CQC was true, a senior police official maintained that the bodies must have been brought together by the Bomb Disposal Squad to look for possible suicide vests or other explosives.
Dawn has in its possession two letters, written by the administration director, one addressed to the Provincial Police Chief on Jan 19, a day before the attack, and one written on Dec 30, addressed to the District Police Officer, requesting for help with regard to security measures.
The police, in its written reply to Dawn, acknowledged the letters but insisted that local police had responded to the requests and deputed a police mobile that had gone to receive the varsity’s vice-chancellor at the interchange at the time of the attack.
Published in Dawn, February 24th, 2016