A failed terrorist attack on two military airbases in Quetta on the night of August 14-15 didn’t get the kind of attention that the one on June 8, 2014 at the civilian Jinnah International Airport Karachi received because the 10 attackers managed to infiltrate the latter causing substantial human and military losses.
The Karachi attack on Pakistan’s largest and busiest airport had caused 36 deaths, including 11 security personnel, and injuries to 18 persons, and damaged part of the facilities at the cargo terminal. According to the military officials, the Quetta attacks failed to cause any human or material losses as the 12 attackers were killed outside the parameters of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) Base Samungli and the Khalid Army Aviation Base in exchange of fire with the security forces and blowing up of the suicide vests they were wearing. Lt Gen Nasir Khan Janjua, commander of Pakistan Army’s Southern Command, claimed that only 14 persons, including security personnel, were injured in the two encounters with the terrorists.
It wasn’t surprising that he considered the Quetta attacks a reaction to the Operation Zarb-e-Azb being conducted by the military against the militants in North Waziristan since June 15. Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif echoed the same view during his visit to Quetta a few days later. While claiming responsibility for the Quetta attacks, three different militant groups also linked their Quetta assaults as revenge for the military operation in North Waziristan as well as the US drone strikes and the death of militants in custody of the security forces.
There were other reasons also for the lack of attention to the attacks on the two Quetta airbases even though these were the first major retaliatory strikes by the militants after the military action against them in North Waziristan.
The Independence Day celebrations on August 14 and the uncertainty caused by the so-called “Azadi March” launched the same day from Lahore to Islamabad by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan and the “Inquilab March” undertaken by Pakistan Awami Tehreek head Dr Tahirul Qadri overshadowed the happenings in faraway Quetta.
Also, hardly noticed was the apparent change of heart by the Sajna faction of the outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its return to the battlefield after having announced its split from the latter in May 2014 and shown interest in making peace with the government. Though not yet firmly confirmed, the reported reconciliation of the Sajna group led by Khan Said Sajna, who prefers to be known as Khalid Mahsud, with the TTP and participation of its men in the attacks on the two airbases in Quetta is a significant development as together they would pose a bigger threat to the security forces and government installations in both North Waziristan and South Waziristan, rest of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) and also in other parts of the country. If true, this also signalled the end of chances of concluding peace deal with any militant faction that appeared likely in the recent past.
It is possible that the military’s recent announcements that no militant group, local or foreign including the Haqqani network, would be spared in the ongoing military offensive in North Waziristan and also in subsequent operations prompted the Sajna group to give up hope of negotiating a peace agreement with the government.
In making his claim of responsibility for the Quetta attacks through an audio message, Sajna faction’s spokesman and senior commander Azam Tariq said members from his group, the Mohmand Agency Taliban’s Aafia Brigade and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) led by Salar Mehsud carried out the fidayee (suicide) attack. It was Azam Tariq who had announced the split from the Maulana Fazlullah-led TTP after making serious accusations against it for carrying out bomb explosions at public places killing civilians, kidnapping people for ransom and working for the interest of foreigners. This is the reason that there is some skepticism regarding Azam Tariq’s claim even though the voice of the man who spoke in the audio message clearly resembled him. This was the first time that the Sajna group claimed responsibility for any attack in Pakistan since parting ways with the TTP and its significance hasn’t been noted by the government and the security analysts yet.
Initially, a little-known jehadi group known as the Fidayeen-i-Islam claimed responsibility for the Quetta attacks. Subsequently, the Mohmand Agency’s TTP chapter headed by Omar Khalid Khorasani claimed through its spokesman Ihsanullah Ihsan that its Jamaatul Ahrar along with the IMU and the Mehsud division conducted these attacks killing around 35 security forces personnel and destroying two jet-fighters and an ammunition depot. Though it didn’t mention the name of the Sajna group, the word “Mehsud division” meaning “Halqa-i-Mehsud” clearly meant the TTP’s Sajna faction. Ihsan gave a figure of 16 “martyrdom operators” (“fidayeen”) who took part in the attacks, though the military and other sources mentioned 12 attackers.
The Quetta attacks showed once again the preference of the militants to go for attacks on airbases and airports in different parts of the country as these are widely reported in the world media, cause alarm about the safety of Pakistani airport installations, inflict huge losses on the infrastructure and damage the aviation industry. There have been terrorist attacks carried out by suicide bombers on the PAF’s Kamra airbase, Pakistan Navy’s Mehran base and the Bacha Khan International Airport Peshawar, the first two causing huge losses as some costly aircraft were destroyed and several security personnel were killed and the last one failing to achieve its objective as the attackers were unable to penetrate the airport’s outer boundary. Interestingly enough, Uzbek fighters belonging to the al-Qaeda-affiliated IMU were drafted to carry out most of these attacks. As claimed by the Pakistani military officials, the Uzbeks were also involved in the two assaults on the two airbases in Quetta. It showed once again that the battle-hardened Uzbeks are used by the Pakistani militants whenever a difficult target is selected or some sophistication is required to carry out an attack.
Had the attackers succeeded in entering the two airbases at Quetta, they would have caused a huge impact equalling the one created by the terrorist strike at the Karachi airport because this would have been seen as a fierce revenge for the military action in North Waziristan and would have reinforced the impression that the militants remain strong enough to attack any target anywhere in Pakistan. If the claims of the military authorities are to be believed, the militants failed to make the kind of impact they had planned due to the alertness and bravery of the security forces.
The military’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) initially said 11 terrorists were killed in the two incidents and three were apprehended. It claimed five terrorists were killed outside the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) Base Samungli and three others were captured. It added that six terrorists were sent to their death outside the Khalid Army Aviation Base. It maintained that all PAF and Army Aviation assets remained safe in the incidents.
According to the ISPR, the attempts by the terrorists to enter the two military bases were successfully foiled due to the prompt action by an integrated security force of the Pakistan Army, PAF, Frontier Corps and Balochistan Police.
Buoyed by their success in thwarting the attack on the two airbases, the military authorities felt confident in showing the bodies of the slain attackers to the media along with the captured weapons. This hasn’t been done yet in case of Operation Zarb-e-Azb even though the military has been claiming huge success by killing more than 600 militants, including foreigners, forcing more than two dozen to surrender, destroying scores of militants’ hideouts and seizing arms dumps and bomb-making factories. Though a media team was flown in helicopters to Miranshah, headquarters of North Waziristan, it wasn’t shown any bodies or graves of the slain militants. The surrendered militants too weren’t presented before the media.