September Issue 2014
The Ghost in the Darkness
It was the night of August 14 and jubilant crowds were celebrating Independence Day with enthusiasm in the bazaars and streets of Quetta. The army had also arranged a special event at Nawab Akbar Bugti Stadium in Balochistan’s provincial capital, as part of the month-long independence day celebrations.
Security forces were on high alert — and understandably so as the threat posed by Baloch separatists is a constant worry in Balochistan. However, this time round, the attack came from a different source — a group of Islamic militants, who targeted the Samungli and Khalid airbases in Quetta, catching the security forces unawares. Fortunately, the attacks were repulsed, thanks to the timely action of the forces.
Next morning, the Ghalib Masood group of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) called foreign media offices from an unknown location and claimed responsibility for the attacks; further, they warned that more attacks were in the offing.
Although Baloch militants have never been involved in such major offensives, the security forces, at once, assumed the attackers were Baloch militants, who are otherwise known to resort to bomb blasts and rocket and grenades attacks to create terror among the public.
But a subsequent investigation revealed that the attackers were Islamic militants and not Baloch separatists.
Mostly of Uzbek origin, the dozen or so militants engaged the forces in both places throughout the night, using both light and heavy weapons. Besides rockets and sub-machine guns, the militants were also carrying dozens of home-made phosphorus/petrol bombs, anti-personnel shrapnel mines and 60 KG Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).
As morning descended, and the chances of escape diminished, most of the militants blew themselves up, one by one. While over a dozen security personnel were injured in the attack, it was the first major attack in which there was no loss of life of the security forces and they managed to save two of Pakistan’s vital defence installations.
In that sense it was a rare success story. However, it is disconcerting that such heavily armed militants managed to get so close to these installations, travelling all the way from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) to Quetta, and covering hundreds of kilometres without being detected. The question is: who provided them cover in the form of shelter, food, weapons, explosives, ammunition, transportation etc?
“The presence of TTP and foreign elements in the area is alarming for the security forces,” says one security official. “It indicates that many more such militants might still be holed up in the city or in the interior of the province and the elements harbouring them and providing arms and ammunition to them must exist in considerable numbers.”
Further, he adds that while six of the militants were killed, forces found some evidence in the area close to the PAF base that one or two managed to escape under the cover of darkness.
The attackers approached the outer wall of the PAF base and opened fire on a police vehicle which was on routine patrol on the western bypass. Although the police personnel had not noticed them, the militants thought they had been spotted and consequently opened fire on them. After half an hour of the first attack, another group managed to enter the fenced outer boundary of the Khalid Air Base, which is 12 km away from the PAF base.
Meanwhile, army personnel had already been deployed and prevented the attackers from breaching the internal barbed wire boundary. However, two of the attackers managed to enter the PAF base after making a hole in the concrete boundary wall by using explosives. They wanted to gain access to the defence installations but were killed by the forces or blew themselves up when found themselves surrounded.
It is rumoured that the Khalid Air Base contains a facility that is being used by the Americans, which was the likely target of the attack. But security officials have neither confirmed nor denied the presence of Americans at the base at the time of the attack.
“It was the army, the Frontier Corps and police who sprang into action after receiving timely information from a police constable, who spotted some suspects riding a vehicle with heavy weapons close to his house in Killi Nasraan, adjacent to the Army Aviation Base,” IGP Balochistan, Mohammad Amlish, told Newsline. “Otherwise, it would have been catastrophic in terms of the damage to vital installations, besides causing fatal casualties.”
The presence of foreign militants in Balochistan is not a new development. Incidents such as the killing of five Chechens, including three women, by security forces in Quetta in 2011, suicide attacks on the houses of the DIG Frontier Corps in September 2011 and IGP Balochistan in May, 2013 and the abduction and slaying of ICRC head Dr Khalil Dale, a British national in January 2012, all illustrate the magnitude of the problem. That the TTP has taken responsibility for all these incidents indicates their strength in Balochistan.
The TTP has a strong nexus with Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and its outfits who have been involved in sectarian killings and suicide attacks on the houses of security officials in Balochistan. Now these outfits are also making their presence felt in Baloch-nationalist strongholds in Makran, by warning private schools in Punjgur against educating female students. Additionally, they’ve threatened Zikri Muslims as well as the Hindu community with beheadings, unless they embrace their brand of Islam.
There are reports that these outfits are being patronised by the Iranian group Jundullah, which has combated separatists with the backing of Pakistani security agencies. On August 23, armed activists of the Baloch Liberation Front, headed by Dr Allah Nazar, attacked the village of Bilnagor in the Dasht area of Kechh, said to harbour Jundullah activists. On a SOS call of Jundullah leaders, the Frontier Corps moved into the area and allegedly killed 16 BLF activists.
There are around three million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, of which 1.2 million are in Quetta alone, living in densely populated areas around the provincial capital such as Pashtunabad, Kuchlak, Kharotabad, and Ghausabad. It is in these areas that militants easily find hosts; many of such dwellings exist around the PAF base and army aviation base from where these attackers are reported to have emerged and attacked the installations.
While the Afghan Taliban are known to have lived peacefully in Balochistan for several years and created no problems for the state thus far, it appears that they are now proving to be dangerous potential allies to those who intend to wreak havoc and destroy Pakistan’s security institutions.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s September 2014 issue.
The writer is a journalist based in Quetta and is President of Quetta Press Club (QPC).