June issue 2002
City of Fear
“Stay at a distance from us; we are more afraid of human beings than anything else,” said a guard at the main gate of the French consulate in Karachi, backing away in alarm when an unfamiliar local approached him for some information. The man was allowed to make his inquiries only after another guard had thoroughly frisked him. The suicide bomb explosion in the city on May 8 which killed at least 11 French nationals and two Pakistanis has clearly rattled foreigners as well as locals associated with diplomatic missions. Although security was beefed up when the US launched its military campaign against Afghanistan, extra measures have been put into place at various consulates in Karachi. Their premises have been completely cordoned off, and several are manned by only skeleton staff.
The US, UK, Germany and several other countries have not only evacuated non-essential staff from their missions, but have issued fresh warnings to their citizens to refrain from visiting Pakistan. Japan has placed Karachi on ‘level 5 — red alert’ in terms of security.
The suicide bomb attack has shaken the entire administration to its very foundations because officials believe they are facing a threat which they do not have sufficient infrastructure, expertise or training to combat. In a series of raids across the country, the police arrested at least 100 militants, mostly belonging to the banned militant organisations, but they have yet to determine the exact motive behind the attack.
The blast came after two other well-planned attacks on westerners in Pakistan. First Daniel Pearl, a US journalist, was kidnapped and murdered; then five people, including a US diplomat’s wife and daughter, were killed in a suicide bombing at an Islamabad church in April.
When the bus explosion took place, US officials were the first to arrive on the scene, at least fifteen to twenty minutes ahead of the French consulate personnel. “When we arrived, the Americans had already collected some of the material evidence they required for carrying out an investigation, including parts of the car and bus wreckage, and human remains, all of which they took away with them,” related an official of the French mission in Karachi.
The engineers and technicians of the French state-owned shipbuilding company, Direction des Construction Navales (DCN), were working with the Pakistan navy on a major submarine project at the Pakistan navy dockyard in Karachi. Employees of the company had been in Pakistan since last year, but work on the project was suspended in the wake of the September 11 events. On December 5, 2001, at least 23 French engineers and 18 technicians resumed their work.
Although there were sufficient intelligence reports to suggest that religious militants may target foreigners in the country, Pakistan navy officials had taken these reports lightly because they had presumed that citizens of the US and UK, rather than any other western country, would be targetted. “It was over-confidence on the officials’ part to underestimate the threat posed by religious militants,” says a source.
According to reports, French nationals have been on the Islamic militants’ hit list at least since the early ’90s. “France derives its importance as the second country in Europe, after the UK, to possess nuclear weapons — a strike against their nationals makes for big news,” contends a source. He says that a series of incidents in the ’90s reinforced the perception that France was hostile to Muslim movements and this created antagonism among militants towards the French.
The French government was a major coalition partner of the US in the 1990 Gulf war. A few years later in 1994, Air France flight 8969 with 170 passengers on board was hijacked in Algiers on Christmas Eve and commandeered to Marseilles, where the four hijackers, who were seeking to replace the government of Algeria with an Islamic fundamentalist regime, wanted the aircraft refuelled. French authorities, however, had received reports that the hijackers planned to crash the plane either into the Eiffel Tower or elsewhere in Paris. Acting on this information, French commandos stormed the aircraft and shot dead all four hijackers.
In March 1996, when seven French Christian monks were killed in Algeria by members of the extremist Algerian organisation, Armed Islamic Group, followed by the murder of a French bishop of Oran in August the same year, the government of France urged its citizens, including approximately 300 monks and nuns, to leave Algeria immediately. Subsequently, the French government helped its Algerian counterpart organise an anti-terrorist force especially trained to fight Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group.
France is also playing a significant role in the ongoing US-led war against terrorism, having committed to the operation at least 500 soldiers who are presently deployed inside Afghanistan to assist the Karzai government in restoring peace to the country.
There is at least one concrete example of the religious militants’ antipathy towards French citizens. When Sheikh Omar, the main suspect in the Daniel Pearl case, was sent to India in 1994 on a mission to kidnap foreigners, he was told that his first choice was to be American nationals, followed by British and then French.
However, given the nature of the project the French officials were working on, investigators in Pakistan were initially examining the possibility of foreign involvement in the bombing incident in Karachi. After preliminary findings were completed, this possibility was ruled out, especially after it was established that it was a suicide attack. Says an official, “A hired mercenary would never undertake a suicide mission; it can only be carried out by someone totally committed to his cause.” The involvement of Islamic militants began to seem increasingly likely at this point. Members of these groups have a history of carrying out such missions in the Middle East as well as within Indian-held Kashmir.
Lending further credence to this theory is an incident a couple of months ago, when members of an outlawed militant group tried to launch a missile attack on the Karachi Sheraton hotel, which hosts a substantial number of foreign guests. Fortunately, the two men who were assigned the task were amateurs and botched the operation. The missile not only missed its target, landing instead in the grounds of a nearby college and causing some damage to the building, but also left the men with burn injuries that prevented them from fleeing the scene, and resulting in their arrest by the police.
