Pakistan braced for new wave of violence
Pakistan’s intelligence and security officials on Sunday warned that the weekend suicide bombing at Islamabad’s Marriott hotel, which killed at least 53 people, could be the start of a wave of attacks targeting the country’s largest cities.
The bombing – which left 266 injured, many seriously – has sparked a security rethink for all of Pakistan’s biggest urban areas. “This attack could be the beginning of a [new] terror campaign,” said one senior intelligence official.
Rahman Malik, the prime minister’s adviser on the interior, said the government planned to launch a new disaster management strategy which would include improvements to rescue operations and the introduction of closed circuit television cameras in high security zones.
The blast at the Marriott was the most deadly terrorist attack yet in Pakistan, and the highest-profile event since the siege on the Red Mosque in July 2007. It has been likened by politicians and security officials to the New York attacks in 2001.
Situated near the official residences of Asif Ali Zardari, the president, and of the prime minister – and a stone’s throw from the city’s diplomatic quarters – the attack has struck a blow at the heart of Pakistan’s ruling establishment. It was not only a favoured base for foreign diplomats, businessmen and the Pakistani elite, but represented a premier western brand in Islamabad, being one of just two five-star hotels in the city.
“Now the Marriott has gone and so has the pride of Pakistani rulers,” said a prominent businessman on Sunday, weighing the fallout from the attack. “If you don’t just count the number of people killed, which is a number that adds on to so many others killed before, you have to appreciate the very powerful psychological effect.”
Some US officials see the bombing as a possible signal of displeasure by the Taliban and al-Qaeda at recent cross-border attacks by US forces from Afghanistan – attacks Washington believes have been effective.
The US attacks have continued in spite of Pakistani protests. George W. Bush, US president, is due to meet Mr Zardari at the United Nations on Tuesday.
Among the immediate questions was the extent to which the attack could have been prevented. Yusuf Raza Gilani, the prime minister, on Sunday countered accusations that Pakistan’s intelligence services had failed.
“Had there been an intelligence failure, how could we have successfully overseen the holding of a joint session of parliament just hours before the attack?” said Mr Gilani, referring to Saturday’s parliamentary session, which was addressed for the first time by the newly elected Mr Zardari.
That event was surrounded by intense security which included detailed checks on motorists driving into the area as well as sporadic checks of pedestrians.
Ikram Sehgal, a commentator on security affairs, said the blast had, however, revealed huge and alarming gaps in Pakistan’s security arrangements.
“A truck laden with explosives went through five or six checkpoints in Islamabad. How can this happen? This is definitely a security breakdown,” he said.
Western defence officials stationed in Islamabad said the attack had forced Pakistan to reconsider the role of key intelligence services, notably the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
Western officials have repeatedly urged Pakistan to tighten curbs around the ISI and to cleanse it of people who might be sympathetic to Islamic militants.
In recent weeks, the Pakistan military has increased the number of attacks on suspected militant sites, though experts argue that the effort must be sustained.
“Pakistan cannot afford any grey areas. Faced with such a major threat to its future, Pakistan must follow up this attack with a vigorous and long term commitment,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a prominent commentator on security affairs.
On the streets of Islamabad on Sunday, ordinary Pakistani people were clearly divided, though there was widespread acknowledgement that time had come for concerted action.
“We have to fight these militants but my only question is, do we have a capable government which can do this?” asked Khalid Butt, a school clerk. “Our leaders make promises but never before have those been fulfilled.”
Naeem Raja, a fruit vendor, took a longer-term view.
“Human beings have an instinct to survive. As long as just poor people were getting killed on the border, that did not make any difference to the lives of rich people. But now, the war is knocking on their doors. Maybe they will act in their own best interests,” he said.