March issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Sports | Published 15 years ago

If it is true that the simplest and most obvious theory is usually true then the March 3 attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team was most probably carried out by home-grown terrorists. Militant groups have carried out attacks in major urban centres previously to weaken the writ of the Pakistani government. A high-profile attack on a touring cricket team was certain to show the planning and execution capabilities of the militants while highlighting the inability of the government to defend its citizens and guests.

But even if one were to accept that the audacious attack originated from Pakistan, there are a number of militant groups that could be held responsible. Fingers are likely to be pointed in the direction of the outlawed Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT), which has also been held responsible for the Mumbai attacks of last year. The LeT would view an attack of this nature as perfect revenge for the government crackdown on its activities. But this attack does not seem to fit the modus operandi of the LeT, which has usually targeted India and Indian-administered Kashmir and has no record of perpetrating terrorist attacks within Pakistan’s borders. There are also a host of terrorist groups, loosely gathered under the banner of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, which could also be responsible for the attack. Local terrorist groups have staged many attacks on foreigners in the past, from the suicide bombing targeting French engineers at the Sheraton hotel in 2002, to the kidnapping and beheading of journalist Daniel Pearl so the motivation and ability are certainly present.

Whenever there is a major terrorist attack in Pakistan, voices, both local and international, are quick to see the involvement of the ISI. The agency has always been under a cloud of suspicion regarding its loyalty to the government of the day, and given its cosy history with militant groups, is always a suspect. There is one bit of evidence that would bolster the argument that some internal actors, possibly at a low level, had some role in the attack. On the evening of March 2, a decision was made to change the usual route taken by the teams to the stadium. This information should have been known only to those responsible for the teams’ security, and yet the attackers were lying in wait as the buses transporting the Sri Lankan team and match officials reached Liberty Chowk. This would indicate that some inside information was available to the terrorists.

Pakistanis, unwilling to accept that their own could be responsible for such a heinous attack, are more likely to look westwards towards the Indian government and its intelligence outfit RAW when apportioning blame. In the minds of many, the Indian government is seeking nothing less than the total diplomatic isolation of Pakistan and an attack on a visiting cricket team should all but ensure that. Having Pakistan blamed for the attack would guarantee that the Kashmir issue placed on the backburner for an indefinite period of time and allow the Indian government to run roughshod over its Pakistani counterparts at international forums. That the attack took place in the aftermath of new US President Barack Obama’s decision to appoint Richard Holbrooke as a roving envoy in South Asia — a move that has not been appreciated by India — will only strengthen those who cling to this theory.

Another theory bandied about by Pakistanis eager to deflect blame, is that the Sri Lankan-based separatist Tamil Tigers were responsible for the attack. But the Tamil Tigers, who have a long history of terrorism, have always stated very explicitly that they will never target the Sri Lankan cricket team, and indeed, have never done so in the past. There is no evidence to believe that anything has changed that. Also, an attack as methodical and well-planned as this one would require significant cooperation with Pakistan-based groups. Again, there is no evidence that there is any link between the Tamil separatists and Muslim extremist groups.

Since there is never any shortage of conspiracy theories in Pakistan, those with a political axe to grind are sure to heap blame on the mainstream political parties. The Punjab had become a battleground in the political tussle between the PPP and the PML-N after the Supreme Court decision barring the Sharif brothers from contesting elections. The lawyers’ movement had also planned to hold a Long March in Lahore this month. Depending on one’s political persuasion, arguments could be made that the attacks took place to show that PPP Governor Salmaan Taseer was not capable of tackling a security situation, that the PML-N can’t effectively rule the Punjab or that the attacks were a deliberate attempt to deflect attention from the Long March. All such arguments are ludicrous on the face of it, but tend to take hold in a country where the conspiracy theory mill is always running at full throttle.

This article appears as a box within Cricket’s Darkest Hour.

Nadir Hassan is a Pakistan-based journalist and assistant editor at Newsline.