Report: Islamabad Blast Target Was FBI’s Pakistan Operations Chief

ARY One World, a leading Pakistani news channel, claims that the intended target of Saturday’s Islamabad bombing was the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations operations chief in Pakistan. Meanwhile, ABC News states that the FBI’s attache at the US embassy, injured in the blast, is the top FBI agent in the country. His name differs from that provided by ARY. Reuters reports that four FBI agents were injured in the blast.

Has the Bureau’s operations in Pakistan has been compromised? There is a significant likelihood of linkage between Saturday’s attacks and Tuesday’s twin blasts in Lahore. Tuesday’s attacks targeted an FBI-trained unit of Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Authority (FIA) and a clandestine FIA safe house, said to be visited by U.S. intelligence agents, where terror suspects were interrogated. That a secret FIA installation was hit suggests that, at the very least, an inside source provided information on the targets to the terrorists. And so it’s possible the same source also gave information on the FBI personnel in Islamabad.

The FIA-FBI partnership, so it seems, has been targeted twice in one week. Therefore it is possible that it will be a target again. An FBI forensics team is currently assisting with investigations in Lahore. An unidentified Pakistani intelligence official told the German Press Agency that the FBI team also has been investigating similar attacks in Iraq; the Lahore FIA attacks are believed to bear similarities with attacks there.

What lies ahead? Will the terrorists continue to target the FIA-FBI nexus? Or will they diversify their targets, including other components of U.S.-Pakistan anti-terror cooperation, including military trainers and, even, aid workers? As we noted yesterday, Maulana Faqir Muhammad of the Pakistani Taliban criticized the U.S. plan to train the Frontier Corps, calling it “an insult to one of the world’s best trained armies.”

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Breaking News: Blast in Islamabad

A blast went off this evening in Islamabad (F-6, Supermarket area) at the Luna Caprese, an Italian restaurant frequented by foreign diplomats and journalists (it serves alcohol).

The Victims
According to the director of the Poly Clinic hospital, at least one individual has been killed. She is a Turkish national who either worked a nurse in the U.S. embassy or for an NGO operating in Kashmir.

The director said the hospital has received 11 injured individuals consisting of:

  • three Pakistanis (two critically injured);
  • a Canadian national of Somali descent;
  • a Japanese national;
  • at least five Americans (the sixth could be a Brit).

Other reports have listed a total of 15 injured. Three victims were taken to Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences hospital.

Aaj Television reported that some American victims were taken away in U.S. embassy Land Cruisers to an unknown location, perhaps the embassy and seemingly not to Pakistani government hospitals. The same has been reported for at least one British victim. The spokesperson for the U.S. embassy refused to comment about this when questioned. Another report also states that medical staff from the U.S. embassy also made their way to one of the two hospitals to assist.

The news channel also posted a list of the injured. Pakistani television stations immediately note the names of the deceased and injured, irrespective of whether family members have been notified. At least two of the Americans injured are defense policy experts with a major think tank.

The Blast
Aaj Television’s Talat Hussain reports that the restaurant’s entrance had “scanners,” perhaps referring to metal detectors. The blast went off in the restaurant’s outdoor dining area. Authorities remain open to the possibility of a grenade having been thrown from an adjacent ally. At the moment, however, they seem to favor the idea that a planted device was responsible. If true, was it a timed device or remote-detonated? And when was it planted? Was the entire property, not just the indoors location of the restaurant, secure when closed? If not, it is possible a device was placed into the restaurant’s open area during off hours.

Despite today’s security breach, Islamabad was put on high alert yesterday with strict checking of cars leaving and entering the city and a newly instituted no tolerance policy for street beggars. On February 25, a suicide bomber disguised as a beggar detonated himself near the vehicle of the Pakistan Army Surgeon General Mushtaq Baig, killing him and several others.

The Motive
What was the intent of the attack? Were the terrorists simply out for Western blood? Or was there a particular stimulus or target?

There are several facts to consider.

One, Islamabad is currently replete with foreign journalists covering the formation of the next government and the new parliament’s opening sessions. Many targets around.

Two, U.S. military advisers training the Frontier Corps began arriving in Pakistan earlier this month. Over recent months, local papers have reported a growing presence of foreigners in local dress across the country–including in Quetta. Militant networks could have detected a greater presence of Westerners in the country. Moreover, they read the papers and have complete access to reports in the Pakistani papers about the military training program.  In fact, Maulana Faqir Muhammad, a Pakistani Taliban leader, criticized training program today, referring to it as “an insult to one of the world’s best trained armies.”

