November Issue 2007

By | News & Politics | Published 16 years ago

It was an impossible situation to secure. With the flight landing late, everything was behind schedule. It took almost an hour for the returning PPP leader to disembark, shuttle between terminals and make it to her custom-built armoured bus. By the time her caravan started to make the turn through Star Gate and onto Karachi’s Sharae Faisal, the sun was already low in the sky.

But that’s not the half of it.

The mammoth turnout was the critical factor at play in the security game on October 18. PPP workers, media personnel, hawkers and curious onlookers started to fill the streets from early morning. A sea of people stretched out to the horizon. Benazir’s Bhutto’s homecoming had become a gigantic, and very uncontained, rally.

Hundreds of thousands of well-wishers packed the street, forcing Bhutto’s caravan to inch along for hours on end. And when this happened, her custom-built armoured bus — its speed negligible for it covered just nine kilometres in nine hours — was more or less a stationary target for anyone that wanted her dead.

The combination of her tall armoured bus, the route, the huge crowds and her desire to be among her supporters made the daughter of the east very approachable on that fateful Thursday. People climbed up lampposts to get a better glimpse of the ex-prime minister, who had been absent for eight years. As the peculiar terrace-topped bus passed under bridges, onlookers waving from above could almost reach over and touch those riding in the open air below — they could have thrown anything inside. From the street, excited supporters clambered up the side of her vehicle to shake her hand, or hand her flowers. Of course, with the threats against her life, the security protocol dictated that she wasn’t supposed to accept anything from anyone. Karachi Police Chief Azhar Farooqi was “perturbed over the disregard for security.” PPP supporters broke security cordons while Bhutto herself stood in the open, not behind a bulletproof screen.

“I know there are security risks, people who want to kill me and to scuttle the restoration of democracy,” Bhutto said in an interview with the UK newspaper The Sunday Times. “But with my faith in God and trust in the people of Pakistan, I’m sure the party workers will be there and will protect me.” In fact she was counting on the latter. Reports estimated that the PPP had mobilised 5,000 jiyalas to form a security wall around her convoy.

But the size of Bhutto’s vehicle alone made it an easy target. And the arrival of night made it an even easier one: the truck’s lights made it stand out like a giant, paralysed firefly, especially in the presence of fluctuating street lights.

In the wake of the attacks, Bhutto lambasted the government for shutting off the lights. She claimed that each time her slow-moving cavalcade approached a street lamp, the light would go off. Her personal guards couldn’t see a thing, and they were forced to pan the crowd with spotlights.

A news report the next day quoted a senior police officer as saying, “Perhaps the only reliable tool was the presence of two jammer-fitted vehicles in the motorcade.” But many doubt the effectiveness of those. Had there been jamming devices, all cell phones on or around the bus, within about a 20-foot radius of each, should have been unoperational — this would have stopped any would-be bomber from using his mobile phone as a remote detonation device. But many PPP leaders and supporters were on their phones throughout the day as they rode up top.

Dr Zulfiqar Ali Mirza, a security planner with the PPP, confirms that jammers were in place, but for most of the procession everyone was using their cell phones, on the bus and on the ground. “After reaching Star Gate the jammers were not working, were switched off or had some other problem.” By October 20, Dr Mirza had spoken to all the top officials in the Sindh Home Department and police, and had received a few excuses explaining the failure of the jammers. “They’d come up with a story. They said there was a lot of frequency disturbance because there where too many people crowding around the bus.” He was then told that the procession was too long, too slow and that jammers are only effective when moving at 80 km per hour. The last point is dubious since many government offices use jamming devices to block the use of cell phones in and around their buildings. Still, Dr Mirza is keen on debating it as if it were true. “But we told them that the procession would take 18-22 hours, based on the 1986 experience.” Government officals also claimed that the batteries on the jammers last for only six hours. Dr Mirza, a medical doctor and ex-captain with the Pakistan military, feels that they only lasted about two hours.

A report in Dawn quoted an unnamed police officer as claiming that the jammers had broken down because rowdy PPP activists knocked over their antennae. Given that cell phone jammers do not use long, pliable antennae that stick up into the air (they have small internal ones), this seems like a manufactured point to deflect blame.

