Punjab: The Core at Risk
Were one to map terrorism and weapons of mass destruction today, all roads would intersect in Pakistan. It has nuclear weapons and a history of unstable governments, and parts of its territory are currently a safe haven for al Qaeda and other terrorists.
World at Risk: The Report of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism
The greatest threat of a loose nuke scenario stems from insiders in the nuclear establishment working with outsiders, people seeking a bomb or material to make a bomb. Nowhere in the world is this threat greater than in Pakistan...With the passage of time, the odds steadily increase that Pakistan will face a serious test of its nuclear security...
On September 6, 2012, three militants on a mission to target a nuclear power plant in Ali Khel area of Bhakkar District, which borders Dera Ghazi Khan (DGK) District in Punjab Province, were killed in a premature blast. Significantly, on September 5, 2012, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Agency had reportedly intercepted a telephone call from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), tapping into a conversation regarding finalisation of the strategy for attacks on nuclear installations in DGK District. DGK District Police Chief Chaudhry Saleem noted, "There have been threats to all installations, including the Dera Ghazi Khan nuclear site, in the current law and order situation of the country." The military and Punjab Police had informed the media that the nature of threat at the nuclear installation was "serious", with an "80 per cent chance of occurrence".
An unnamed high ranking military officer serving at the installation was quoted as stating, "Dera Ghazi Khan houses one of the largest nuclear facilities in the country and has faced the first ever serious security threat from the TTP." Further, a Lahore Police Officer disclosed that a circular issued by the Punjab Police Chief's Office directed the Police Chiefs of all 36 Districts in the Province to beef up security around sensitive installations due to "credible reports of terrorist attacks."
There have been at least three prior attacks, two in 2007 and one in 2008, near nuclear facilities in Punjab.
November 1, 2007: Militants attacked a nuclear missile storage facility in the Sargodha District of the province, killing seven officers and three civilians.
December 10, 2007: A suicide bomber exploded his car targeting a Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) bus carrying Air Force employees' children at a military base at Kamra - the Air Weapons Complex at Kamra devoted to the development of air-delivered nuclear weapons. At least eight persons were killed in the attack.
August 21, 2008: Two TTP suicide bombers blew themselves up at the main nuclear facility - the Wah Cantonment Ordnance Complex, targeting the Pakistan Ordnance Factories (POF), which operates under the Defense Production Division in Pakistan's Ministry of Defense, and is responsible for the production and manufacturing of conventional weapons, including arms and ammunitions. At least 70 persons were killed in this attack.
Despite Islamabad's continuous assertions of its 'secured' nuclear facilities, terrorist formations have issued repeated threats, and have subsequently attacked nuclear facilities across Pakistan. The threat of nuclear materials falling under the control of the TTP or its other allies has put the security of nuclear weapons in Pakistan at high risk. Since its inception in 2007, the TTP has successfully launched attacks against the Government and military installations close to nuclear sites, or housing nuclear weapons. A total of 22 major attacks have been carried out by the terrorists on major security installations across Pakistan.
According to Centre for Nuclear Studies (CNS), among the 14 'Selected Pakistani Nuclear Facilities', 11 are in Punjab, including DGK, Islamabad and Lahore; and one each in Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh. The three prior attacks at the facilities suggest that the installations in Punjab principally remain at a higher risk. Other installations are, however, also on the terrorist radar, as extremists have a strong presence in these areas as well.
Punjab alone has recorded at least seven such attacks since 2007, with 99 fatalities. Significantly, the latest threat came after the Minhas Air Base attack on August 16, 2012, which killed two Pakistan Air Force (PAF) personnel, and destroyed a surveillance aircraft. Fresh evidence gathered by investigators revealed that TTP had contacts with security personnel stationed at the Air Base, suggesting clear collusion between the terrorists and elements within the security establishment. Such collusion was also very much in evidence in the attack on the Pakistan Naval Station (PNS) Mehran Air Base on May 22, 2011, in which at least 18 military personnel were killed. Pakistan had put its nuclear installations on a high security alert in the wake of the Mehran attack. This possibility of collusion on the part of elements within the Pakistan Army, ISI, and other Forces, enormously raises the risk of terrorist access to nuclear materials.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal, at least 79 persons, including 36 civilians, 28 Security Forces (SF) personnel and15 militants have been killed in terrorist-linked violence in the Punjab Province in the first eight months of the current year, as against 119 persons, including 105 civilians, 11 SF personnel and 3 militants, during the corresponding period of 2011. Five persons have already been killed in September 2012 (data till September 16, 2012).