Three, legislation for the Reconstruction Opportunity Zones (ROZs) on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border was introduced in the Senate yesterday. While Pakistani militants don’t read Congressional Quarterly, the local press does provide timely news of relevant developments in Washington. The ROZs have been in the press for months. They are now closer to fruition. Aid agencies have already begun actively recruiting senior management staff for related projects. In late February, militants attacked the Mansehra office of a British aid agency in February, killing three.

And so it is conceivable that the militants are trying to discourage a greater presence of military advisers and aid workers in the country.

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Two Suicide Blasts Hit Lahore; Warning to Incoming Government?

Terrorists have struck Lahore again in two separate attacks, killing at least 23 individuals. The first attack hit the local office of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), a civilian law enforcement agency under the Ministry of Interior that does extensive counterterrorism work. The blast was perhaps a warning message to the incoming civilian government. The blast shattered the windows of the eight foot building and damaged a gas pipeline nearby.

The second occurred near an office building in the posh Model Town area. The victims include a woman and three children. A GEO News correspondent reports that behind the office building is the home of an army officer, a possible target. Another GEO News correspondent claims the blast occurred near the local home of People’s Party Co-Chairman Asif Zardari and Lahore Mayor Amir Mahmood.  

Today’s attacks are the latest sign that Lahore is increasingly on the terrorists’ radar. Lahore has witnessed far less violence than other cities, including Karachi and Peshawar, in recent years. However, the ratio is now reversing this year. A suicide bomber targeted police at a lawyers’ movement rally on Janaury 10. And last week, militants attacked the city’s Naval College. Militants would like to demonstrate the reach of their network and that they can hit the so-called Punjabi establishment at home.

An angry crowd of protesters amassed near the FIA building, protesting against Pervez Musharraf as well as the terrorists.

Lahore’s hospitals are requesting donations of blood.

UPDATE: 2:07PM (New York) – There are indications both attacks were focused on the FIA.  There are rumors that the  local FIA office was visited frequently by foreign intelligence agencies.  A report on Aaj Television claims that the second attack could have been intended for an intelligence agency safe house nearby where suspected terrorists were being held.  This would indicate inside cooperation.  Also, both locations housed American-trained FIA units investigating the Naval College blast.

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Breaking News: Suicide Bomb Blast in Swat at Funeral Procession

A deadly bomb blast, believed to be a suicide attack, hit a funeral procession this evening in Swat. The attack occurred at the funeral of Deputy Superintendent of Police Javed Iqbal, who was killed earlier in the day by militants. The bomber reportedly detonated himself during the gun salute.  GEO reports that over40 have been killed.

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Army Surgeon General Killed in Rawalpindi Suicide Blast

The cease fire is apparently over. Earlier today, a suicide bomber attacked the vehicle of Lt. Gen. Mushtaq Ahmad Baig, the surgeon general of the Pakistani Army, killing him and eight others–including five civilians. There is no reason to believe he was personally targeted by the bomber. Inter-Services Public Relations spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said that the attacker, disguised as a beggar, was “just waiting for a senior army officer” and detonated himself at a traffic signal “when he saw a staff car with the signature of a senior officer.”

Lt. Gen. Baig headed the Army Medical Corps and likely lacked the security detail provisioned to officers of similar rank within the army’s mainstream. He was apparently traveling in a black Toyota Corolla with a Pakistan Army license plate (see left). Previous attacks on the military in Rawalpindi have focused on softer, more vulnerable targets, such as employee buses. As I have written earlier, the army needs to enact more comprehensive security measures. This is essential toward renewing morale within the institution and denying the militants tactical victories.

Testimonials from those who knew the late Lt. Gen Baig center on his humility, religious piety, and professional excellence as a physician.

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Thursday Round-Up: National Reconciliation; Splitting the Taliban; Army Defends Atta; Aitzaz’s Back

Pakistan continues along a mixed, though largely negative trajectory as the spate of urban suicide bombing continues and insurgents make bold moves in South Waziristan, while the army strengthens its control over Swat and leaders flinch toward national reconciliation. The army’s immediate workload increases, but Gen. Ashfaq Kayani takes clear steps to depoliticize the institution. In both Pakistan and Afghanistan, efforts toward dividing and containing the Taliban continue. Election campaigning proceeds, though in a less spirited fashion prior to Benazir Bhutto’s assassination.

