June issue 2004

By | News & Politics | Published 20 years ago

Exactly who was behind the assassination attempt on one of the country’s top three generals tipped to take over as army chief, in case Musharraf doffs his uniform?

On June 9, Lieutenant Gen. Ahsan Saleem Hayat, Corps Commander Karachi, and his convoy, comprising a car and two other vehicles carrying guards, came under heavy fire in Karachi as they approached Clifton Bridge on their way to the army headquarters.

At least 11 people, including seven soldiers of the Pakistan army, were killed and 12 others wounded in the ambush, in an area only recently declared “a very high security zone” by the Sindh police chief. The gunfight was followed by a bomb blast.

Although no militant group claimed responsibility for the attack on the corps commander, most political commentators believe it was perpetrated by militants opposed to the ongoing operation in Wana. Nek Mohammed, the 27-year-old, warrior from South-Waziristan agency (killed subsequently in a missile attack), reportedly claimed responsibility. In an interview with the Pushto-language service of BBC Radio, he threatened: “Wait and see what happens in other big cities in the next few days.”

Two days after the attack, Pakistani security agencies busted a newly-launched group called Jundullah, or ‘Army of God,’ in Karachi, and claimed that the group was involved in the assassination attempt.

Had the police actually suceeded in nabbing the real culprits, or were they looking for scapegoats following pressure from the higher-ups to produce the team of assassins?

Apparently, the police, on a recce mission following the assassination attempt, discovered a fertiliser bag lying in a corner of the main Clifton Bridge, containing a grey-coloured shopping bag. It contained a chemical time device, a detonator, two battery cells and a mobile phone connected to a high-intensity bomb. The mobile helped track down the culprits. “The militants must have made frantic calls to this cell-phone in order to detonate the bomb,” says a police official, “but it didn’t work due to the electronic jamming device installed in the corps commander’s vehicle.”

“The police found out that over 150 calls were made to this cell-phone from various cell and ground phones,” says a source. Some of these calls were allegedly made from Wana. Officials also raided a few houses in the vicinity of the abandoned vehicle — Defence Phase II, where the Toyata Hi-Ace that had been stolen in the morning from Gulshan-e-Iqbal was dumped — and arrested a host of suspects.

The interrogation of militants arrested in various raids across the city reveals that members of Jundullah had trained in the tribal areas and were constantly in touch with Nek Mohammed. According to the investigators, the group consists of 15 to 20 members, all of whom hail from Karachi. “Most of them are between 20 and 30 years old,” says an investigator.

“Soon after the fall of the Taliban government, these youth decided to wage a war against the US, and went to the tribal areas to train,” says one such source. Most of them returned to Karachi after the Pakistan army launched operations against the foreign elements in the tribal areas. “The group was constantly in touch with Nek Mohammed, who sent them the finances needed to carry out similar attacks in Karachi to create unstable conditions in the country,” he says. Officials believe the group was also responsible for the twin bomb blasts near the US consul general’s residence on May 26, which killed one person and injured 33 others. In addition, Jundullah’s name has been cited in the literature and CDs propagating Al-Qaeda ideology over the last few months. Members of the group were often seen discreetly distributing these CDs and pamphlets, free of charge, at various mosques in Karachi.

This is the first time that the group has been associated with a terrorist attack. “We had never heard of this cell before. It comes as a total surprise to us,” says Syed Kamal Shah, chief of the Sindh police. Terrorism experts conjecture that the group may have links with a similar militant organisation, also called Jundullah, busted in Egypt recently. Police have, so far, arrested nine members of the group, including its head, while at least 10 of them are still at large. Adnan, alias Nomi, said to be the son of a police official, is amongst those arrested.

Atta-ur-Rehman, who has been identified as the group’s leader, holds a Masters degree in Statistics from Karachi University. He is believed to have told interrogators that the group was targeting westerners, foreign missions, the army and senior police officers involved in the US war on terrorism. “You have sold your pride and honour to please the Americans, and we will take revenge on you and your masters,” he is believed to have said. An investigator adds that the group was acting in retaliation against the government’s campaign to eradicate Al-Qaeda-linked fighters from its northwest border regions.

Rehman is believed to have told interrogators that their mission was to kill the army corps commander and also that they expected to die during the attack. “We are not worried about our lives,” Rehman told the interrogators. Investigators have learnt that the group had also planned to kill senior government officials, politicians and other important personalities, whom they considered enemies of Islam. The police have obtained the group’s hit-list. “The scary thing is that the group has done lot of homework, including identifying the car numbers of their targets and the places they normally frequent, as well as their timings and routes,” says an investigator.

Interrogations also revealed that Jundullah’s subsequent mission was to assassinate the Governor of Sindh, Dr Ishrat-ul-Ibad. “The group had decided to first assassinate a Karachi-based MNA belonging to the MQM, and then kill the Sindh Governor at his funeral,” says a police official privy to the investigations.

Investigators have also arrested junior level officials of the Pakistan army who are believed to be linked to the militant group and who allegedly took part in the assassination attempt on Karachi’s corps commander. “We don’t know the exact number of these officials from the army. We have arrested several junior-level officials and are still at the sifting stage,” says a source. Suspicions over the involvement of army personnel were raised after investigators saw an army signature in the ambush attack. “It was a typical ambush that is generally taught to army personnel during training,” says a source. “The militants had identified their target, cornered him, and attacked his convoy at a place where the ambush party alone had an escape route,” says an expert.

This is the second time in the past one year that investigators have sniffed the involvement of army personnel in an attack against senior officers. Last month, General Musharraf disclosed that 10 or 12 low-level members of the Pakistani air force and army, recruited by an Islamic militant, had planted explosives that nearly killed him last December. Insiders claim that soon after these revelations, the government, which had earlier pardoned the tribal warrior, Nek Mohammed, issued a death warrant against him. Nek Mohammed was subsequently killed through a precision-guided missile which hit the home of a local tribesman who was hosting him on the evening of June 17, in Dhok village, located four kilometers north of Wana, in the South Waziristan tribal agency. Four of his cohorts were also killed in the attack.

Pakistani government officials believe that the arrest of Jundullah members, as well as the killing of Nek Mohammed, are major victories that should serve as a clear warning to all militants that they will suffer a similar fate if they continue to oppose the government’s war on terror. However, independent analysts believe the cadres linked to these outfits could engage in retaliatory terror attacks, a view borne out by a threat made by a man, claiming to be Nek Muhammad’s lieutenant, to a reporter in Peshawar, saying he would avenge Nek’s murder.

Although militants linked to international terrorist networks have tried to assassinate President Musharraf a number of times, the assassination attempt against Karachi’s top army commander is the first of its kind. Says Khalid Khokhar, editor of the daily Sindhu, “By targeting Karachi’s GOC, the militants have clearly communicated to the government that a battle has started, and nobody in the government is safe.”

Security officials agree that militants may try to react against the arrest of their own comrades and the operation in Wana, but stress the importance of carrying out their mission. “We know that some of the members of Jundullah are still at large and that other groups linked to Al-Qaeda, with whom Nek Mohammed was associated, have planned terrorist attacks in the country, but this doesn’t mean that we should not take action against them,” says a senior police official. “They are doing their job and we have to do ours.”