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    South Asia
     May 24, 2011

Pakistan's military under al-Qaeda attack
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

ISLAMABAD - The brazen al-Qaeda-linked attack on the Pakistan navy's Mehran air base in the southern port city of Karachi on Sunday night marks the violent beginning of an internal ideological struggle between Islamist elements in the Pakistani armed forces and their secular and liberal top brass.

More than 10 heavily armed militants attacked the base from three sides, blowing up several sensitive aircraft including a United States-manufactured surveillance plane. At least 20 security personnel are known to have been killed and as of late Monday morning the militants were still holding hostages in the facility.

The attack has been claimed by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (Pakistan Taliban), but Asia Times Online contacts are adamant that the operation was orchestrated by al-Qaeda to avenge the

killing of Osama bin Laden this month by US Special Forces and carried out by 313 Brigade - the operational arm of al-Qaeda that is headed by Ilyas Kashmiri.

Following Bin Laden's killing in the town of Abbottabad 60 kilometers north of Islamabad on May 2, Asia Times Online wrote that the reaction of the militants would be carefully planned attacks on installations of the armed forces:
This would be the beginning of real fireworks within the military establishment should mid-level cadre - rogue elements - aligned with Sunni militants instigate attacks along the lines of the militant assault on the Indian city of Mumbai in 2008 that resulted in the deaths of more than 150 people. Trouble ahead in Pakistan's new US phase , May 18.
The attack began at about 10.30pm on Sunday night when the militants, carrying guns, rocket-propelled grenades and hand grenades, stormed the base. They blew up guard rooms before heading for a hanger, where they targeted P-3 Orion aircraft with rockets, recently supplied by the US to Pakistan, on which some American officials were working.

A senior security official in Karachi told Asia Times Online that the militants showed a lot of resilience and had pinned down security forces, which have to date made three attempts to eliminate the attackers and release the hostages. Some unconfirmed reports suggested that Chinese workers were among the hostages. A navy spokesman denied this.

The first move against the militants was made on Sunday night by Sindh police and Rangers, but they were immediately repulsed. Then navy commandos entered on early Monday morning, but they took at least 12 casualties. Later, the Special Services Group of the army was deployed and it has also received some casualties.

According to eye witnesses reports, the militants acted in a calm and relaxed way, firing at intervals. They appeared to have complete knowledge of the base and frequently changed their position. Very much like the Mumbai attack, the militants were well-equipped with arms, ammunition, food and drink.

"It was shown several months ago that the Pakistan navy is vulnerable to Islamists when a marine commando unit official was arrested," the security official said. "He was a member of the Mehsud tribe from South Waziristan [tribal area] and was completely indoctrinated by militants. Naval Intelligence never shared the information with the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] or any other security agency that during interrogation he confessed that militants planned to attack installations during the visit of a foreign delegation. Now, they [intelligence] realize how the organization [navy] is riddled and vulnerable to the influence of militant organizations," the official said.

The attack is similar to other major ones in the South Asian war theater:
  • Mumbai on November 26, 2008 - 10 militants went on a three-day rampage.
  • Police Academy in Lahore in 2009 - least 23 people dead and hundreds injured.
  • The Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore in 2009 - six policemen killed and several injured.
  • General Headquarters Rawalpindi in 2009 - several hostages taken and then released.
  • Parade Lane Mosque Rawalpindi in 2009 - at least 40 killed.

    Pakistani security forces confirmed that at least three of these attacks were carried out by 313 Brigade led by Ilyas Kashmiri while the others were blamed on Pakistani militants trained by Kashmiri (See al-Qaeda's guerrilla chief lays out strategy Asia Times Online, October 15, 2009.)

    Military out of step
    After the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US, Pakistan's top brass took a policy turn and joined in the US's "war on terror", but a large chunk of officers took retirement and with serving colleagues they helped the Taliban. This changed the dynamics of the Afghan war theater (see Military brains plot Pakistan's downfall Asia Times Online, September 26, 2007).

    This collection of former and serving officers was responsible for a number of attacks on the military, including on military headquarters in 2009 and against ex-president General Pervez Musharraf.

    Now, this nexus could become active again to revive regional operations, in addition to a possible mutiny against the top military brass. (See Trouble ahead in Pakistan's new US phase May 18.)

    Before the incident in Karachi, Asia Times Online was contacted by militants by telephone to confirm future attacks in the following words: "We don't want any trouble inside Pakistan or in the Pakistan army, but we do want to create an environment in which it would be conducive for pro-Islam and patriotic elements in the armed forces to dislodge incompetent and pro-American military officials."

    This is the third attack on a naval installation in the past 30 days - two were launched before Bin Laden's assassination.

    "The Pakistan navy constituted a high-level inquiry committee after their bases were targeted last month," a senior security official told Asia Times Online on the condition of anonymity. "The teams arrived to Karachi last month and asked for our input. They were wondering why militants were targeting the navy as they were not involved in any anti-terror operations. We told them that the navy's own staff were hand-in-glove in those two attacks," the official said.

    Kashmiri's 313 Brigade, which was earlier focused on Afghanistan, has clearly now turned its sights on Pakistan, where Kashmiri is known to have powerful connections among retired and serving officials in the armed forces. More attacks are inevitable.

    Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief and author of upcoming book Inside al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11 published by Pluto Press, UK. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com

    (Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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