Some time earlier, militants had also attempted a missile attack on the Midway Hotel near Karachi airport, where members of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) were lodged. The bid was unsuccessful; the rockets could not be fired because the batteries in the launcher were too weak.
The explosion that ripped apart the bus carrying the French engineers last month was caused when a red 1973 Toyota Corolla number J-6560, with a bomb weighing at least three kilograms placed in its engine, rammed into the vehicle. Initial investigations have revealed that the explosive used in the bombing was derived from urea, a fertiliser commonly used by farmers. Experts from Karachi’s bomb disposal squad maintain that manufacturing a deadly weapon from urea requires expertise of a kind not yet seen in Pakistan. However, according to them, similar explosives were employed in the bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York several years ago. “This seems to indicate that elements conversant with such technology may have entered the country from Afghanistan or elsewhere. There is an obvious Al-Qaeda signature in these attacks,” says a source privy to the investigation. Experts believe that Al-Qaeda militants alone could be cognisant of such modern methods of destruction.
As to why the militants chose to carry out a suicide attack rather than employ another method, a senior police offical contends that the intention was to create widespread terror as well as challenge the authorities. “If they had instead used gunmen to fire upon the occupants of the bus, not only would it not have had as much impact, but they would have needed at least three to four people for the task. Given the security arrangements provided by the navy for the French officials, such a modus operandi stood less chance of success and also carried the risk of the men being captured alive and exposing their network.”
Sources also said that French forensic experts, who carried out the autopsy on the remains of the suspected suicide bomber at the Police Surgeon Laboratory in Karachi, attempted a reconstruction of his face. “The upper portion of the bomber’s face upto half his nose had been destroyed, while at least one of his middle fingers was intact,” reveals a source present at the autopsy. “The French forensic experts had a sketch with them of an Uzbek national wearing a cap and sporting a small beard. To their surprise, when the reconstruction was complete, what was left of the suicide bomber’s face bore a striking similarity to the sketch they were holding.” The French investigators also reconstructed one of the suicide bomber’s fingers to take his fingerprints, besides extracting bomb fragments from his remains and taking photographs of the reconstructed face. Further material evidence was taken back to France by them for further investigations.
Meanwhile, there is apparently great consternation among investigators over a finger discovered among the human remains collected from the scene because it turned out that this did not belong to the suicide bomber. Whether it belonged to one of the victims, or whether there was another suicide bomber in the red Corolla, is a question investigators are trying to figure out.
Although the Uzbek national’s involvement in the attack has not yet been confirmed, experts do not rule out the presence in Pakistan of militants from Central Asian countries. These militants are known to have links with Al-Qaeda. While the Taliban were in power, allegations were levelled by Central Asian countries, particularly Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, that Pakistan and Afghanistan were fomenting Islamic extremism in their countries and that their nationals, in collusion with foreign religious extremists, were committing crimes against national security. Many Islamic militants from Central Asian countries presently on the run are believed to have been trained in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime. Some Afghan-trained militants have been apprehended and punished. On June 28, 1999 the Supreme Court of Uzbekistan handed down severe sentences to 22 people involved in terrorist bomb attacks that rocked Tashkent on February 16, 1998, killing 16 and injuring over 100. Six of the accused were sentenced to death. They were found guilty of committing various heinous crimes that dated back to 1992, including the savage murders of a family of seven in Andizhan and a family of five in Namangan. “We cannot discard the possibility that Central Asian militants who are on the run along with Al-Qaeda activists may have been used in the bombing incident,” says a senior police official.
Security experts contend there is a strong likelihood of more attacks against foreigners. “We have enough intelligence reports to believe that dozens of foreign militants presently hiding in the thickly populated city of Karachi as guests of activists belonging to outlawed religious parties may well commit terrorist acts,” says a senior investigator.
According to officials, following the closure of their principal nursery in Afghanistan by the US bombing raids, the militants have become desperate, and are consequently twice as dangerous. In order to vent their fury against the west, they are straining at the bit to carry out terrorist attacks against foreign nationals in Pakistan. “Given that the general public in Pakistan was against the government’s alliance with the international community in its war against terrorism in Afghanistan, it is believed that these militants will not try to intentionally harm ordinary Pakistanis, but instead target foreigners,” contends a senior official, adding that the militants will not lose any sleep over the death of some locals in such attacks.
According to investigators, with hundreds of youth belonging to the outlawed religious groups sitting idle, often in hiding, Pakistan may be sitting on a powder keg. “These men — misguided missiles I call them — are motivated, trained and committed, and while on the run, have no contact with their leadership. It would be easy for any international terrorist organisation to recruit these misguided youth to further their own agenda and create manifold problems for the country’s security,” says a police official. Judging from the various acts of terrorism that have been committed in the country recently, he believes that recruitment has already begun.
Meanwhile, if the government fails to restore the confidence of the world community by curbing the growth of the militants and cleansing the country of this new breed of lawlessness, the prospects for Pakistan appear grim.