By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 16, 2009
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Oct. 15 -- A spectacular spasm of insurgent attacks that penetrated high-security zones on Thursday prompted shock and confusion across Pakistan, where intelligence agencies and the military have long been viewed as the nation's most potent and prepared institutions.
The assaults killed at least 39 people and included three seemingly coordinated invasions of law enforcement facilities in Lahore, Pakistan's bustling cultural capital. They were the latest in an 11-day wave of attacks that included a stunning weekend siege at the nation's army command center.
Two of Thursday's targets had been attacked in the past 1 1/2 years, leading many to question whether government forces had grown complacent in the face of a rebounding and adaptable Islamist uprising.
At one of the sites, the Federal Investigation Agency in Lahore, a black-clad fighter armed with grenades and a rifle was able to enter through a broken main gate to kill six people, said Muhammad Tahir, a member of a paramilitary force guarding the building.
"One was expecting that there would be better planning and more fortifications," said Faisal Saleh Hayat, a lawmaker with the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, an opposition party. The Pakistani Taliban recently warned that it would escalate attacks as vengeance for the death of its leader, Baitullah Mehsud, in a U.S. missile strike in August, and as a warning to the government, which is planning to launch a ground offensive in the militant stronghold of South Waziristan. At least 28,000 troops are sealing off entry and exit points at the border region as aerial bombings target insurgent hideouts, military officials said.
The five attacks Thursday also included bombings at a police station in the northwestern city of Kohat and at a government residence in Peshawar. About half of the dead were members of the security forces, while 10 militants were killed and two captured, authorities said.
The attacks began about 9 a.m. in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, at the FIA building. Next, a small group of gunmen, some with explosives on their person, climbed a wall to enter a police training academy. A third group, whose members also wore explosives-laden vests, climbed over a wall at a police commando training center, where hundreds of recruits were performing morning drills on the vast campus.
The government attributed the Lahore attacks to a militant sect, Amjad Farooqi, that has asserted responsibility for the weekend assault and hostage-taking at the army headquarters in Rawalpindi. The group is rooted in the country's Punjabi heartland but allied with the Pakistani Taliban, which is based in the volatile tribal areas along the northwestern border, authorities said.
The wave of violence demonstrated again that the Pakistani Taliban, which U.S. and Pakistani intelligence officials said had been weakened by the death of its leader in August, has not only regrouped but is also increasingly linked to other militant sects, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said.
The insurgents appear to be developing new tactics, analysts said. On Thursday, they scaled walls, used a remote-control bomb and brandished fake army identifications in their quest to create carnage.
"They have changed their strategy," Malik told reporters. "And so will we."
All day Thursday, television news channels played fuzzy images of helicopters hovering over Lahore, where streets and stores were closed, and broadcast interviews with analysts expressing dismay at the security forces' lapses.
Some politicians defended the security forces, saying three simultaneous attacks would flummox law enforcement in most cities across the world and emphasizing that the violence in Lahore was quelled within hours. Malik said intelligence agencies were on "high alert," but he acknowledged that the government needed to "build the capacity of the security forces."
In Pakistani cities, residents and businesses braced for more brutality. Paramilitary forces were deployed across Lahore. In Islamabad, the capital, the United Nations closed its offices because officials were "very worried the violence will reach Islamabad," a spokeswoman said. A Taliban suicide bomber struck at the U.N. World Food Program office last week, killing five.
"It is scary," said Arsalan Khan, a Peshawar resident and government employee, adding that he felt the Peshawar blast from his home. "Being a government servant is enough to make one a terrorist target."
Special correspondents Haq Nawaz Khan in Islamabad and Aoun Sahi in Lahore contributed to this report.