Jihadist penetration of Pakistani armed forces may be deeper than feared
ISLAMABAD–A Pakistani Navy tribunal’s recent awarding of death sentence to five officers for the September 6, 2014 terror attack on the Karachi Naval Dockyard points to the growing penetration of the Pakistani armed forces by radical elements including Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) launched by Dr Ayman Al Zawahiri.
While Pakistan’s military had been secular and disciplined, it is now being infiltrated at all levels by jihadists and al-Qaeda and Taliban sympathizers.
This obnoxious development has brought into open the conflicting ideologies which seem to have caused fissures in the ranks of the Pakistani armed forces by pitting Islamists against reformists.
The death sentence awarded to five officers proves that the fidayeen assault on the naval dockyard could not have been possible without “inside help.”
Those court-martialed and sentenced to death by the Navy tribunal after in-camera trials were Sub-Lieutenant Hammad Ahmed (whose father Saeed Ahmed is a retired Army Major), Irfan Ullah, Hashim Naseer, Mohammad Hammad and Arslan Nazeer.
The naval authorities concluded the court martial proceedings on April 12, 2016 and promulgated the judgment on April 14, 2016. Those arrested were tried on charges of inciting mutiny, hatching a conspiracy and carrying weapons in the naval dockyard.
The naval court reportedly refused to provide copies of trial proceedings to the family members of the convicted officers who want to challenge their death sentences. All the five officers had links with AQIS led by Commander Asim Umar who is an Indian national from the state of Uttar Pradesh.
The AQIS was launched by Al Zawahiri on September 3, 2014 and the dockyard attack was carried out three days later. AQIS spokesman, Usama Mahmood, claimed the attack by the group in his September 11 statement.
US and Indian navies the targets
The incident came as a big blow to the credibility of the Pakistani military which had received billions of dollars of US aid since 2001 when General Pervez Musharraf joined the US-led war against al-Qaeda.
The statement issued by AQIS spokesman identified their target as USS Supply, a US naval ship which is used to refuel warships at sea. It was part of a plan to strike at the American military strength on the seas.
In a nine-page press release, Mahmood said the targets were American and Indian Navies and the operation was carried out on the orders of Al Zawahiri.
The Pakistani military authorities took 20 months to convict those naval officers who had been indoctrinated by al-Qaeda and were part of the dockyard attack which killed four Navy officers, including two dissidents.
However, worries for the Pakistani military establishment are far from over.
The Washington Post reported on June 3, 2016 that AQIS is regrouping in Pakistan and re-adapting through enhanced alliances with established militant groups there.
The report said: “Five years after most senior al-Qaeda leaders are thought to have fled the port city, officials in Karachi worry that the organization is regrouping and finding new support here and in neighboring Afghanistan.
“They are especially concerned about the recruitment of potential foot soldiers for the next major terrorist attack. The resurgence has been managed by a South Asian offshoot called Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, created by the top al-Qaeda leader, Ayman Al Zawahiri, in 2014 in order to slow advances by rival Daesh (IS) militants in the region.”
Going by the Post report, the AQIS initially struggled to gain traction in Pakistan as it has been the principal target of US President Barack Obama’s drone-strike strategy in the country’s northwestern tribal belt.
“But AQIS is now finding its footing in southern Pakistan, powered by fresh recruits and budding alliances with other militant organizations. They are making a comeback of sort in the form of a different, more localized al-Qaeda. The formation of AQIS is again allowing al-Qaeda to tap into Karachi’s wealth and network of madrasas in search of recruits and technical expertise and sparking deadly clashes with the Pakistani security forces,” the report said.
“The core al-Qaeda, the thinkers and planners are not coming to the front right now, rather they are giving directions and the local boys are going in big numbers. While Pakistani officials remain confident that al-Qaeda can’t pull off another 9/11-style attack on the United States, there is concern that the group is planning something big,” it said.
In Karachi, the AQIS has divided itself into three operational segments — recruitment, financial and tactical — made up of four-to-six-person cells. The recruitment cells work in madrasas and schools, casually preaching Islam before targeting certain students for potential recruitment. These cells solicit local businesses for donations, often under the guise of supporting Islamic charities, officials said.
They have no estimate on how much money al-Qaeda raises from relatively wealthy Karachi but said militants are often found carrying hundreds of dollars in cash. Militants are being told they don’t need to do any job and they don’t need to indulge in petty crimes. But they should remain discreet.
The Washington Post story is alarming as al-Qaeda has targeted several military installations in Karachi in recent years.
