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As terror spreads

November 14, 2010

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THURSDAY'S attack on the CID (Criminal Investigation Department) office in Karachi will be remembered both for its horror and audacity. The toll of the blast was horrible: it claimed a number of lives, including that of a nine-year-old girl, and injured dozens among Karachi's anonymous masses who live and work in the adjoining slum areas.

Its motive, on the other hand, was audacious: Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LJ) militants were apparently exacting revenge for the arrest of six of their ranks earlier in the week. One can assume the coordinated strikes were meant as a warning for the local administration — an attempt to dictate the terms of engagement between law-enforcers and lawbreakers. This audacity should be cause for significant concern.

Although Thursday's attack is seen as the first of its kind against a state target in Karachi, it was by no means unexpected. The perception in recent years that the commercial capital had somehow been spared the violence that has ravaged the northern and western parts of the country was, after all, a phantasm.

Militants of all shapes, sizes, and sects have maintained a presence in the city since the early 1990s. And Karachi's complicity in Pakistan's national struggle against terrorism has been obvious for the better part of this decade, from Daniel Pearl's murder and the arrest of Ramzi bin al Shibh in 2002 to the coordination of the Mumbai attacks and the recruitment of Faisal Shahzad in recent years. It was only a matter of time before the simmer came to a boil.

Despite being the target of this attack, Karachi's law-enforcers have already been pilloried for unpreparedness and poor coordination. And the critiques are justified: high-profile LJ militants should not have been kept in a facility without maximum security. But these lapses should not be misinterpreted, since Karachi's security officials are aware of the threat posed by local militants.

Indeed, they have made a concerted effort in this regard. In May 2009, CID officials arrested LJ member Qari Anwar and his gang in Model Colony. Late last year, 450 illegal immigrants, primarily Afghan and Uzbek nationals, were arrested for ties to militant groups. This year, dozens of Taliban militants have also been apprehended: most famously, Afghan Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Ghani Barader; most recently, Pakistan Taliban commander Qari Yousuf from Orangi Town earlier this month. The simple fact that the CID was targeted by militants this week indicates that they're doing something right.

But something is going terribly wrong, too. Primarily, Karachi's law-enforcers have allowed their approach to militancy to be swayed by an international narrative about Pakistan's security. According to that narrative, the Pakistani state and its people are under attack by the Taliban, and that attack comes in the form of suicide bombings. In the absence of these elements, Karachiites have been fooled into thinking they're safe, and those tasked with protecting the city have become complacent.

In innumerable news stories, as well as in a CID report from May this year, high-ranking police officials have emphasised that Karachi is a logistical and organisational hub for militancy, a place where militants from various groups come to rest, regroup and raise funds, rather than launch full-scale attacks. The few Taliban present in the city, they say, are 'fixers' doing what amounts to running errands for their organisation.

Law-enforcers also repeat that militant groups in Karachi are involved in criminal activities — bank robberies, kidnappings for ransom, arms smuggling, drug trafficking — the proceeds of which are used to facilitate the so-called jihad being fought along faraway frontlines in Fata. The message, in other words, has been that Karachi's militants are not coherently organised, and their activities and associations occur in small, palatable doses (as if criminality, albeit a lesser evil than suicide attacks, can ever be sanctioned).

By issuing reports and articulating militant dynamics, law-enforcers gave (and probably internalised) the impression of having the situation mapped, monitored and managed. But where there is smoke, there is bound to be fire — or firing and bomb blasts, as was the case at the CID office on Thursday. Any lingering complacency and illusion of control probably crumbled to the ground along with the CID building on Thursday.

Where do we go from here? CID SSP Omar Shahid has stated that there are up to 300 trained LJ fighters operating in Karachi. In previous news reports, CID officials have estimated that there are up to 5,000 people who have received some degree of militant training present in the city.

These militants reside in the densest parts of the city, where police surveillance is almost impossible. They work in groups of two or three people who associate briefly for the purposes of an attack or criminal activity and then disperse into the concrete jungle that is Karachi. Their activities are facilitated by many of the city's 3,000 seminaries, which provide access to militant networks, ideological reaffirmation and financial resources. And it is becoming increasingly clear that they are willing to bring the fight to Karachi.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik loves to say that destabilising Karachi is akin to destabilising Pakistan. In the wake of this summer's floods, a stable and secure Karachi is essential to jumpstart the economy. Unfortunately, while militants have been plotting how to attack Karachi, law-enforcers have been listing reasons why militants probably won't attack their ultimate safe haven within Pakistan.

Now, more than ever, Karachi's security officials must articulate plans for countering the militant menace that has been proliferating for two decades. The stand-off between the military and militants at Islamabad's Lal Masjid in 2007 taught the country that no counter-terrorism activity is possible without a well-conceived plan.

In their many reports and media interviews, Karachi's law-enforcers have not suggested how they might tackle the terror threat within the city's intricate and infinite terrain (into which some LJ attackers may have escaped on Thursday). It is high time they addressed that most vital question.

The writer is the Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington, DC.

huma.yusuf@gmail.com