Terrorist Strikes Shi’a Gathering in Peshawar
A teenage suicide bomber clad in black struck an imambargah, a site for ritualistic mourning for Shi’a Muslims, in Peshawar today, the seventh day of the month of Muharram. This month is significant for all Muslims, but it holds a particular importance for the Shi’a. Their commemoration crescendos on the tenth day, Ash’ura, as they mourn the martyrdom of Imam Hussain. Ash’ura falls on Sunday; the army, local police, and private mosque security squads are under high alert. However, that will not preclude attacks such as today’s from occurring. The bomber that struck the imambargah today detonated his device after being stopped by police, killing ten individuals. Targeting the Shi’a is a major point of convergence for al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and various southern Punjabi Sunni militant groups.

Swat and Getting Swatted
Pakistan’s army continues to make gains in Swat, a settled, scenic valley in the North-West Frontier Province. According to Director General Military Operations Maj. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, Operation Rah-e Haq has been successfully completed. The army, he says, established its hold over the area in late December, killing or apprehending major militants associated with Maulana Fazlullah, who remains holed up in a mountainous area packed in by recent heavy snowfall. It is now making steps toward issuing a compensation and development package for the area and has replaced Fazlullah’s FM radio station with several of its own. The speed and effectiveness of the government’s resettlement of internally displaced people and restoring the civil administration and political parties remains significant. Half-hearted measures will only result in local discontent that Fazlullah or a subsequent variant can feed off of.

In a marked contrast to the government’s military success in Swat, it continues to struggle in South Waziristan. This week, two forts were taken over by insurgents, who had little trouble combating the undertrained and ill-equipped paramilitary Frontier Corps. Their Wednesday night attack on a fort, which they held and then withdrew from, was made by a group of 200-1,000 men, overwhelming the 40 FC troops stationed there.

This large scale attack by neo-Taliban affiliated with Baitullah Mehsud is the first of its kind as guerrilla tactics are normally used. If this marks a strategic shift for Mehsud, it is both an alarming development for Pakistan’s military as well as a potential source of opportunity. Its success in Swat was partially precipitated by the overstretching of Maulana Fazlullah’s forces, though Fazlullah’s group is vastly smaller and less sophisticated and armed than Mehsud’s. And so if Mehsud’s forces press toward Pakistani military installations in large numbers, they provide an opportunity to be eliminated in larger numbers of them in a short amount of time with an aerial assault. That is why Mehsud group did not hold on to the fort in Wednesday night’s attack.

U.S. Special Forces’ counterinsurgency training of Pakistan’s Frontier Corps accelerates this year, but there’s no indication that any substantive progress will be achieved before the spring. In the interim, Pakistan could benefit by goading Mehsud into adopting more conventional and exposing tactics.

Tea with the Taliban
As the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan sat and drank chai with former Taliban leader and now Musa Qala governor Abdul Salaam, the strategy of dividing and containing (or incorporating) the Taliban continues in Pakistan. The federal government is exploiting the traditional and on-going rivalries between the Ahmedzai Wazirs and the Mehsuds in Southern Waziristan. It could be imposing a blockade of sorts on the Mehsuds, to the advantage of the Ahmedzais. Curbing the flow of drugs and other illicit contrabands will weaken the Mehsuds, but it’s unclear as to whether the Pakistani military is effectively declaring war on the Mehsud tribe or whether it’s trying to make them see Baitullah Mehsud as a source of their problems.

Eurotrip: The National Reconciliation Tour
On Saturday, Muslim League-Nawaz President Shahbaz Sharif met in Islamabad with Niaz Ahmed, a retired military officer who serves as an intermediary between the Sharif brothers and Pervez Musharraf. The octogenarian retired brigadier was an army instructor to Pervez Musharraf and is well-respected by the Sharif brothers due to past favors. He reportedly presented Shahbaz, the younger Sharif, with an offer straight from Musharraf to take part in a national unity government before the elections and have a considerable role thereafter. The Sharifs were also requested to tone down their criticism of Musharraf.

Shahbaz reportedly replied that he’d have to have discuss any offer with his elder brother, Nawaz, who was nearby in the resort town of Murree. After being caught leaving Ahmed’s Islamabad home by spunky Pakistani journalists, Shahbaz described his meeting with Ahmed as a “courtesy call.” Coincidentally, he also met the Saudi ambassador to Pakistan, Ali Awadh Asseri. The Saudis have a keen interest in seeing the return of the Sharifs to power and have for years played a role in managing Sharif-Musharraf relations.

And in yet another coincidence, Shahbaz Sharif, Pervez Musharraf, and Niaz Ahmed will all be in London this Friday. Shahbaz claims he’s going to London for medical treatment, but there’s no sign his hair plugs need re-alignment.

