If you've been to the new terminal at Karachi's Jinnah International airport, you're familiar with the somewhat facetious bomb search checkpoint. Stony-faced security guards poke about your car with an instrument that looks like an antenna ripped off a 70's television set attached to a toy gun.
While this procedure remains of undetermined efficacy -- and for that matter authenticity -- what we do know is that the security of this section of the airport, the one with heavy domestic and international commuter traffic, was not compromised in last night's attack.
"Pakistan's busiest airport" it may be, but the old terminal in question is for cargo planes, VIPS and those embarking on Hajj (religious pilgrimage) only. This does not make the incident less tragic or alarming, but it should be noted for accuracy that the newer terminal used by most people to fly in and out of the city is set away from the old terminal and was not reached by the intruders. This map from the BBC lays it out well.
Here's what else we know. At approximately 11 p.m. on Sunday, unknown intruders disguised as Airport Security Force (ASF) penetrated the old terminal of the airport known as Star Gate, another memory you'd have from a trip to Karachi -- the entrance is marked by a structure that looks like a flail resting on a serene white pillar.
The intruders -- let's just call them terrorists -- in fake uniforms had explosives strapped to their bodies and carried RPGs, automatic weapons and hand grenades. Two mini-vans each seated five men. One group created a diversion at Fokker Gate while the other stormed the cargo terminal. Their objective was to make it to the nearby passenger terminal, but security forces already on the ground -- the paramilitary Rangers and the ASF -- cut them off and cornered them.
Flights scheduled to land were diverted to other cities and the airport was evacuated. The army arrived as backup. By the early hours of Monday morning, all 10 militants were dead. Among the casualties were also nine ASF agents, one Ranger and two Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) personnel. No hostages or passengers were harmed.
In the aftermath of the attack, a staggering amount of ammunition was recovered from the militants, along with dried fruit and water, indicating an intention to hold the passenger terminal under siege for longer. Many initial news reports slyly threw in the fact that the weapons recovered from the perpetrators were "Indian made". The terrorists probably drove there in Suzukis, maybe we should investigate Japanese involvement as well.
Shortly afterwards, the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an alliance of insurgent groups seeking to make Pakistan a Sharia state, proudly claimed responsibility for the attack. Their objective, according to their spokesman, was to undermine the government and damage state installations as retaliation for air strikes on their strongholds near the Afghan border.
This attack comes only days after the Mehsud faction of the Pakistani Taliban breaks away from the central leadership of the TTP. The reason for the rift is allegedly because some TTP leaders refused to give up practices such as attacks in public places, extortion and kidnappings. This is the first split since the TTP was founded in 2007. You know the situation is extreme if even parts of the Taliban find it objectionable.
Some have expressed concern that this is an irrevocable blow to peace negotiations between Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the TTP. Many have taken to Facebook and social media proclaiming that another military takeover (Martial Law) is the best course of action for the country. They are both wrong.
Splintering the TTP from the middle is a major coup, and analysts say that breaking up the TTP over the issue of talks was always part of the government's strategy.
Martial Law would be another epic disaster, much as when Gen. Pervez Musharraf swept in and deposed Nawaz Sharif's elected government on Oct. 12, 1999. After promising to restore civilian rule as soon as possible, Pervez stayed put for another nine years, even declaring emergency rule in November of 2007 in a desperate attempt to hold on to power. Eventually, he was impeached and exiled, after borrowing heavily from the U.S. -- to the tune of $10-billion -- while failing catastrophically to suppress violence.
Pakistan must -- and will -- rally. Things may get worse before they get better but Prime Minister Sharif needs to keep the lines of communication with TTP open. Taliban insurgents have been attempting to destabilize the government for over 10 years. Yet, overall voter turnout in the 2013 general elections was unusually high at 55 per cent. Peace will not come overnight but it will come only through a democratically elected government, however self-serving.
Stay strong, Karachi.
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