On Tuesday, media outlets reported that Beitullah Mehsud, the head of the Tehreek-e-Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack on the Manawan police academy in Punjab province, which killed at least 13 people, including at least eight recruits and instructors, and wounded more than 100. Mehsud reportedly told Reuters by telephone, “Yes, we have carried out this attack,” asserting that it was “in retaliation for the continued drone strikes by the U.S. in collaboration with Pakistan on our people.” According to BBC News, the TTP leader also claimed responsibility for two other recent deadly attacks – a suicide attack on a security convoy in Bannu on Monday and the attack on the Islamabad police station on March 25. He noted these attacks would continue “until the Pakistan government stops supporting the Americans.” Other media agencies reported the militant head also threatened to attack Washington, warning, “Very soon we will take revenge from America, not in Afghanistan but in Washington, which will amaze the entire world.”
Mehsud’s announcement seem to adhere to Interior Minister Rehman Malik‘s statements yesterday, when he said the perpetrators of the Manawan police academy attack had “rented an apartment in Lahore but came from Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas in the west.” According to GEO News, Malik noted the assailants had planned the attack in South Waziristan, and that one of the captured gunmen was an Afghan national. However, prior to Mehsud’s announcement today, the NY Times had reported, “It seemed just as likely that the attacks had been perpetrated by Punjabi militant groups, like Lashkar-e-Toiba, which was blamed for the attacks last year in Mumbai, India, or Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a sectarian group that recruits in southern Punjab but in recent years moved to the tribal areas to train alongside Al Qaeda.” The LeT was also suspected in a hauntingly similar attack this month on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. Monday’s attack on the police academy was the second major attack in Punjab in a month. Both attacks aimed to highlight the powerlessness of the government and its security forces, although yesterday’s incident was “resolved” by paramilitary troops, who struck back quickly, surrounding the police academy and fiercely attacking the militants. The government called the resolution of the eight-hour siege a “relative success.”
After following the news yesterday and today, what ultimately disturbed me was not that the TTP claimed responsibility for the attack, but that there were so many potential perpetrators. Beitullah Mehsud’s announcement reminded us of how many groups are operating in Pakistan’s periphery, and how easily they can coordinate with one another. Although they may be separate organizations, the line between them has become increasingly blurred. In February 2009, the Long War Journal noted that there have been “numerous reports of joint operations between the Taliban, Al Qaeda, the Haqqani Network, Hizb-i-Islami, Lashkar-e-Toiba, Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami, and other terror groups.” And, although the Lashkar-e-Toiba [LeT] has historically had a more localized agenda [fighting in Kashmir], analysts after the Mumbai attacks noted the organization has evolved to become a greater, more overarching threat, one that has bought into the AQ vision. The Tehreek-e-Taliban meanwhile is a loose alliance of about 13 Islamist militant groups based near the Afghan border, with reported links to the Afghan Taliban. According to Reuters, “While some of the groups are fighting for implementation of a puritanical Taliban-like order, others are involved in criminal activities such as smuggling and kidnapping.” Mehsud is Pakistan’s most-wanted militant, and the U.S. has publicized a $5 million award for his arrest, [see CHUP’s past post on him].
What is frightening is that these groups are no longer confined to Pakistan’s tribal areas; in fact, that has been the reality for some time now. Their operations are bleeding into our country, they are threatening our citizens, and they aim to destabilize our state further. The recent political turmoil in Pakistan, [which may have eased [temporarily] today with the restoration of Shahbaz Sharif as Chief Minister of Punjab] only further exacerbated the power vacuum in the nation – ultimately making us more vulnerable to such attacks. By targeting relatively safe cities like Lahore, these organizations aim to entrench the perception that nowhere in Pakistan is safe. By targeting our police forces [besides the Manawan attack, there was also the Islamabad police station bombing and last week’s attack on a mosque near a tribal police checkpoint], they are not only highlighting the weaknesses in our security structure, but are intimidating members of these forces. The NY Times quoted one angry young recruit yesterday, who told the news agency, “I’m not joining the police…I love my life. No one wants to be here anymore. We’re taking off our uniforms and going home.”
Although it was an improvement that Pakistan’s elite forces were able to swoop in and prevail yesterday, [considering that during the Lahore attack, the assailants got away], the real victory will come when these incidents are not just quelled but actually prevented. Let’s hope that with one political crisis averted, that can now happen.