Meanwhile, on September 4, 2012, the Federal Ministry of Interior warned authorities in Punjab that at least 16 TTP militants were planning to carry out attacks on targets in Islamabad and Rawalpindi Districts, including the Adiala Jail, where Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) militants, including operational 'commander' Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, charged with involvement in the November 26, 2008, (26/11) Mumbai (Maharashtra, India) terror attacks, which claimed 166 lives, are being held. The 'secret' report circulated by the National Crisis Management Cell (NCMC) of the Interior Ministry noted that Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi was likely to be the "main target" of the militants who intend to "free their accomplices in a prison break".
The threat is potent as, on April 15, 2012, more that 200 armed TTP militants had raided the Central Jail in Bannu District of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in a pre-dawn attack, releasing 384 prisoners, including 20 inmates facing death sentences. There is now a pervasive sense of fearlessness among the terrorist formations, and a sense of pride and exhilaration after every successful attack, among those claiming responsibility.
Soon after the Bannu jailbreak, the TTP spokesperson, Asimullah Mehsud declared, "The purpose was to free some of our men... We attacked with some 150 fidayeen and took over the area for more than two hours." Out of the 384 prisoners who escaped, the provincial Home Department confirmed the voluntary return of 103 after three days of the incident. The Police also arrested another more than two dozen escaped prisoners during separate search operations. Three prisoners, one of whom was identified as Ayub Khan (70), died in the Frontier Region, Bannu, due to hunger and thirst. The remaining militants, claimed a TTP pamphlet, were taken away to Mir Ali tehsil (revenue unit) of North Waziristan Agency (NWA) in Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). In the pamphlet the TTP 'commander' Hafiz Gul Bahadur urged the residents of NWA, "Do not let them (Security Forces) operate from North Waziristan. Resistance will be put up if Security Forces try moving into the Agency..."
Further, the NCMC's 'secret' report also stated that the TTP militants, who are "highly trained and reported to be currently residing in Attock" in Punjab, were expected to simultaneously target Government installations and abduct some high-profile people in Islamabad and Rawalpindi.
The two cities are seen as a convenient source for generating funds for the TTP. On September 2, 2012, an explosive laden device with the inscription "first gift from TTP" was discovered at a farm house owned by a businessman, Haji Sahib Khan, on the outskirts of Westridge Police Station in Rawalpindi District. Khan had been receiving death threats on his cell phone. A text message sent by the TTP read, "You are under observation and on our hit list."
The abduction-extortion network in Punjab was exposed after the high profile arrest of two TTP militants who were running the operation in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Investigations discovered, further, that the leader of the TTP's Islamabad-Pindi 'network' was operating from the United Kingdom. An extortionist belonging to the TTP, identified as Mohsin, disclosed that he collected money in the two cities, and handed it over to the operational head of TTP in Rawalpindi, Mohammad Asif. Asif's arrest and further disclosures revealed that the extorted money was transferred to Mudassar Shaheen, who resided in Blackburn, located 27 miles north-northwest of the city of Manchester in UK, who was an active member of TTP.
TTP's growing and ominous presence and threats in Punjab come in the wake of an impending military operation in NWA, which Islamabad had been delaying. NWA provides a safe haven to militants belonging to the Haqqani Network, Afghan Taliban and the TTP, who use the territory to launch attacks against the US and coalition troops in Afghanistan. Taking advantage of the delay in operations in NWA, the TTP decided to attack principal military installations, nuclear power plants and Central Jails in Punjab and other Provinces, to divert attention and discourage any attempt to launch effective operations in the region.
The extremist presence in Punjab is further seen in the overwhelming structure of religious fundamentalist formations, with their anti-India and anti-West agendas, and the circulation of anti-minorities and sectarian hate literature. Public gatherings led by religious ideologues are a commonplace in Punjab and have become the major source of militant recruitment. Free movement and unhindered hate propaganda by outfits like the Jama'at-ud-Dawa (JuD) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) have expanded their militant operations and recruitment in the region. In addition to JuD, several other sectarian and terrorist groupings with headquarters in Punjab work in close collaboration with the TTP and al Qaeda.
Over decades of active support to terrorism, and a rising anarchy on its own soil, the core of Pakistan's power in the Punjab has believed itself to be unassailable. That sense of invincibility, however, is increasingly a thing of the past. Both Pakistan's Army and the Province on which its power principally rests are now looking increasingly vulnerable, even as terrorist successes and confidence grow. At the same time, paralysis appears to have gripped all the major institutions of the country, and there is little evidence of any initiative of effective resistance.
(The writer Ambreen Agha is Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management)
(The view expressed in the article is of the author and not India Blooms News Service)