Bomb hits Pakistan's spy agency in northwest, killing 7

A pair of suicide bombings have killed at least 16 people in Pakistan. One of Friday's deadly attacks targeted the country's powerful spy agency in a northwest outpost.
Map: Bannu, Pakistan
By Pamela Constable and Haq Nawaz Khan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 12, 2009; 11:40 PM

ISLAMABAD -- A powerful car bomb exploded in front of the national intelligence agency building in the Pakistani city of Peshawar early Friday morning, killing at least seven people and injuring more than 30, military and intelligence officials said.

The bomber penetrated one of the most heavily guarded zones of the North-West Frontier Province capital, which also houses military and government buildings. The attack was the latest in a month-long series of terrorist bombings in the Peshawar area, which have killed more than 200 people.

A second vehicle bomb exploded about 90 minutes later outside a police station in Bannu, a town at the edge of the lawless tribal zone about 30 miles west of Peshawar, killing three people and injuring 10, officials said.

Pakistani news stations did not disclose until several hours later that the intelligence service facility was targeted. They reported only that the blast had taken place in a "highly sensitive zone" near the Army Stadium, where "certain important buildings" are located. However, intelligence and military officials confirmed that the regional headquarters of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency was the target.

Ahmed Ali, a watchman at a nearby school, said he was riding his bicycle to work when he heard a thunderous sound. "Then I saw only smoke, and nothing was visible," he said. Officials ordered all schools in the area closed.

News channels repeatedly aired a brief video of the general blast site showing bloodied men staggering toward ambulances and stretchers. Witnesses said the blast caused most of the intelligence facility to collapse, but security forces blocked all access to the area. They also declared a state of emergency at Lady Reading Hospital, barring access to the medical center where most victims were taken.

The TV channels also reported that the blast, which took place at about 6:45 a.m., could be heard several miles away and had left a crater in front of the building. The attack occurred on the Khyber Road, one of the major thoroughfares through the city, where a former luxury hotel was destroyed by a truck bomb last year. All traffic on the road was stopped by security forces during the morning rush hour.

Although such bombings have become common in Pakistan, Peshawar has been singled out for attack by Islamic extremist groups in recent weeks because it is near the tribal zone of South Waziristan, where Pakistani army forces are currently waging a campaign to drive out Taliban militants from their longtime sanctuary. The extremists have vowed to retaliate in an effort to weaken public support for the operation.

The militants have focused increasingly on civilian targets and busy urban markets in and near Peshawar, terrifying the populace and severely damaging the economy. A huge bomb near a city market for women killed 120 people on Oct. 28; a second blast in Peshawar's famed Khyber Bazaar killed 50 on Oct.9; and two separate bombs in nearby village markets killed 38 people this past week. Several of the attacks have taken place on Fridays, the weekly Muslim holiday.

Islamic extremists have also assaulted a variety of security facilities, infuriating and embarrassing security officials. Last month, commando attackers invaded Army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi city, taking a number of soldiers hostage before being killed. There have also been attacks on police training academies and other intelligence agency buildings in Lahore and Rawalpindi.

Pakistan's intelligence agencies once sponsored armed Islamic militant groups that fought foreign adversaries. There have been persistent reports that some elements of the military and intelligence services still support such groups, either from religious sympathies or as a strategic asset in a region of perceived enemies. Officials have denied such reports.

In the past several years, however, violent, homegrown Islamist groups have turned against the Pakistani state, and the country has been wracked by violence. The army successfully drove Taliban forces out of the northwest Swat Valley last summer, and it began the Waziristan campaign in October.

Khan reported from Peshawar.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company