ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Security forces on Friday killed an alleged organizer of last week’s school massacre, the latest sign that the government and military are stepping up their assault on the Pakistani Taliban and other Islamist militant groups.
The slaying of the Taliban commander, known as Saddam, comes as Pakistani leaders are vowing to forcefully respond to the attack on the school. With the country still mourning the deaths of 149 students and staff members, security forces are taking their battle deep into Pakistani cities while the country’s air force pounds militants’ havens along the border with Afghanistan.
Saying he plans “to wipe terror out of Pakistan,” Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif huddled with his cabinet much of Friday to oversee the implementation of a newly announced anti-terrorism policy. While Pakistan’s battle against Islamist militants has appeared to sputter during much of the past decade, Sharif has stressed in recent days that the current operations will define his term as prime minister.
“To me, zero tolerance is zero tolerance, and violence in any form against my people equals terror,” Sharif said. He vowed that Pakistan “shall come down heavy on it.”
Under its new policy, the government is planning to quickly establish military courts to try terrorism suspects as well as expedite the executions of prisoners being detained on terrorism charges.
A senior Interior Ministry official said 6,777 Pakistani residents are being monitored around-the-clock for suspected ties to militant groups. Mass arrests are likely in the coming days, the official added. On Friday, 83 suspects were picked up in the capital, Islamabad, according to Pakistan’s the Nation newspaper.
The Pakistani military also issued a statement saying that fresh airstrikes in North Waziristan along the Afghan border had killed 23 militants, including some Taliban commanders. Earlier in the day, eight militants were slain in two suspected U.S. drone strikes in the same area, according to Pakistani intelligence officials.
Saddam was killed in a firefight with security forces in Khyber Agency, in the country’s unruly tribal belt near the Afghan border. The 25-year-old is believed to have provided lodging for the seven Taliban fighters who stormed the army-run school in Peshawar on Dec. 16, according to local officials. He helped guide the fighters, all of whom were killed in the attack, to the school, officials said.
Over the past week, key regional Pakistani Taliban commanders were killed in Karachi and Peshawar. But Pakistani political leaders say that this time the country’s campaign against terrorism will extend far beyond the Taliban.
Pakistan is home to more than three dozen terrorist organizations, some of which have links to the country’s powerful intelligence agency and carry out attacks in neighboring India and Afghanistan.
U.S. officials remain skeptical that Pakistan will aggressively confront groups such as the Haqqani network, which has targeted U.S. forces in Afghanistan, or Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Lahore-based militant group that has carried out attacks in India.
But Pakistani military analysts say it would be a mistake to underestimate the resolve of the country’s new army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif.
Analysts say the military leader has felt embarrassed by the number of brutal attacks that the Taliban and other militant groups have been able to carry out inside Pakistan, including a siege in June of Karachi’s international airport.
Several of the attacks also targeted the country’s military, including a suicide bombing that killed more than 50 people in early November during an army procession at the country’s main border crossing with India. Dozens of soldiers and officers also lost children or spouses last week during the attack on the Army Public School and Degree College.
“People are very angry and so is the army, and there is a deep sense of revenge, so we now see terrorists killed and hanged,” said Saad Muhammad, a Peshawar-based military analyst.
Raheel Sharif, who is not related to the prime minister, has met twice over the past 10 days with Gen. John F. Campbell, commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, and Sher Muhammad Karimi, leader of Afghanistan’s army, to discuss ways to better coordinate offensive operations against militants.
Robert Hathaway, a Pakistan scholar with the Wilson Center in Washington, said there was “no doubt” that the Pakistan military is now “taking out bad guys.” But Hathaway said the “jury is still out” about whether the country can undertake the multi-pronged effort needed to curb the insurgency in a meaningful way.
“The Pakistani army faces many of the same problems that U.S. and NATO forces encountered, both in Afghanistan and in Iraq,” Hathaway said. “A successful counterinsurgency campaign is very difficult and will take a long time. It can be done. Right now, what we’re seeing is the military side of it. But that is not going to be sufficient. Too many people are disgruntled and alienated from the government for a military effort alone to be sufficient.”
On Friday, a court in Islamabad issued an arrest warrant for Abdul Aziz, the chief cleric of the Red Mosque. The mosque was the site of a bloody government crackdown in 2007 that helped spur the creation of the Pakistani Taliban.
In a television interview last week, Aziz declined to condemn the Peshawar attack. Aziz later apologized and denounced the incident, but there have been demonstrations against him for the past week. Protesters have filed a criminal complaint accusing him of making threats and inciting violence.
The protests were a rare show of defiance against an Islamic leader in Pakistan. It was not clear Friday whether the police or army would move to enforce the warrant against Aziz. In a statement, Aziz said through a spokesman that he and his followers would resist any effort to apprehend him.But the demonstrators gathered outside a police station Friday night vowed that they will expand their protest in the coming days if Aziz is not arrested.
Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad and Carol Morello in Washington contributed to this report.