The deadly assault on Karachi’s international airport shows the growing sophistication of the Pakistani Taliban, which has an increasing presence in the country’s largest city and appears poised to inflict further damage despite a split in its ranks, government leaders and analysts said Monday.

Pakistani officials said the 10 heavily armed Pakistani Taliban militants who assaulted Jinnah International Airport on Sunday night had hoped to destroy some planes, hijack others and take hostages. The attack touched off a battle that lasted six hours and left at least 36 people dead, including the assailants.

“The terrorists had a plan to bring down our aviation industry,” said Mohyuddin Ahmad Wani, a spokesman for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. “The valiant effort of [security forces] defeated the terrorists, and the national assets were saved.”

No passengers were harmed, but at least a dozen Pakistani airport security officials were killed in the attack. Four employees of Pakistani International Airlines were also slain.

Early Tuesday, the bodies of seven airport employees were found in a locked cold-storage facility at the airport. Frantic relatives had reported that the workers had sought refuge there during the attack and contacted them by phone, Pakistani newspapers reported. It was not immediately clear why authorities had not been able to free them.

Sign that peace efforts failed

The Pakistani Taliban has carried out a bloody fight since 2007 to impose a harsh version of Islamic law. Two weeks ago, a major faction announced that it was breaking away from the group because its leader, Maulana Fazlullah, had become too violent and undisciplined. Some analysts saw the split as a hopeful sign that the insurgency was weakening.

Now, the raid on the airport demonstrates that the group, also known as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, remains a formidable threat to the nuclear-armed country, analysts say.

In a statement Monday, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban said the attack was in response to recent Pakistani military air operations targeting the group and to a U.S. drone strike in November that killed its leader, Hakimullah Mehsud.

The Taliban spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid, added that the assault should be viewed as a sign that Prime Minister Sharif’s efforts to engage the group in peace talks had failed.

“The main goal of this attack was to damage the government, including by hijacking planes and destroying state installations,” Shahid said, according to the Reuters news agency. The attackers had intended to seize aircraft at the airport’s old terminal, which is used for VIP flights and cargo, he said.

Most analysts believe Pakistan’s military is eager to begin a sustained military operation against the Taliban. Over the past two weeks, about two dozen Pakistani military commanders and soldiers have been killed in attacks attributed to the group.

Khalid Aziz, chairman of the Regional Institute of Policy Research and Training in Peshawar, said the airport attack signals that the group believes a sustained military operation against Taliban strongholds in northwestern Pakistan is imminent.

“We are now in the phase where one should expect more and more signature attacks,” Aziz said. “The Karachi attack shows they have given up changing the military’s mind, and I think it’s war as far as they are concerned.”

Yet Sharif has appeared reluctant to endorse a major military operation. On Monday, he said through his spokesman that the national security team will discuss the airport siege in the coming days.

Many analysts think Sharif fears that a large-scale military operation would unleash a wave of deadly revenge attacks in Pakistani cities, which would undercut the prime minister’s economic development initiatives. Pakistani intelligence officials believe there are Taliban sleeper cells in cities including the capital, Islamabad, and the second-largest city, Lahore.

“He doesn’t want it to become the defining issue of his government,” said Reza Jan, the Pakistan team leader for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.

Militants from northwest

The attack was carried out by men in their late teens or early 20s. Many were wearing the uniforms of the Karachi airport security force, officials said.

Security officials said all of the slain militants appeared to be foreign nationals, perhaps from Uzbekistan. Some Islamist fighters from Uzbekistan have sought refuge in northwestern Pakistan and at times have coordinated with the Pakistani Taliban.

The attack comes as Pakistani officials are struggling to control the growing presence of Taliban fighters in Karachi. In recent years, thousands of militants from northwestern Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan have moved to the densely populated city to escape drone attacks and fighting.

Local officials say various factions of the Taliban effectively control some neighborhoods in Karachi, where they use extortion and other crimes to help finance their activities

The attack appeared to be an attempt to damage the economic lifeline of the country.

Karachi, home to 22 million people, is Pakistan’s largest city and generates more than three-fifths of the country’s gross domestic product. Its airport, which handles 6 million passengers annually, is the country’s chief link to wealthier nations in the Middle East.

Photographs revealed that the attackers had smuggled dozens of grenades as well as rocket launchers and assault weapons onto airport grounds. They also set fires that sent flames and thick smoke billowing over the airport terminal. At least two planes were hit by gunfire.

“The nature of the weapons, arms and ammunition that was recovered from the killed terrorists show that they were trying and they had planned to destroy the planes at the airport,” said Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, Pakistan’s interior minister. “Evidence also shows that the terrorists wanted to take some people as hostage and later use them as bargaining chips.”

When the attack began, all arriving flights were quickly diverted. The gunmen did not reach the passenger terminal.

In Pakistan’s tribal areas Monday, there were indications that residents fear a major military response to the Karachi attack.

Officials in Miran Shah, a major town in North Waziristan, said many residents are fleeing their homes.

A tribesman who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicate security situation said via telephone, “Some people are even moving on foot with their families and belongings.”

Aamir Iqbal in Peshawar, Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad and Nisar Mehdi in Karachi contributed to
this report.