As of now, Nawaz Sharif, who is seen by some as less compromising than his brother, has continued his call for a national unity government without Pervez Musharraf. But he has called for a re-scheduling of elections so that new election commission could be formed, headed by deposed Supreme Court Justice Rana Baghwandas, enabling the participation of Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e Insaaf and the Jamaat-e Islami. The PPP strongly rejected Sharif’s proposal.

The elections delay serves the interest of all parties save the PPP, which will lose the sympathy vote as we get further away from Benazir Bhutto’s death. This brings up some significant questions in regard to the national reconciliation talk.

Is it an attempt by Musharraf to divide and control the opposition? Until now, the PML-N has been following the lead of the PPP. Is that changing? Does the PML-N share an interest with Musharraf in checking the PPP, particularly in Punjab? We’ll probably get a good sense this weekend as to the status of the Sharif-Musharraf talks.

Where’s the PPP in all this? Earlier this week, there was a rumored meeting between Musharraf and Asif Zardari, which the PPP denied. But Amin Fahim, the PPP vice chairman, likely met Musharraf around a week ago. PPP spokesman Farhatullah Babar said that “all options are open” in regard to cooperation with Musharraf after the elections.

And what about the PML-Q? Earlier this week, Pervaiz Elahi, always on the attack, said that “all those parties after smelling their defeat in the upcoming general elections are giving suggestions for formation of the national government which has no constitutional, ethical and democratic reasons.” But then Chaudhry Shujaat, his cousin, stated yesterday that his party will form a national unity government after the elections and will invite the PPP and PML-N.

Pakistan will likely see some form of a national unity government. But it remains to be seen as to whether it will be formed before or after the elections, with or without Pervez Musharraf, and all the parties, including the PML-Q.

Kayani’s De-Politicization of the Army
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani issued an order prohibiting army officers from meeting with politicians. When the directive was first reported, it was unclear as to whether Pervez Musharraf, now a civilian president, was included in the category of politicians. After all, he still lives in the military’s headquarters. Retired Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg, a former chief of army staff, tells the Daily Times that meeting with Musharraf is also prohibited, but there was no confirmation from government sources. New Inter-Services Public Relations spokesperson Athar Abbas also distanced the army from Musharraf’s claim that Benazir Bhutto was not popular with the Pakistani army.

But Army Has More Duties
While the army might be doing less politicking, its burden has now increased. It has now been tasked with defense of the country’s increasingly scarce wheat supplies. This is on top of its responsibilities in fighting insurgencies, defending Pakistan’s borders, and providing security for some of Pakistan’s major cities after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

Today, Gen. Kayani met with junior commissioned and non-commissioned army officers. He emphasized his two major themes of improving the army’s “professional excellence” as the standard of living for all of those in its ranks. But importantly, he emphasized that the army’s primary duty is to defend the country’s borders.

Aitzaz Ahsan’s Return to the PPP
The spirit of reconciliation is alive. Asif Zardari will reportedly promote Aitzaz Ahsan to People’s Party vice chairman. This is a move to push the PPP in Punjab. As I noted earlier, Zardari will be moving to Lahore to build up the party there. But this also marks a challenge to the PML-N and PML-Q, whose support base is almost exclusively in that province.  Aitzaz was paid a visit by Attorney General Malik Qayyum, who reportedly offered an end to his house arrest if he hushed up about the judges issue.

The Travails of Maulana Diesel
It hasn’t been a good week or so for Maulana Fazlur Rahman. He’s been staying indoors lately as a result of the reported assassination threats made against him. His party, the JUI-F, is facing some turbulence; it recently expelled 18 party members. Fazl tells BBC Urdu that a senior Punjab official replied to his request for security by stating, “No money, no security.”

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Breaking News: Bomb Blast in Karachi

Earlier this evening, a bomb blast struck Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, in the vicinity of Gul Ahmed Chowrangi in the Quaidabad area. Ten individuals have been killed and over forty injured.

The attack targeted ordinary pedestrians in a fruit and vegetable market area during a peak grocery shopping hour. The bomb blast also occurred in close proximity to the gate of a factory, perhaps that of Gul Ahmed Textiles Mills, Pakistan’s largest home textiles exporter. But it appears as if the attack took place too late to target workers leaving the facility.

There is no real indication that the operation was a suicide mission. Eyewitnesses indicate that the bomb blast occurred near a motorcycle, but conflict as to whether or not an individual was seated on the vehicle. However, Sindh police chief Azher Farooqi tells the BBC that the explosives were hidden underneath a fruit cart.