Assault on PNS Mehran Naval base
The most damaging assault was carried out on May 22, 2011 when Taliban- and al-Qaeda-linked terrorists stormed the heavily-guarded PNS Mehran Naval base with sophisticated weapons and fired rocket-propelled grenades which badly damaged some important defense assets, including Pakistan Navy’s highly expensive surveillance aircraft P-3C Orion, worth more than $35 million.
The attack began around 10.30 pm and lasted for over 16 hours. Fifteen security forces personnel were killed in the gun battle while 15 others were critically injured. The attack was carried out with such precision that it must have taken months of planning and drills.
The attackers knew where to get in from and where to find the P-3C Orion. Such sensitive information could have only come from insiders. Unfortunately, there are a number of cases where those with links to the armed forces have been involved in attacks targeting the military.
The Pakistani authorities subsequently arrested an ex-commando of the Navy, Kamran Ahmed, and his younger brother, Zaman Ahmed, from Lahore for aiding the attack.
Kamran, who had joined the Navy in 1993 and was trained as a Special Services Group commando, was detained on charges of providing maps of the Mehran Naval base to the attackers. He was court-martialed and terminated in 2003 for assaulting a senior officer. The military court declared Kamran unfit for the job because of his extremist views.
A former medic of Pakistan Army, ‘Dr’ Usman aka Aqeel, was the ring leader of the 12 fidayeen attackers who stormed the General Headquarters (GHQ) in the garrison town of Rawalpindi in October 2009 and killed over two dozen people.
He was subsequently court-martialed and hanged.
Another dreaded jehadi, Adnan Rasheed, known for various terrorist acts including an attempt on General Pervez Musharraf’s life, was a former air force man before he turned his guns on the state.
Now affiliated with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Adnan was freed along along with 400 other inmates by Taliban militants when they stormed the Central Prison in the Bannu district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2012.
He later masterminded the Dera Ismail Khan jailbreak in August 2013, in which 175 prisoners were freed.
Attack on Karachi Naval Dockyard
The Karachi Naval Dockyard attack was carried out entirely by serving Navy personnel, along with Owais Jakharani, a former Navy cadet. Jakhrani, son of Assistant Inspector General of Karachi Police Ali Sher Jakhrani, was killed during the operation.
The mystery behind the attack was solved when AQIS spokesman Mahmood issued a statement denying reports that the fidayeen operation was carried out by “some intruders.”
He said some naval officers executed the operation to take control of a Pakistani Naval ship PNS Zulfiqar to launch missile attacks on US warships in the Indian Ocean, carrying eight C-802 surface to surface anti-ship missiles.
He said all the participants in the “fearless operation” were officers of the Pakistan Navy. He described it as an act of rebellion against the Pakistani Navy by its own elements, striking at its policy of humiliation and subjugation to the United States.
He issued another statement on September 29, 2014, making public the name and picture of a Pakistan Navy officer, Second Lieutenant Zeeshan Rafeeq. He said the attack was to take control of two Pakistan Navy warships – PNS Zulfiqar and PNS Aslat – and use them for destroying an American oil tanker and an Indian warship.
The press release carried pictures of bearded Rafeeq and Jakhrani briefing “the leadership of the mujahideen on the Naval Dockyard operation.”
The statement said: “By the grace of Allah Almighty, the Mujahid brothers assumed control of both frigates. A firefight ensued with the officials of the Pakistan Navy. It lasted for several hours on both the warships. Due to this firefight with officials of the Pakistan Navy, the brothers were not able to fully execute the next part of their plan, namely the attack on American and Indian warships. Several soldiers and officers of Pakistan Navy were killed and injured while a number of our brothers attained martyrdom.”
Subsequent investigations by the Pakistani authorities revealed that Rafeeq was a serving Navy officer. He blew himself up after being surrounded by naval commandos. Zeeshan acted in unison with Jakhrani before being killed in a gun battle with the Special Services Group (Navy) commandos.
Four more attackers, who had taken refuge in one of the compartments of the PNS Zulfiqar, were locked inside by the Navy commandos and arrested afterward. At least a dozen rogue Navy personnel were detained by the Pakistan Naval Intelligence based on the phone records of the attackers, including four aboard PNS Zulfiqar, for their alleged involvement in the dockyard attack.
In a follow up report pertaining to the dockyard attack, the Wall Street Journal, quoting a senior American official, claimed on September 17, 2014 that although al-Qaeda recruited within the Pakistani military, such occurrences were rare.
