KARACHI (Reuters) - It was the shoes that
betrayed Corporal Faiz Mohammad's would-be killers.
When 10 Taliban militants attacked Pakistan's busiest airport on
Sunday night, sparking a five-hour gun battle that killed at least
34 people, Mohammad and his fellow officers from the Airports
Security Force (ASF) were the first line of defense.
"There was a moment of confusion because the militants had the same
ASF uniforms as us," said Mohammad, 30. "But then we saw their
shoes." ASF officers wear black leather shoes, but the men who
stormed Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, Pakistan's chaotic
commercial capital, wore white-soled sneakers.
All 10 militants were dead by dawn, shot down by the security forces
or blown up by their own suicide vests. That the Taliban failed in
its main objective - to hijack an aircraft and hold its passengers
hostage - should bring no comfort to embattled Prime Minister Nawaz
Sharif, since the attack signals an alarming shift in tactics by an
increasingly formidable foe.
The strike at the airport in Karachi, home to 18 million people,
deals a blow to Sharif's bid to attract foreign investors to revive
the economy. It has also destroyed prospects for peace talks with
the Taliban and made an all-out military offensive against militant
strongholds along the Afghan border a near-certainty.
Government air strikes on the strongholds in the North Waziristan
region triggered the tactical shift, said sources at
Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), as the Pakistani Taliban is
formally known. Angered by the raids and anticipating a ground
assault, the militants are targeting Pakistan's heartland.
A top Taliban commander confirmed to Reuters that attacks involving
aircraft were part of a new strategy to counter the government's
preparations for a full-scale operation against them in North
"We decided to change our strategy and hit their main economic
centers," he said. "They will kill innocent people by their bombs
and we will hit their nerve-centers in major cities."
Tariq Azeem, a senior official in Sharif’s administration, said a
full-scale military operation was imminent in North Waziristan, and
seemed resigned to it sparking terror attacks elsewhere in Pakistan.
"Everybody knows there is going to be blowback," he said.
PATTERN OF MUMBAI, WESTGATE MALL
The Taliban is most likely to rely on small militant teams,
emulating the protracted, high-impact operations like those in
Mumbai in 2008 and Nairobi's Westgate mall last year.
"In Mumbai, and in Kenya, you will find a lot of similarities," said
Muhammad Amir Rana, director of the Islamabad-based think tank Pak
Institute for Peace Studies. "They (the Taliban) are adopting this
as their prime strategy."
The similarities between the Karachi and Mumbai incidents are
startling and instructive.
The attack on Mumbai, India's largest city, was carried out by a
Pakistan-based anti-India group called Lashkar-e-Taiba, or Army of
the Pure. It lasted three days, killed 166 people and transfixed the
As with Karachi, it was meticulously planned and involved
well-trained and heavily armed militants. In both cases, a 10-man
team quickly split into pairs and carried provision-stuffed
knapsacks in preparation for a long siege. In Mumbai, militants used
mobile phones to coordinate with handlers in Pakistan and with each
other in the heat of battle. Their Karachi counterparts were also
seen using mobile phones during the assault.
Lashkar-e-Taiba has said it has no connection with any attacks on
Pakistani soil and there is no evidence that it works with the
Taliban. India accuses elements in Pakistan's large army and its
pervasive Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency of shielding
or working with the group.
But neither the military nor the ISI could forestall the havoc
caused by 10 men who got out of a minivan near Karachi's cargo
terminal on Sunday night.
The attack began at 11.05 p.m., with five of the militants breaching
the Fokker Gate with assault rifles and grenades. Minutes later, as
the ASF fought back, a second five-strong squad attacked the nearby
Cargo Gate. Both gates granted access to the cargo area in the
Azeem, the administration official, praised the ASF while admitting
how hard it was to protect the sprawling airport.
"You need almost two brigades to cover . . . every inch of it," he
said. "Any entrance will have two, three, four people who are fully
armed, but one burst of machinegun (fire) will kill all four of them
and you can enter."
When Faiz Mohammed ran across the tarmac, shouldering his AK-47, to
reinforce his fellow ASF officers, four were already dead. "Our men
were fighting relentlessly," he said.
