Carried out by a splinter group of the Paksitani Taliban, the
attack will complicate the government's efforts to open peace talks
as it destroyed trust on all sides, Defense Minister Khawaja Asif
"It is scary," Asif said in the wake of the worst attack in
Islamabad since the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in 2008.
Responsibility for Monday's attack was claimed by a group called
Ahrar-ul-Hind, or "Liberators of India", that had splintered from
the Pakistani Taliban just a month earlier.
Coming a little over a week after the Pakistani Taliban announced a
ceasefire to revive faltering peace talks with the Prime Minister
Sharif's government, the attack may have succeeded in destroying
chances for negotiation.
"Whatever little trust there was between the two parties, that trust
has completely fizzled away," the defense minister said.
Frighteningly for Pakistan, investigators believe the leader of
Ahrar-ul-Hind, Umar Qasmi, can draw support from other militant
outfits, including several linked to al Qaeda, that have wreaked
bloody havoc in the country over the last decade.
The three fighters who carried out Monday's attack were armed with
hand grenades and automatic guns. Two died when they detonated
suicide bombs, while a third escaped, officials say. Independent
accounts say there were more gunmen.
It showed just how vulnerable the capital remains despite having
almost as many security checkposts as traffic lights.
Last month, the national crisis management cell of the interior
ministry made a presentation before parliament in which it described
Islamabad as extremely dangerous, with sleeper cells of various
militants groups lurking in the capital.
"Despite the fact that we have been fighting for the last many, many
years now, we are ill-prepared to fight this war and to keep the
major cities really safe," Asif said.
Investigators say Qasmi, a 38-year-old from the central province of
Punjab, is experienced in organizing joint operations against
Pakistani cities, using fighters drawn from the country's Punjabi
heartland and tribal lands bordering Afghanistan.
"Ahrar-ul-Hind could be the new name of one of several Punjabi
factions that Taliban insurgents have teamed up with," said one
official involved in investigating Monday's attack.
"A team of Pashto-speaking Punjabi fighters was carefully selected
and given their target via a phone call," said a second
investigator. "The fighters just had five days to study the
building, rehearse the attack and strike. That was all it took."
Among those killed was a judge who ruled in October that former
President Pervez Musharraf should not be tried for murder for
ordering his commandoes to storm Islamabad's "Red Mosque" in 2007 to
root out militants attempting to impose Islamic sharia in the
The Pakistani Taliban are fighting to destroy Pakistan's fragile
democracy and set up an Islamic sharia state, but had lately shown a
readiness to talk as their strongholds in the northwest tribal lands
bordering Afghanistan were targeted by military airstrikes over the
Groups have broken off from the Pakistani Taliban before and many
security analysts question whether this might be yet another ploy by
the militants to gain the upper hand in negotiations by continuing
terror attacks under another guise.
Announcing its formation in February, Ahrar-ul-Hind said it wanted
no part of any ceasefire, and its attack has laid bare the Pakistani
Taliban central leadership's lack of control over wilder elements
operating on its fringes.
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It is telling that militants whose ultimate dream was to fight India
have now declared war on Pakistan. The nuclear armed rivals don't
often share a common enemy when it comes to Islamist militants.
Critics say Pakistan is paying the price for its intelligence
agencies' past and present policies of patronising militant groups
to fight proxy wars in neighboring India and Afghanistan.
Over the past decade, increasing numbers of Pakistani militants,
angered by the presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and enthralled
by al Qaeda's anti-Western world view, have turned against a
government and military that compromised by allying with the United
Intelligence officials say the new group has roots in the central
province of Punjab bordering India.
Hatred of India is in the DNA of many Punjabi militants recruited by
radical Islamist preachers to fight a jihad, or holy war, on the
Indian side of Kashmir, the Himalayan territory disputed by South
Pakistan's spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services
Intelligence, has long tolerated — critics say backed — groups like
Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad that target India.
According to intelligence officers, Qasmi hails from Jhang, a
southern Punjab city that is home to the eponymous
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an anti-Shi'ite sectarian group which supplied
foot-soldiers for al Qaeda in Pakistan.
Soon after high school, they said, Qasmi moved to nearby Bahawalpur,
close to the Indian border, where he is said to have enrolled in a
seminary run by Maulana Masood Azhar, the head of Jaish.
And in subsequent years he became dangerously well-networked as he
moved between southern Punjab and the tribal lands in the northwest,
notably in the Mohmand region, where a Pakistani Taliban faction
executed 23 soldiers last month — an incident that raised criticism
of Sharif for pursuing peace talks.
Officials also believe Qasmi is close to Jundullah, the group behind
a suicide bombing that killed at least 78 Christians at a church in
Peshawar last September.
And they reckon he could muster 1,200 fighters drawn from various
Punjabi-based groups for deadly operations against Pakistani cities.
"We belong to the urban areas of Pakistan," said Ahrar-ul-Hind
spokesman Asad Mansoor. "The focus of our jihad activities will also
be the urban areas."
(Additional reporting by Saud Mehsud in Dera Ismail Khan and Asim
Tanveer in Multan; editing by Maria Golovnina and Simon
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