“Still, there have been several attacks on military facilities and personnel in Pakistan carried out with the help of serving and retired military personnel,” the report said.
Alert gunner foils plan
According to the report, during the attempt to seize PNS Zulfiqar, the rogue officers were in uniform and had their service cards displayed. They simply walked on board.The frigate was due to sail the same day to join an international naval flotilla in the Indian Ocean. However, the plan was foiled primarily by the alertness of PNS Zulfiqar’s gunner.
The militants, who were supposed to board PNS Zulfiqar, approached the docked ship in an inflatable boat, wearing Marine uniforms. The gunner felt they were too close and their weapons appeared to be AK-47s which are not standard Marine issue. The gunner turned his sights on them and fired a warning shot.
The militants, fearing the game was up, retaliated with rockets and automatic weapons. At the sound of the firing, Marines and naval commandos rushed to the ship and were engaged by the renegade officers awaiting the militants on the inflatable boat.
While those on board the ship continued to fight it out for a few hours, the ones in the inflatable boat had no chance. The gunner ripped apart the boat with his Gatling anti-aircraft gun, killing all six on board. The four rogue naval men were killed aboard the frigate.
The battle ended when the last surviving rogue naval officer, a young sub-lieutenant, blew himself up after being surrounded, the WSJ report concluded.
The specter of Islamist infiltration has haunted the Pakistani armed forces for decades. The creeping coup of conservatism in the armed forces is a legacy of the country’s third military dictator, General Zia-ul Haq, under whose command the state policies were cantered on Islam; religious sermons by fanatic mullahs in military units were encouraged and even Tableeghi Jamaat (the party of preachers) members were allowed to preach in the garrisons at will.
This drift within the armed forces was first revealed during Benazir Bhutto’s second tenure as Prime Minister in 1995 when a group of senior Army officers led by a serving Major General was busted while planning to topple the federal government in Islamabad and to eliminate the top military leadership to enforce Shariah in the country.
Attempts on Musharraf’s life
The arrests of dozens of commissioned and non-commissioned officers of the Pakistan Army and the Air Force in connection with the December 2003 twin assassination attempts targeting General Musharraf’s presidential cavalcade in Rawalpindi did not come as a surprise to many.
Subsequent investigations revealed that al-Qaeda and Taliban-linked militants had penetrated the Pakistan Army and Air Force units to preach their brand of jihad and recruit personnel to assassinate none other than their own army chief.
During investigation of the two assassination attempts that took the military investigators to Rawalpindi, Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar and Federally Administered Tribal Areas, about 150 suspects including four-dozen commissioned and non-commissioned personnel of the Army and the Air Force were questioned.
The investigators concluded that the attempts on Pervez Musharraf’s cavalcade (on December 14, and on December 25, 2003) were an exclusive job of over a dozen brainwashed-technicians of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) who lived in a residential facility nearby. They were directed, motivated and armed by a Pakistani contact person of al-Qaeda.
The investigation showed that the Air Intelligence, which is the intelligence wing of the Air Force, had no wind that its personnel — about two dozen at the Chaklala airbase — had been attending meetings with religious extremists and were making preparations at the Pakistan Air Force base to bomb the presidential motorcade.
The investigation also led to the arrest of civilian religious extremists, including three clerics involved in the indoctrination of the PAF technicians and planning of attacks. A small group of religious extremists who had supplied the C4 explosives to the Air Force technicians and the suicide bombers were also arrested.
The investigation team, headed by Pakistan’s former Army Chief General Ashfaq Kiyani, who was a lieutenant general at that time, was shocked to learn that the Air Force technicians spent two days making several trips beneath the Lai Bridge to strap large quantities of the C4 explosives to the pillars of the bridge, all without being noticed either by the police or the Military Intelligence, which was supposed to keep an eye on this presidential route.
Almost 13 years after these attacks, with General Musharraf gone overseas and al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden killed, there are strong indications that Islamic extremists remain within the lower ranks of the Pakistani armed forces and are involved in several deadly terrorist attacks targeting important military installations.
This raises the billion dollar question: Is the jihadi penetration of the Pakistani armed forces deeper than feared?
Amir Mir is a senior Pakistani journalist known for his research work on Islamic militancy and terrorism in Pakistan. He has authored several books including “Talibanization of Pakistan: From 9/11 to 26/11,” “The Bhutto Murder Trail: From Waziristan to GHQ,” “The True Face of Jehadis” and “The Fluttering Flag of Jehad.”
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