Al-Qaeda Reprisal Attack in Quetta

my Outlook op-ed published on September 08, 2011

Western media is doing extensive 9/11-week coverage. I have had several interviews in the past week, remembering personal memories and experience of that tragic day on September 11, 2001 when Al-Qaeda bombers destroyed the twin towers and the following events changed lives of people around the world, particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Although we have gone through war and crisis in Afghanistan for the last three decades, the post-9/11 has been very different for this region.

The war in Afghanistan has secured western countries with Al-Qaeda being dismantled and other terrorist networks with global Jihadi agenda to attack western countries weakened, but it has made the region in South Asia more violent and insecure. Bomb blasts and suicide attacks have become part of routine life in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and we experience regular 9/11.

I am not to approve the general rhetoric of the religious-political circles making the argument against Afghanistan war and the presence of US troops in the region as sole reason behind the suicide attacks and blasts. Nor this column is about my personal experience and thoughts on 9/11. It’s just a coincidence that I am in Quetta nowadays, in the week of 9/11, as I was here on that tragic day 10 years ago.

Yesterday once again I saw this city in bloodshed. A group of suicide bombers, including Afghan nationals, attacked residence of the Director of Pakistan’s paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC) killing 26, including his wife. Brigadier Farrukh Shehzad Commander of the FC got injuries, and 26 were killed, including a Colonel and several other personnel of the FC.

Around a hundred others were wounded. Quetta is the provincial capital of the Baloch separatist insurgency-hit Balochistan. Usually, after any attacks in the city, the initial suspicions are either about the Baloch separatist nationalist groups who target Pakistani security personnel, or the sectarian Al-Qaeda allied outfits such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi who target the Hazaras.

The latter is more common in Quetta, while Baloch insurgent-attacks are mostly in the Baloch-dominating districts of Balochistan. The latest such powerful suicide-car attack targeted the Eid prayers in a Hazara area of the city last week. As usual, it was claimed by the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a sectarian outfit allied with Al-Qaeda.

Despite being under regular attacks, it was not surprising that a car with more than 50Kgs of explosive material got to the gate of FC Commander, in a very sensitive area close to Balochistan Chief Minister and Governor houses, city court, Govt. secretariat and anti-terrorist court. The Afghan and Iranian consulates are also close by. Though Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik claims there are over 100 CCTV cameras installed in Quetta, yet again sectarian terrorists kill a person every other day in crowded parts in the center of the city.

According to security officials, there were six suicide bombers. An explosive-laden car struck to the wall of FC Commander’s house, and one of the bombers made it into the gate. Two of the attackers are reportedly Afghans, one named Ahmad Gul from Kunduz with a Refugee Card. Both are said to be of Uzbek ethnic.

There is a big number of Afghans living in Quetta. Most of them get the Refugee Registration Card from Pakistan’s National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA). Found with a card, the bombers might have been living in Pakistan, and certainly not going from Afghanistan for the attack.

Tehreek Taliban Pakistan has claimed responsibility. But there are different reports about it, some quoting TTP spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan as saying this attack is to avenge arrest of the Al-Qaeda operatives two weeks ago from Quetta, and others reporting that it was to avenge death of five Chechen nationals killed by personnel of the FC in May in Quetta.

Frontier Corps is a Pakistani paramilitary force led by officers of Pakistan Army. FC personnel had taken part in the ISI-led operation against Younas Al-Mauritani who was arrested along with two other Al-Qaeda operatives days before Eid from Satellite Town of Quetta. It is very likely that yesterday’s attacks were an Al-Qaeda reprisal. Quetta is no doubt a very strategic hideout for members of Al-Qaeda and Taliban Shura. It is very likely that, as TTP spokesman threatens, more reprisal attacks are carried out by Al-Qaeda in Quetta.

Such attacks are also aimed at threatening security officials who lead investigations against arrested terrorists, or conduct search operations in those notorious areas. There have been several similar attacks on offices and homes of high officials of security forces in Quetta. One reason that Pakistani intelligence agencies and security officials avoid operation against the known Al-Qaeda and Taliban hideouts in the city is the fear of deadly reprisal attacks. Though Quetta is the regional headquarters of ISI, but they are more focused on the Baloch nationalist groups and insurgents in the province, than Al-Qaeda operatives and Taliban leaders in the city.

Although the US and Pakistani media dubbed reports of Al Mauritani’s arrest as a sign of cooperation and ease of tensions between CIA and ISI, the US should ask General Kayani to launch an intelligence crackdown in Quetta. It is impossible to launch a military operation in a highly crowded small city, but Al-Mauritani is not the last Al-Qaeda leader hiding in Quetta. Despite being known as the home of Taliban’s Quetta Shura, the city has been less under radar for hideouts of Al-Qaeda operatives. It is a very strategic place for them. The city is close to Afghan and Iranian borders. There are notorious places in the city with Uzbek, Chechen and other foreign nationals living in large numbers, such as Ghaus Abad and Uzbek Bazar.

The religious parties, particularly Jamiat Ulema Islam (Ideological Faction) has huge support in the city and towns around Quetta. They are unashamed of their open-ideological support for Al-Qaeda and Taliban. One can read slogans in favor of Osama bin Laden by JUI Nazriyati (ideological) on walls of Quetta. When Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad by the US Special Forces, JUI-N had taken out protest rallies holding Bin Laden photos. Later I heard from my contacts that funeral-prayer events were held for Osama in several towns around Quetta by JUI-N supporters.

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