Just as Pakistan was recovering from a week of deadly attacks by militants capped by the stand-off at Army headquarters, a suicide attack in the North-West Frontier Province killed at least 41 people on Monday.
The military, meanwhile, said the attack on its General Headquarters in Rawalpindi over the weekend was carried out by a mixed team of South Waziristan-based Punjabi militants and Taliban militants.
But it sought to play down suggestions that south Punjab, where several jihadist groups are based and to some of which the GHQ attackers had links, was emerging as a key link in the expanding reach of the militants.
Monday’s suicide attack came in the shape of an explosives-packed car that its driver detonated in a crowded market place in Shangla, a district adjacent to the Swat Valley.
Shangla, which falls within Malakand, was among the main areas, along with Swat, in which the Army conducted anti-Taliban operations over two months, declaring victory over the militants in July.
The car was apparently targeted at an Army vehicle carrying soldiers. While six security personnel died, the rest of the victims were civilians. The bombing also left 45 people wounded. At a press conference in Rawalpindi, Major-General Athar Abbas said a team of 10 militants had carried out Saturday’s attack at the General Headquarters. Of these, nine had been killed by security forces.
Five of the militants were from South Waziristan, while the other five, including the one captured alive, Aqeel alias Dr. Usman, who was also described as the leader of the group, were from different parts of Punjab. But he quoted from telephone intercepts to show that the attackers had taken orders from the Taliban leadership in South Waziristan.
Their main objective in carrying out the attack was to take senior Army officials hostage, the spokesman said, and bargain for the release of jailed militants.
The attackers did manage to take 42 hostages — no senior officer was said to be among them — and Major-General Abbas disclosed that the militants did make the demand for the release of over 100 militants belonging to several groups in exchange for the hostages.
“They had other demands but this was the main one,” he said. Without giving any names, Major-General Abbas revealed that the list contained several “high profile terrorists” from all the “terrorist groups across the board”.
Aqeel, the captured attacker, had tried to kill himself by detonating a mine and a suicide jacket. He was “severely injured” and was in position to be questioned, the spokesman said.
Major-General Abbas said Aqeel’s association was with the Laskhar-e-Jhangvi, an offshoot of the dreaded Sipah-e-Sahaba. But while he acknowledged that there were elements from this group and the Jaish-e-Mohammed now based in South Waziristan, he said these were “splinter groups”, and were no longer taking orders from their main leadership.
But he said “much hype” had been created around South Punjab as a base for terror groups.
“Yes, there are terrorists in South Punjab, yes, there are groups in South Punjab. These groups have linkages with [Taliban] in South Waziristan and other areas. But I can assure you that because of the different environment that prevails in South Punjab — it is a settled area, it is a well-developed area with a huge presence of security forces, if someone is thinking that there are safe havens, that there are areas where they can conduct terrorist operations, it is very different from what was Swat and what is South Waziristan.”