Last week’s suicide bombing in Islamabad came as a wake-up call for the authorities in major urban centres to pull up their socks in the wake of resurgence of terrorism, which has now trickled down from the restive Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces to the federal capital itself.
The banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack, supposedly as revenge for the killing of their leader Omar Khalid Khorasani, in Afghanistan in August.
But even before the Dec 23 bombing, there were signs militant networks were still present; they may have suffered operationally in the wake of military operations around a decade ago, but their cells were never busted completely.
This is evident from developments like the October encounter with two Islamic State-linked militants, previously affiliated with the TTP, in Karachi, as well as extortion calls in the city over the past few months.
Sporadic instances of ‘extortion calls’, encounters with IS, TTP men indicate their networks still active despite lull in major attacks
Now that the TTP’s ceasefire with the government has formally ended, it is feared that these networks and sleeper cells have been activated, and their main targets appear to be law enforcement agencies. In these circumstances, more than the military, it is civil institutions that must be well-equipped to deal with the menace.
This may prove to be a major challenge, as work on the National Action Plan (NAP) against terrorism appears to have been put on the backburner. The question that arises now is: do civil forces have the capacity and equipment to deal with terrorism?
Senior CTD Karachi official Raja Umer Khattab told Dawn: “I think the TTP can play a role at some level in Karachi, though not at the level they were at in 2014-15.”
This time, he said, the group might change its strategy and facilitate people from outside Karachi to carry out terrorist activities rather than utilising their own resources.
Referring to signs that militants have re-emerged in the city and that they have help, he revealed that last month, some people received extortion calls. However, he said, no one has paid anything so far.
A security official, who wished not to be named, told Dawn that Karachi has been a ‘source of income’ for militant groups through criminal activities like extortion.
Regarding CTD’s ability to counter the TTP challenge, Mr Khattab suggested a revamp of the force.
“CTD personnel need to be trained, equipped with weapons and modern instruments and motivated,” he observed. He regretted that when terrorist attacks reduced, the focus on strengthening the CTD was to some extent eclipsed.
He also suggested monitoring of suspects added to the Fourth Schedule and detection of their possible sources of funding.
Meanwhile, Karachi police chief Additional Inspector General of Police Javed Alam Odho told Dawn that Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah had recently approved special packages for strengthening, expanding and revamping the CTD and Special Branch to counter militancy.
He claimed to be cognisant of the threat posed by the TTP in the Sindh capital, but was confident police were well-prepared to neutralise it. He also claimed the TTP’s presence has not been noticed on a ‘big scale’ in Karachi, though there may be sleeper cells that were being monitored.
In Punjab, law enforcers in Rawalpindi and Lahore appear to have finally woken up to the lack of implementation on NAP in the wake of the Islamabad suicide attack. This is evident from the fact that the security alert has been raised from high to “red”, especially in Attock district bordering KP.
Rawalpindi Regional Police Officer Nasir Mehmood Satti told Dawn he had held a meeting of district police chiefs of Attock, Jhelum and Chakwal and the Rawalpindi city police officer after the Bannu incident to review their preparedness.
The officials acknowledged the need to work on seven points of the NAP, including strengthening security around important installations, churches, educational institutions and police establishments.
Wall-chalking, hate material, use of loudspeakers, temporary residence, and action under the Maintenance of Public Order needed to be implemented strictly.
He denied the impression that law enforcement agencies had ‘relaxed’ after military operations against terrorists.
“We are well-prepared to combat such activities in light of the recent terrorist attacks in KP. Police have been keeping an eye on suspicious people, but free movement within the country cannot be stopped,” he told Dawn.
But in Lahore, a senior officer on condition of anonymity told Dawn no measures were being taken to implement NAP to counter terrorism owing to political instability in the province.
He said the district police and CTD were not taking any measures against terrorism after a decrease in attacks over the years, and put the onus on the government to address the resurgence of terrorism.
CTD Additional IGP Imran Mehmood also acknowledged that the NAP had lost focus after a considerable decrease in terrorism, but blamed the district police for not paying attention to it. They would have to focus on its implementation, he remarked.
However, he told Dawn, they were all geared up to counter any terrorism incident. No one could prevent terrorism, he maintained, but added major losses could be prevented. He further said counter-terrorism activities were under way and they were unearthing sleeper cells and arresting financiers of militants.
On Thursday, Punjab Inspector General Police (IGP) Amir Zulfiqar Khan visited the CTD headquarters where Mr Mehmood gave a briefing about their operations carried out this year.
He explained 12,429 intelligence-based operations were conducted during the year, 2,251 suspected militants arrested and 64.36kg explosives and a huge cache of arms and ammunition recovered.
The IGP said the fundamental role of CTD was eliminating terrorism, sectarianism and extremism from the province. He directed to accelerate IBOs in view of the rising wave of terrorism.
On the other hand, the CTD has tracked the footprints of TTP and IS in Punjab that emerged after recent arrests of several militants from various districts. The presence of TTP affiliates in the districts bordering Punjab has also raised alarm bells.
Also, 80 people placed on the Fourth Schedule of the Anti-Terrorism Act 1997 and 270 militants have been found missing from their residences.
Therefore, the authorities have decided to conduct search and sweep operations in various districts of Punjab, especially Rawalpindi, Attock, Chakwal, Jhelum and Lahore.
Being in close proximity to KP, Attock district could especially be affected by the law and order situation in the province with a spillover effect on Rawalpindi/Islamabad, revealed a report of the Punjab Home Department shared with all divisional police chiefs of the province.
It, therefore, suggested intensifying IBOs in the districts of Punjab located close to KP and Balochistan.
The report mentioned the Islamabad suicide attack and the assassination attempt on KP Assembly Deputy Speaker Mahmood Jan in Peshawar on the same day as signs terrorism was once again rearing its head after years of calm, and that it was likely to affect Punjab soon.
There are also indications that extremist activities in Attock district and its adjoining areas could fan sectarianism in the area.
The home department report said threats from hostile foreign intelligence agencies, TTP, former Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, IS and Jamaatul Ahrar had already been circulated and needed to be thoroughly analysed for pre-emptive action.
The department also suggested careful deployment of police after thorough consideration keeping in view they were the primary targets, and that measures for their security be beefed up.
Published in Dawn, December 30th, 2022