This area of Karachi has, for many years, been home to violence between various political parties and ethnic groups. Leading officials in both the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and Jamaat-e Islami (JI) issued their immediate condemnations of the attacks on Pakistani television. Later, condemnations were issued by members of other parties in Pakistan, including the PPP, PML-N, and Awami National Party (ANP).

Pathans constitute a large percentage of Quaidabad’s residents. Over an hour later, a third blast was reported elsewhere in Pakistan, targeting the election office of the Awami National Party, which promotes Pathan/Pashtun nationalism. In between the two bombings in Karachi and Peshawar, there was another blast, reportedly at a bakery in an industrial area in Hub, Balochistan–again, during a peak grocery shopping period of the day. It is unclear as to whether they are related. However, if the area in Hub had a strong Pathan labor population, then the common thread linking today’s three explosions could be that they targeted Pathan civilians.

Interestingly, Pervez Musharraf is currently in Karachi–but nowhere near the site of the attacks.

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Terror in Lahore: The Managed Chaos Continues

Earlier this afternoon local time, a suicide bomber attacked a group of police gathered near Lahore’s High Court, the scene of renewed protests by Pakistan’s lawyers’ movement. The attack killed approximately 23 people and injured over 60.

The bomber did not appear to attack protesters, but took opportunity to target an event in which government security personnel–in this case, police officers–would be assembled in large concentrations (à la police training in Iraq).

What is most significant about this attack is that it occurred in Lahore, which is Pakistan’s second largest city and has largely been immune from Pakistan’s deterioration of law and order. Lahore is distinct from Karachi, which has been home to varying waves of violence for over 20 years, in its ethnic homogeneity and vastly greater quality of life. Lahore, in many senses, is a city that works; Karachi, is an overwhelmed and misgoverned basket case.

And so the arrival of suicidal terror in Lahore is all the more alarming. It suggests that the extremist elements responsible for the violence, if they are part of a single entity, can hit any part of Pakistan at will. In the past year or so, suicide blasts have hit all of Pakistan’s major cities: Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Peshawar, and Quetta. Almost 3,500 Pakistanis were killed in 2007 terror attacks. The terror wave has targeted both individual senior Pakistani figures (politicians in and outside of government and military officers) as well as concentrations of low-ranked government officers.

The level of violence in Pakistan has been sustained and its crescendo is nowhere in sight. Today’s attack in Lahore comes after the Pakistani army was to have made a renewed effort to apprehend Baitullah Mehsud, allegedly behind Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, though this operation could be delayed by the massive snowfall in Pakistan’s northwest. It is conceivable that today’s attacks were a message from Mehsud intending to restrain the Pakistani government.

But with the start of the month of Muharram tonight–significant to all Muslims, but to the Shi’a in particular–and the elections slated for February 18, the wave of terror is likely to continue, if not worsen. Karachi is under a red alert and the army remains in the city, but that does not preclude the possibility of sectarian attacks there. Tomorrow is Friday and congregational prayers are frequent targets in sectarian attacks.

Even more destabilizing would be a successful attack on a senior politician. There are reports of threats against Nawaz Sharif and Maulana Fazlur Rahman. The assassination of Fazl would fragment his party’s control of the North-West Frontier Province, potentially creating an opening for the neo-Taliban. The murder of Sharif would set much of urban Punjab against Pervez Musharraf, though his brother Shahbaz (a former chief minister of Punjab) is more than capable to fill in his shoes.

Both events would place Pakistan further on the path of ethnic and provincial fragmentation. Moreover, it would decisively eliminate any sort of balance between Pervez Musharraf and the opposition parties. This would create an unmanageable scenario in which Musharraf’s popularity plummets (yes, there is room for decline) while the political opposition to him, however sizable, lacks a clear leadership. In the balance, Pakistan’s army would be ascendant; but neither would this be in its corporate interests, nor would its cohesiveness remain immune to the centrifugal forces.

Pakistan is in an election season–naturally a partisan affair–and, at the same time, there are forces pulling the country apart at the seams. If there is any good Pervez Musharraf can offer his country at this point, it can be an assertive effort to maintain inter-ethnic and sectarian solidarity in his country. This requires partnering with opposition political figures in ensuring their security and restraining the PML-Q’s use of ethnic chauvinism.

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Arif Rafiq, a Washington, DC-based consultant on Middle East and South Asian political and security issues. [About]

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Arif Rafiq regularly appears on the John Batchelor Show Friday nights from 09:30-10:00pm Eastern Time. Tune your dial to 770AM in New York or 630AM in DC. The show appears on affiliates in other cities. Listen live online at WABCRadio.com.
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