Karachi Airport attack indicates Pakistan Taliban will expand targets to include industrial and aviation assets over next six months

08 June 2014

 

Pakistani security personnel surround Karachi airport following an attack by TTP gunmen disguised as police guards who stormed a terminal used for VIPs and cargo on 8 June 2014 in Pakistan. Source: PA

Key Points

 

  • On 8 June 2014, 28 people – including 10 attackers – were killed when militants affiliated to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) infiltrated and attacked the cargo terminal at Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport.
  • The attack, which was the largest operation carried out so far by the TTP this year, indicates that militants are now expanding their targets to include key strategic industrial assets and civilian airports, in addition to the established targets of security forces, government institutions, and minority communities.
  • Militant attacks are likely to sharply increase in the coming two months, as the TTP leadership seeks to retaliate against government attempts to divide the organisation, and to pre-empt an expected offensive in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

EVENT

The TTP’s attack on Jinnah International Airport in Karachi on 8 June comes as Pakistan Taliban leader Mullah Fazlullah faces internal leadership challenges and the army pushes for a military operation in North Waziristan.

According to media reports, at least 10 militants entered the cargo terminal at Karachi airport, which is adjacent to, and shares a runway with, Jinnah International Airport, at about 2300 (local time) on 8 June.

The militants were heavily armed with automatic weapons, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and suicide jackets. Once inside, they engaged security forces for six hours and damaged fuel and equipment stores. Although the militants gained access to the tarmac, where several planes were waiting to take off, there have been no reports of major damage to commercial aircraft, as security forces were able to isolate the militants to certain areas of the airport. Significant damage was caused to fuel and equipment stores and some aircraft parked for repairs would have received minor damage. Although the army, which took charge of the operation, stated that all militants had been killed, flight operations at the airport, which were suspended when the attack began, have not yet resumed as of 1030 GMT and incoming flights have been cancelled or diverted to alternative airports. The Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack, with their spokesman announcing that the attack was in retaliation for the killing of TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud and for army operations in the tribal areas in the past couple of weeks.

Taliban’s shifting targets

The attack on the airport is a major shift in the target pattern of the TTP. Up to now, the TTP has preferred to focus their attacks on security forces and minority communities. Although there have been several attacks on military airbases, notably at Mehran Naval Airbase in May 2011, Kamra airbase in Rawalpindi in August 2012, and Peshawar airbase in December 2012, so far civilian airports have not been targeted. The attack on Karachi airport indicates that the TTP is now more likely to attack civilian airports, as well as strategic industrial assets.

Mullah Fazlullah, the present ameer or head, of the TTP, has faced considerable challenges since assuming the leadership in October 2013. Fazlullah’s authority has been challenged by the Mehsud tribal faction of the TTP, who were aggrieved at Fazlullah’s elevation. Fazlullah is not from the Mehsud tribe but from Swat, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The Mehsuds make up the bulk of the TTP’s fighters, and most of the umbrella groups sheltering under the TTP are based in the traditionally Mehsud-dominated territory of North Waziristan. Fazlullah has further been hampered by the fact that he is attempting to run the TTP from his base in Kunar, Afghanistan.

The government has also been attempting to take advantage of reported factionalisation within the TTP. According to an IHS source, the government’s chief motivation in offering peace talks to the TTP over the past six months has been to wean away the Mehsud faction from the TTP. Such a move would neutralise the bulk of the TTP’s fighting force and would make it difficult for foreign militants to shelter in North Waziristan. In light of the apprehension among foreign militants, mainly Arab or Central Asian, that the Mehsuds would hand them over to government forces as part of any separate peace agreement, local sectarian organisations like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) have already offered to shelter these militants in urban areas of Pakistan. Foreign militants usually have a better capability to conduct complex operations, and would act as a force multiplier for the TTP in attacks in the urban areas. It is likely that foreign militants were involved in the Karachi airport attack, since army officials have claimed that the 10 militants who were killed in the operation had distinctive Uzbek, or Central Asian features.

TTP escalation likely to continue

The TTP has escalated its attacks to reassert its authority and to pressure the government and the army not to launch a major offensive in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). IHS had previously forecast that any split in the TTP would increase risks of major attacks for around six months to deter the army from launching a major offensive in the FATA; this now looks increasingly likely in the next couple of months. In fact, the TTP has already claimed that the Karachi attack was a response to increased military operations in the Mohmand and Bajaur Tribal Agencies in the past few weeks.

The Karachi airport attack was the third major attack in a week, following a suicide IED attack in Attock, Punjab, in which five people, including an army colonel, were killed last week, and another suicide IED attack on a convoy of Shia pilgrims in Taftan, Baluchistan, which occurred a few hours before the attack on Karachi airport.

FORECAST

The TTP is likely to increase its attacks on airports and strategic industrial assets. Airports remain a particularly vulnerable target, as the media and commercial impact of an attack like the one at Karachi airport are likely to have a tremendous negative impact. Most major airlines have pulled out of Pakistan in the past few years citing security concerns. The remaining international carriers that still operate in the country, including Emirates, Etihad, Saudi Arabian Airlines, Gulf Air, Cathay Pacific, Thai, Qatar, and Omanair are also likely to review their security, especially as several of their planes were on the tarmac waiting to take off when the attack began.

Airports at high risk of attack would include those in Lahore and Peshawar, in addition to Karachi. Security will be further increased (with greater deployment of paramilitary rangers and even possibly army troops for the next few months) in light of the 8 June attack and this will certainly mitigate risks of further attacks. But the attackers’ methods of infiltration, which included having fake identification and Airport Security Force (ASF) uniforms to gain access to restricted areas, indicate that they are prepared and therefore the possibility of another similar operation in the near future cannot be ruled out. Although the TTP is less likely to target industrial assets, strategic industrial assets, where the impact of an attack would resonate on a much wider level, will face an increased risk of attack. Such industries would include the Kemari Oil terminal at Karachi port (where a low intensity IED attached to a tanker waiting to be loaded, detonated in May 2014), the Wah Ordnance factory outside Rawalpindi, where most government munitions are manufactured, and also Khan Research Laboratories and other facilities associated with Pakistan’s nuclear programme. Risks of attacks on traditional TTP targets, such as government security forces and minority communities, will also remain severe.

(1243 words)
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