ASIA TIMES ONLINE
EXCLUSIVE Al-Qaeda had warned of Pakistan
strike By Syed Saleem Shahzad
This is the first article in a two-part
ISLAMABAD - Al-Qaeda carried
out the brazen attack on PNS Mehran naval air
station in Karachi on May 22 after talks failed
between the navy and al-Qaeda over the release of
naval officials arrested on suspicion of al-Qaeda
links, an Asia Times Online investigation reveals.
Pakistani security forces battled for 15
hours to clear the naval base after it had been
stormed by a handful of well-armed militants.
At least 10 people were killed and two
United States-made P3-C
Orion surveillance and
anti-submarine aircraft worth US$36 million each
were destroyed before some of the attackers
escaped through a cordon of thousands of armed
An official statement placed the
number of militants at six, with four killed and
two escaping. Unofficial sources, though, claim
there were 10 militants with six getting free.
Asia Times Online contacts confirm that the
attackers were from Ilyas Kashmiri's 313 Brigade,
the operational arm of al-Qaeda.
attacks on navy buses in which at least nine
people were killed last month were warning shots
for navy officials to accept al-Qaeda's demands
over the detained suspects.
The May 2
killing in Pakistan of Osama bin Laden spurred
al-Qaeda groups into developing a consensus for
the attack in Karachi, in part as revenge for the
death of their leader and also to deal a blow to
Pakistan's surveillance capacity against the
The deeper underlying motive,
though, was a reaction to massive internal
crackdowns on al-Qaeda affiliates within the navy.
Volcano of militancy Several
weeks ago, naval intelligence traced an al-Qaeda
cell operating inside several navy bases in
Karachi, the country's largest city and key port.
"Islamic sentiments are common in the
armed forces," a senior navy official told Asia
Times Online on the condition of anonymity as he
is not authorized to speak to the media.
"We never felt threatened by that. All
armed forces around the world, whether American,
British or Indian, take some inspiration from
religion to motivate their cadre against the
enemy. Pakistan came into existence on the
two-nation theory that Hindus and Muslims are two
separate nations and therefore no one can separate
Islam and Islamic sentiment from the armed forces
of Pakistan," the official said.
"Nonetheless, we observed an uneasy
grouping on different naval bases in Karachi.
While nobody can obstruct armed forces personnel
for rendering religious rituals or studying Islam,
the grouping [we observed] was against the
discipline of the armed forces. That was the
beginning of an intelligence operation in the navy
to check for unscrupulous activities."
official explained the grouping was against the
leadership of the armed forces and opposed to its
nexus with the United States against Islamic
militancy. When some messages were intercepted
hinting at attacks on visiting American officials,
intelligence had good reason to take action and
after careful evaluation at least 10 people -
mostly from the lower cadre - were arrested in a
series of operations.
"That was the
beginning of huge trouble," the official said.
Those arrested were held in a naval
intelligence office behind the chief minister's
residence in Karachi, but before proper
interrogation could begin, the in-charge of the
investigation received direct threats from
militants who made it clear they knew where the
men were being detained.
were promptly moved to a safer location, but the
threats continued. Officials involved in the case
believe the militants feared interrogation would
lead to the arrest of more of their loyalists in
the navy. The militants therefore made it clear
that if those detained were not released, naval
installations would be attacked.
clear the militants were receiving good inside
information as they always knew where the suspects
were being detained, indicating sizeable al-Qaeda
infiltration within the navy's ranks. A
senior-level naval conference was called at which
an intelligence official insisted that the matter
be handled with great care, otherwise the
consequences could be disastrous. Everybody
present agreed, and it was decided to open a line
of communication with al-Qaeda.
Samad Mansoori, a former student union activist
and now part of 313 brigade, who originally hailed
from Karachi but now lives in the North Waziristan
tribal area was approached and talks begun.
Al-Qaeda demanded the immediate release of the
officials without further interrogation. This was
The detainees were allowed to
speak to their families and were well treated, but
officials were desperate to interrogate them fully
to get an idea of the strength of al-Qaeda's
penetration. The militants were told that once
interrogation was completed, the men would be
discharged from the service and freed.
Al-Qaeda rejected these terms and
expressed its displeasure with the attacks on the
navy buses in April.
pointed to more than the one al-Qaeda cell
intelligence had tracked in the navy. The fear now
was that if the problem was not addressed, North
Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) supply lines
could face a new threat. NATO convoys are
routinely attacked once they begin the journey
from Karachi to Afghanistan; now they could be at
risk in Karachi port. Americans who often visit
naval facilities in the city would also be in
Therefore, another crackdown was
conducted and more people were arrested. Those
seized had different ethnic backgrounds. One naval
commando came from South Waziristan's Mehsud tribe
and was believed to have received direct
instructions from Hakeemullah Mehsud, the chief of
the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (Pakistan Taliban).
Others were from Punjab province and Karachi, the
capital of Sindh province.
After Bin Laden
was killed by American Navy Seals in Abbottabad,
60 kilometers north of Islamabad, militants
decided the time was ripe for major action.
Within a week, insiders at PNS Mehran
provided maps, pictures of different exit and
entry routes taken in daylight and at night, the
location of hangers and details of likely reaction
from external security forces.
result, the militants were able to enter the
heavily guarded facility where one group targeted
the aircraft, a second group took on the first
strike force and a third finally escaped with the
others providing covering fire. Those who stayed
behind were killed.