The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) seems to have lived up to its vows, expressed a few weeks back, of staging high-profile and staggering attacks, by launching multiple attacks on Peshawar International Airport the other day. As the attacks took place on Saturday December 15, and it was week-end, the writer also incidentally was in his hometown rather in the locality, just an hour before, where the terrorists tried to enter the airport. The area around the Peshawar International Airport now named as Baacha Khan International Airport is surrounded by certain suburban villages like Nawa Killi, Pawaka, Spina Wari etc. Nawa Killi has been famous around the world for giving birth to a number of World Squash champions like Jehangir Khan, Qamar Zaman and Jan Sher Khan. The attackers used an assortment of weapons including mortar shells, rocket launchers, suicide jackets, grenades, explosive laden vehicles and Kalashnikovs to stage huge attacks. However, the attackers despite their dare-devil attempts could not enter the airport premises and the adjacent Pakistan Air Force (PAF) Base. The base also serves as headquarters of PAF rear air command.
In so far as the purpose of attacks is concerned there could be several motives of the terrorists to enter Peshawar Airport. The foremost was to get international media attention as such attention is considered ‘oxygen’ for the terrorist groups. Those terrorist groups who fail to get media attention on sustainable basis lose their cutting edge and they no longer are able to achieve their immediate aim—fear—among the masses and security forces. It is important to note that the TTP attacks on Malala Yousafzai back in October precipitated large-scale condemnation of the group in the national and international media for targeting a girl of tender age. The negative media coverage infuriated the TTP to such an extent that it threatened to eliminate a number of journalists for painting them as inhuman. Therefore, after the TTP attack on Malala the group lost a great deal of whatever sympathy or goodwill it had among the people and this was primarily due to media coverage of the incidents and events surrounding the attack. The media reported events and presented viewpoints which formed opinion and shaped perception that turned out to be completely anti-TTP; so holding media responsible was inappropriate.
Thus the TTP apparently has been on the lookout to send a strong message across that while attacking Malala was their compulsion which they reluctantly carried out due to the girl and her father profound anti-TTP stance, they were equally capable of staging high-profile terrorist attacks. So they chose to attack the international airport in Peshawar.
It is important to mention that at the time of the attack a Saudi-bound passenger aircraft was present on the airport and was about to take off for Riyadh. Airports and aircrafts traditionally have been some of the choicest targets of terrorists. Even in the past Peshawar Airport has been a target of attacks but never a high-profile attack was staged. In the recent past the PAF Base Mehran in Karachi and PAF Base Kamra have come under terrorists attacks for which the TTP accepted responsibility. In both these cases the attackers were able to break in the premises and destroy sophisticated warplanes like PC3 Orion at Mehran Base and a fighter at Kamra. Interestingly, unlike PAF bases in Karachi and Kamra, which reportedly are located at a distance from the population, Peshawar International Airport and the PAF base are surrounded by thickly populated localities and villages. Thus the latter was more vulnerable to terrorist attacks. In fact, while always passing around the airport, from where the aircrafts could be seen taxing and preparing for take-off, one thought that it was the most easy target for the terrorists and why they had so far desisted from attacking the aircrafts or entering the airport. The attacks of last week have proved one’s fear correct and have also answered the question. At the same time here one must give credit to the police and the security forces for stopping the terrorists from entering Peshawar Airport.
It is important to note that Senior Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) provincial minister, Bashir Ahmed Bilour, in his first reaction ‘informed’ that the terrorists had entered the Airport and there was nothing outside the installation, which created panic. On the other hand military sources, as quoted by media, simultaneously divulged that the terrorists could not enter the airport. Later events proved the information of military authorities as correct one. Why Bilour gave such an unfounded statement is anybody’s guess but it seems to be motivated by the urge to depict the overall situation extremely dangerous. Bilour and his party, Awami National Party (ANP), have reasons to paint a dangerous picture of the province due to terrorism as they want to avoid election and have a wished of prolonging the tenure of the existing governments. Even Chief Justice Peshawar High Court, Dost Muhammad Khan, has on one occasion indirectly, while remarking at the activities of a so-called terrorist group, had said that the group’s activities aimed at putting off elections. ANP’s desire of postponing elections is an open secret but its ministers should not use such bizarre tactics of using terrorist attacks for the purpose. When in 2008 elections could be held when the situation was far more dangerous due to Benazir Bhutto’s killing, Lal Masjid incidents and large-scale terrorist attacks and militancy by the TTP, why not today? Even if the terrorists had entered the airport Bilour should not have stated so because it created panic and fear—the very aims of the terrorists.
Although the security forces were able to stop the terrorists this time but the vulnerability of the airport persists. It may be argued by the concerned civilian and military authorities that no airport could be provided foolproof security given the location of these airports in thickly populated localities. This is to a certain extent correct but the situation of Peshawar International Airport is extremely precarious in this regard as around 50 percent of the population of the surrounding localities comprise of Afghanis. The hand of Afghans living in this locality to have facilitated the terrorists cannot be ruled out in particular when the notorious Afghan intelligence has been spreading its tentacles in Pakistan and with an agenda of destabilizing Pakistan. Against this backdrop the federal government yet another extension of six months to Afghan refugees to stay on in Pakistan is totally against the national interest. Earlier the government had directed all the registered Afghan refugees having Proof of Registration (PoR) to leave Pakistan before December, 31, 2012. Already the government had extended the refugees stay on several occasions. Unless Pakistan expel all the Afghan refugees there would be a grave threat to the country’s security as the deeply anti-Pakistan sentiments among the refugees are well-known.
Reportedly, some of the terrorists were found hiding in the Hujra (male compound) of a former provincial minister, Kashif Azam, of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI). Azam served as minister in MMA government from 2002-2007. This is indeed alarming and this needs to be properly investigated because there have been tens of reports of Pakistani religious parties members giving support to terrorists operating in the name of Islam.
The second motive behind the terrorist attacks on Peshawar Airport seems to take hostage Pakistani and foreign nationals and members of the security forces. The hostages then would be used by the terrorists to press for their conditions primarily demanding freeing their incarcerated friends and asking for huge amount of ransom.
The third probable motive of the terrorist by launching attacks on Peshawar airport could be to convey to the masses and the government that the TTP is intact and is still in the business. It may be mentioned that recently international news agency the Reuters claimed of serious rifts in the ranks of the TTP particularly between the chief Hakimullah Mehsud and its deputy Waliur Rahman Mehsud. The TTP spokesmen vehemently denied any rifts within the TTP. Thus staging some high-profile attacks was necessary for the group to proof its point of view.
(The writer is a political analyst and researcher:email@example.com)
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