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Islamabad at risk

Reports suggest the presence of sleeper cells of banned outfits and repeated administrative failures in Islamabad. Is the capital of the country really a dangerous place to live in?

Islamabad at risk
Crime scene: District Courts Islamabad.

A little over a week after Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan had termed Islamabad a “very secure” city, armed men stormed the district courts of the capital in F-8, killing 11 including an additional sessions judge and a young female lawyer.

Police and eyewitnesses say the attackers, wrapped in shawls, were equipped with automatic rifles and hand grenades. They entered the court complex around 8.50am. During their half-an-hour stay at the court premises, they sprayed bullets indiscriminately, attacked the lawyers’ chambers. One of them targeted the additional session judge Malik Rafaqat Awan. After killing his target, the attacker blew himself up.

Bilal Mughal, a lawyer who had witnessed the attack, says two young men with trimmed beards and long hair chanted, “Allah o Akbar,” before opening fire — “I also heard a few blasts after firing started; it filled the complex with smoke. People ran helter skelter. There was panic”.

There were at least 35 policemen present on the court premises but, according to investigation reports, only two resisted the terrorists and fired at them. “Rest of them fled the scene,” says a senior police official based in Islamabad.

Police have recovered 61 used bullet cartridges from the crime scene; seven fired by policemen and 54 by terrorists.

Police officials and eyewitnesses at the courts do not agree on the number of assailants, but many eyewitness accounts confirm at least two gunmen firing for at least 20 minutes before blowing themselves up.

“Madrassas in South Punjab are more regulated than those in Islamabad. There are more than 25,000 students studying in these madrassas,” says a senior police official.

Police and intelligence agencies submitted an initial report to the Interior Ministry on March 3, 2014. According to the report, four armed men entered the court building, two fired randomly and two killed themselves in suicide blasts. Two attackers fled the scene. They were between 20 and 25 years of age.

Some eyewitnesses confirm seeing at least six attackers.

This latest attack once again reveals how vulnerable Islamabad is to terrorism.

A fortnight before the terror attack on district courts in Islamabad, the director general of National Crisis Management Cell of Interior Ministry, Tariq Lodhi, in a presentation before the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Interior, declared Islamabad as an “extremely dangerous” city — because of the presence of sleeper cells of banned organisations, including al Qaeda, TTP and LeJ. The report warned that these sleeper cells may become active anytime, to hit targets in the city.

Nisar Ali Khan held a press conference the very next day, on February 20, 2014, and strongly contradicted the findings of the report. He termed Islamabad as a “very secure” city. He also said that the “threat perception” of the citizens of Islamabad had decreased significantly.

Police officials say out of 9,685 policemen deputed in Islamabad around 6,000 are assigned VIP duties. 

Sardar Nabeel Gabol, MNA and member standing committee on interior, says Islamabad is a hub of terrorism. “Terrorists have bought houses in the city. The property prices have escalated because of their investments. A full-fledged operation against them needs to be launched to make Islamabad safe,” he says.

Experts and government officials say several factors have made the city insecure. “Unregistered and unplanned growth of the city over the last decade has made the city all the more vulnerable. There are more than 150 entry and exist points in the city. There are 24 slums that harbour illegal foreigners, like Afghans, kidnappers and terrorists. These areas are a nuisance for law enforcement agencies,” says an official of interior ministry.

District Courts Islamabad

Though the current government has started registration of slums, “it is a faulty process; data is being collected on face value,” he says.

Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan initially wanted to relocate these slums out of the city but after tough resistance from the slum dwellers, he shelved the project.

The interior ministry official says the police suggested to the Capital Development Authority to remove 11 katchi abadis at the earliest when “thousands of VIPs including parliamentarians, bureaucrats, diplomats, international organisation and army officials present in the city make it all the more vulnerable”.

Some constables have not fired more than 10 rounds during their service of over two decades.

Police officials say out of 9,685 policemen deputed in Islamabad around 6,000 are assigned VIP duties. “Only 2,845 police officials are available for operational duties and majority of them are not trained to fight terrorists. We have some constables who during their service of over two decades have not fired more than 10 rounds from their guns. Do you expect them to fight terrorists?” asks a senior police official.

To makes matters worse, “the present government has cut the annual budget of police by 30 per cent,” he says.

Despite meagre capacity and resources, the police arrested terrorists late last year, “who were close to making drones to attack the sensitive buildings of the city,” he says. More than 1,400 threat alerts were issued last year, and “police managed to counter almost all of them.”

It was on October 11, 2013 when police and intelligence agencies in Islamabad raided a house in Kashmir Housing Society in G-15 sector of the city and found that house was purposefully built, having a dedicated lab in the basement which was being used to develop small drones. The police recovered the layout of drone technology, which they believe was acquired from different sources and huge quantity of arms and ammunition. The house reportedly belonged to Professor Irtyaz Gilani, a graduate in electronic engineering from Ghulam Ishaq Khan (GIK) University who has also served in the Air Weapons Complex, Kamra. After leaving the job at Kamra, Irtyaz served as a lecturer at the International Islamic University, Islamabad, and taught electronics.

In 2013, police raided a house in G-15 sector of Islamabad and found a lab in the basement where small drones were being made. The house reportedly belonged to a graduate of GIK University

Further, the presence of unregistered madaris is another factor contributing to the chaos in the city, says a police official.

According to police record, there are 327 madrassas, 685 mosques and 40 imambarghas in the city. “Madrassas in South Punjab are more regulated than those in Islamabad. There are more than 25,000 students studying in these madrassas,” says a senior police official.

Imtiaz Gul, Islamabad-based security analyst, says that mere administrative measures cannot be enough to counter dedicated, ready-to-kill-and-die attackers. “The element of surprise and spontaneity are always on the side of terrorists,” he says.

Islamabad may be safe for all the big and small ministers because they are surrounded by armed escorts, Gul adds, but not the common people.

According to him, the latest attack in Islamabad has exposed the state of preparedness of police. “The war against terrorism requires non-intrusive, technologically-backed preemptive systems and no new armies of security personnel. The government needs to enforce various sub-sections of the Anti Terror Act 2013. It has failed to impose the 1965 Loudspeaker Act in Islamabad.”

“The government does not need to look for enemies in the mountains of Waziristan. They are settled in the heart of Islamabad, rejecting the constitution, threatening the state with the army of 500 female suicide bombers,” he says.

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