According to Dr Mirza, the manner in which the government planned for the use of the jammers was all very casual.

As accusations and blame flew the morning after the blasts, the Sindh home secretary, Brig. Ghulam Muhammad Mohatarem said, “The government provided every security facility demanded by the party.” This included a heavy police presence, bullet-proof cars and even a helicopter. Christina Lamb, a foreign journalist and friend of Bhutto who rode on the bus, claimed that the returning politican was warned when she touched down in Karachi that the situation outside was too dangerous and that a chopper was standing by to fly her to Mazaar-e-Quaid. In fact, the Sindh Home Department had warned her the previous night that there were renewed threats against her and that the longer Bhutto stayed on the road, the more difficult it would be to provide her foolproof security. Still, she refused the offer.

Jammers aside, it does, on the surface, look like all levels of government cooperated with Bhutto and the PPP. On October 12, preliminary details were hammered out in a high-level meeting headed over by Home Secretary Brig. Mohatarem in Karachi and attended by a contingent of PPP leaders. The route for Bhutto’s homecoming procession was discussed and a code of conduct banning the display of weapons and firing was established. The government assured the worried PPP planners that all security measures inside and outside the airport would be taken care of, including the use of explosive-sniffing canines.

Of course, inside the airport was the lesser worry. That same day, the PPP was already expecting record crowds. The president of the PPP’s Karachi division, Rashid Rabbani, who was part of the security meetings, claimed that over one million people would turn out to welcome Bhutto. That’s the way the party wanted it. This event was a political statement: the PPP needed to prove its street power. In her account of events, Lamb writes that Bhutto, while resting in her bullet-proof shielded armchair, said to her, “It’s incredible, far more people than in 1986. How must Musharraf be feeling seeing this?”

And because Bhutto planned on leading the party from the front, one day before the big day, Interior Ministry spokesman, Brigadier (Retd.) Javed Iqbal Cheema, announced that the government would provide a special security squad, headed by Major (Retd.) Imtiaz Husain, the SSP of the Punjab Police, to the former prime minister. The final security arrangement would see her 20-foot-long armoured vehicle led and followed by superintendent-commanded police mobiles and flanked by assistant superintendent-led police mobiles. Two bomb disposal squads also travelled with the caravan.

Along the procession route 20,000 police personnel were deployed, while all buildings, bridges and drains were secured. Two hours before Bhutto’s arrival, the bomb disposal squad performed their final sweep of the airport, the route, the area around Mazaar-e-Quaid and the vehicles in Bhutto’s convoy, confirming that everything was all clear: no explosives had been found. Standby forces were stationed at five points along the route. Hospitals, prison vans, ambulances and fire tenders were all put on standby.

There is more. “We provided sharp shooters on the truck to counter any aerial attack and also made arrangements to counter sniper fire,” said Brig. Mohatarem.

Still, there were a multitude of worries in the PPP contingent: firecrackers being used as cover for shooting, or an explosive-laden remote-controlled toy plane being crashed into the bus. Besides, how would a suicide bomber ever be spotted in a crowd of that size? Even with the extra bulk of 14 kilograms of RDX, a military explosive, strapped to his body, it wouldn’t be easy. And in the cover of darkness, it would be next to impossible. “The element of night made the situation even more complex,” said Brig. Mohatarem.

And the fluctuating street lamps didn’t help. KESC’s official response was simple: don’t blame us. “The KESC supplies electricity to the civic agencies at source,” said officials, “and its distribution is their responsibility.” In other words, KESC is not responsible for the operation of street lights — civic agencies are.

In response to Bhutto’s allegations that the lights were purposely switched off, the government made an impatient comment. “We should stop playing games,” said the State Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Tariq Azeem. “Lights keep going on and off in Pakistan. There is nothing significant in it.”

Meanwhile, the investigation into the October 18 blasts goes on. But with gatherings of this magnitude, lights or no lights, can anything really be done to stop suicide bombers?

Some say yes. The procession on October 18 was in effect a massive political rally with no fixed entry and exit points where participants could be checked and screened. Street rallies cannot be contained properly, thus large gatherings need to be held in enclosed areas. “We have stadiums,” said Shireen Mazari, a political commentator, during the current affairs programme ‘Wide Angle’ on Dawn News. “We need to use them.”