Faisalabad blast carnage
Faisalabad blast carnage. - File Photo

Days before the March 8 bomb blast in Faisalabad that killed at least 32 people and injured 125 others at a gas station located right next to the office of an intelligence agency, reliable sources in law-enforcement agencies had informed the Herald that a militant organisation, Al Tauhid Wal Jihad (ATWJ), in the central Punjab city has had revenge on its agenda since early last year.

Sources in the Punjab police had said that the group had planned to hit back after its main leader Dr Umar Kundi alias Maaz was killed in February 2010 – also in Faisalabad – in a joint raid conducted by the local police and the intelligence agencies who had come to arrest him for his alleged role in the May 2009 attack on the Lahore office of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

Investigators say Usman Ghani, one of the masterminds and main perpetrators of the Faisalabad blast, was working closely with some other members of the group. Ghani was arrested on the day of the blast while trying to escape on a bicycle about a kilometre away from the site of the bombing. A citizen, who had earlier seen him with a remote-controlled device near the site of the blast, recognised and overpowered him with the help of other local residents before handing him over to the police. During investigations, Ghani disclosed the names of some of his accomplices and investigators tell the Herald that they have arrested one Maulvi Rab Nawaz, the former prayer leader at the mosque of University of Agriculture, Faisalabad, and his son for their alleged involvement in the terrorist act.

Sources further elaborate and say that ATWJ terrorists had procured the explosives for the blast over a period of many months from markets within Faisalabad city without raising the suspicion of local police. Ghani is reported to have claimed to his interrogators that the blast was not a suicide attack. “I was present near the gas station to detonate an explosives-laden car from a distance,” he is quoted as saying. Another, but unconfirmed, version of the events suggests that ATWJ paid him 30,000 rupees to drive the car to the gas station before leaving and blowing it up. There is also evidence that at least one man was still in the explosives-packed car when it exploded. If this account is to be believed, that man was killed because Ghani pushed the button before the other attacker could leave the car.

Interestingly, the ATWJ could not employ a suicide bomber for this venture. “There is a shortage of suicide bombers,” Ghani is quoted to have said, “many ATWJ members have been killed or arrested and those who are still active do not have contact or access to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) high command to have acquired a suicide bomber for the task.”

Senior police officials in Lahore tell the Herald that Kundi’s death was the biggest blow to the group. “His death left the group scattered besides suspending links with the central leadership of TTP,” one official says. The law-enforcement agencies have also arrested several members of the group over the last year or so. Two of them, Asif Mehmood and Shoaib Cheema, have been in detention for the last many months for their alleged involvement in the 2009 bombing of the ISI office in Lahore though it was only last month that the Lahore police made their arrest known to the media.

Mehmood, a 30-something bearded chemical engineering graduate from the University of Engineering and Technology, Lahore, and Cheema, a former businessman in his mid-40s who has traveled widely across the world, spoke to the Herald at a detention centre in Lahore that their group started targeting Pakistani security agencies and installations after the military operations in the tribal areas. “When the Pakistan Army started to fight against [the militants], the war entered Pakistan,” one of them says. They claim that they had received ideological training from an Arab called Sheikh Eesa al Misri who told them that “those who were fighting against [the militants] were the enemies of Islam.” The two say that they also considered them enemies “whether they were Americans or Pakistanis.” They disclosed that they had also fought against the Americans as well as against the Pakistan Army in Afghanistan and South Waziristan after getting training in a camp run by al Misri.

Their group, subsequently, identified many sensitive locations and installation for targeting but its most spectacular hit was at the ISI’s Lahore office that killed at least 30 people, including four officials of the intelligence agency and 14 policemen. The arrested duo, while talking to the Herald, accepted the responsibility for that attack and divulged some of its disquieting details. According to them it was Kundi himself who had selected the target and Mehmood, with his training in chemical engineering, played a crucial role in putting the explosives together. Other members of the group would purchase different chemicals and other materials in small quantities from different markets in cities such as Faisalabad and Lahore to avoid suspicion, and he would assemble explosives from them. “At times, I accompanied the others when they shopped for chemicals and acids,” Mehmood says.

Unlike now, ATWJ clearly had their organisational structure working and their contacts with TTP alive and active. “Two suicide bombers were then made available [from the tribal areas] after paying a handsome amount to the TTP high command,” Cheema claims. Other ATWJ members, meanwhile, surveyed the targeted area and gathered as much information as they could about the ISI office. “For maximum damage we decided to hit in the first half of the day when most employees of the agency were on the premises,” Cheema tells the Herald.

Awaiting trial by an anti-terrorism court, the two do not show any remorse for the innocent lives lost because of their terrorist acts. “We were working only to save Islam,” Mehmood says.