Mohammad was shot in the thigh and, like other wounded ASF, waited
hours until it was safe for ambulances to evacuate him.
"The ASF put up very stiff resistance and that apparently sowed
panic among the attackers, who then split up and were eventually
taken out by security forces," said a senior Pakistani security
official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The militants' dispersal added to the mayhem and drew in more
By 11.30 p.m., a contingent of police and paramilitary Rangers had
arrived at the airport, followed 30 minutes later by an army unit.
They formed what Azeem called "the second or the third layer" of
airport security which stopped the militant advance on the main
passenger terminal further east.
"I WAS TERRIFIED"
The gunfire was now punctuated by the boom of militants firing
rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). They had come prepared for a long
Their knapsacks contained water, medicine and food. Some were
spotted using cellphones during the attack, said a security official
involved in the investigation, although it was unclear who they were
talking to - each other, or distant commanders.
Wisetsoem could see and hear explosions from her seat on a Thai
International Airways aircraft. It was trapped near the runway along
with an Emirates jet and contained hundreds of passengers.
Phimraphat suspected that hijackers in disguise had already boarded
"I was terrified," she told reporters as she arrived back in
Bangkok. "I sat still and didn’t dare move around." Passengers on
both planes were later safely evacuated.
Just after midnight, as all outbound flights were suspended and
inbound flights diverted to other airports, there was a large
explosion near Fokker Gate: the first militant had detonated his
By now, dead and wounded were being ferried to the nearby Jinnah
Hospital. Their numbers rose steadily through the night - by
morning, the hospital would report 16 dead and dozens injured - as
security forces intensified their counter-attack.
As the fighting raged outside, seven employees from a cargo company
took refuge in a warehouse - as it turned out, a fateful decision.
They burned to death.
Elsewhere, Hamid Khan, 22, a junior technician, hid with eight other
men in the washroom of an aircraft maintenance company. A
hand-grenade blew off part of the roof and bullets peppered a nearby
container. "If anyone is inside, come out now!" shouted someone -
friend or foe, Hamid couldn't tell.
He and his colleagues kept silent and stayed put. "I was so afraid
that I started reading my last prayers," he said, his voice still
shaking with emotion days later.
Two more militants would blow themselves up. By 4 a.m., all 10 were
dead, their shattered bodies sprawled in pairs across the tarmac. It
had taken 150 security personnel to counter them.
The Rangers identified them as ethnic Uzbeks. Pakistani officials
often accuse foreign militants of staging attacks alongside the
Pakistani Taliban. "We admit we carried out this attack with the
help of our other brotherly mujahideen groups," the senior member of
the Pakistani Taliban told Reuters.
A SECOND ATTACK
In daylight, Pakistan's busiest airport resembled a war zone. Smoke
billowed from gutted buildings. Rescue workers retrieved the seven
cargo company employees, their corpses charred beyond recognition,
and raised the death toll to 34.
Junior technician Hamid Khan and the other eight emerged unscathed
from their washroom refuge. "I felt as if God had heard our
prayers," he said.
At least three passenger aircraft, all unoccupied, were damaged
during the battle, a senior Pakistani security official told
Reuters. A satellite photo on Google Earth showed a fourth aircraft
in the cargo area completely destroyed, its broken wings lying amid
the blackened remains of its fuselage.
However, officials have not confirmed the destruction of any
Even as flights resumed and the clean-up began, the Taliban struck
the airport again. On Tuesday evening, gunmen on motorbikes opened
fire on an ASF academy, although there were no casualties. There
would be "many more such attacks" in future, Pakistani Taliban
spokesman Shahidullah Shahid told Reuters.
Adil Najam, dean of Boston University's Pardee School of Global
Studies, agreed. Karachi was "not just another terrorist attack," he
said. "It is among the latest skirmishes in what is now an actual
war between the Pakistan Army and the Taliban. The war is on - and
(Writing by Andrew R.C. Marshall; Additional reporting by Maria
Golovnina in Islamabad, Jibran Ahmed in Peshawar and Kaweewit
Kaewjinda in Bangkok; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)