LONDON — Only weeks ago, the Pakistani Taliban appeared to be on the ropes. Violent rivalries split the insurgency in two. Peace talks with the government collapsed. Military jets pounded militant hide-outs in the tribal belt.
And so, with a point to prove, the Taliban hit back.
On Sunday night, 10 militant fighters, disguised as government security forces and armed with rocket launchers and suicide vests, stormed the Karachi airport. They came with food, water and ammunition, in apparent preparation for a long siege, but also with big ambitions: perhaps to hijack a commercial airliner, government officials said Monday, or to blow up an oil depot, or to destroy airplanes on the tarmac.
Paramilitary guards pinned the fighters down in a cargo terminal, in a firefight that blazed through the night. After five hours, as stranded passengers waited anxiously in parked airplanes, it was over, with 29 people dead and the cargo building on fire.
Yet the audacious assault shook the country to its core. It showed how, despite the Taliban’s challenges and deepening divisions, their reach has extended far from their tribal redoubt into Pakistan’s biggest city. With several jihadists from Uzbekistan among the dead, the attack also demonstrated how the Taliban can still draw on an international militant network to conduct sophisticated operations against high-profile targets across the country.
And it may be a sign of more violence to come.
“This marks an escalation of the war,” said Adil Najam, dean of at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies. “And it shows that this is going to be a long war.”
The main Pakistani Taliban faction’s spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid, said as much, calling the strike in Karachi “a response to the recent attacks by the government.” And even as he said the group was still interested in talking peace with the government, he promised that, in the meantime, “we will continue carrying out such attacks.”
Explosions and gunfire rang out across the airport in the early-morning hours Monday, as police and security forces battled with the attackers. Just before 5 a.m., after five hours of siege, the military reported that the last of the 10 attackers had been killed.
The chief minister of Sindh province, Syed Qaim Ali Shah, told reporters that in addition to the 10 attackers, 19 other people had died, including 11 members of the Airport Security Force, five local airline officials and three others. “They were well-trained,” he said of the assailants. “Their plan was very well-thought-out.”
Maj. Gen. Rizwan Akhtar, director-general of a paramilitary force that is deployed in Karachi, told reporters that the attackers appeared to be of Uzbek origin. Gen. Akhtar said the attackers came in two groups of five each. Three attackers detonated their explosive vests, while seven were killed by security forces, he said.
The assault was the most ambitious of its kind in Pakistan since Islamist militants attacked a navy air base in central Karachi in 2011. Although commandos moved quickly to counter the airport assault, many Pakistanis expressed shock that militants could penetrate such a prominent target so thoroughly and raised questions about why the attack had not been prevented by the military’s powerful spy service, the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence.Asia - South Asia - Pakistan - Karachi - Taliban