The rattle of automatic gunfire followed by the crump of a massive explosion early on Wednesday further undermined Lahore's reputation as a centre of music and fashion, replacing it with one for violence and terror - at least in the perception of the world at large. The attack interrupted the morning rush-hour when a suicide squad launched a blitz on the emergency police department with small arms and grenades, before detonating a van packed with about 100kg of high explosive.
At least 24 people died and 300 were injured in the city's third such outrage. "It was one of the most devastating attacks Lahore has ever seen," said a shaken Jamil Baloch, 30, who works on nearby Lawrence Road. The windows of his office were shattered by the blast, which created a huge crater. A day later, at least 10 people were killed by a series of bombs in the northern city of Peshawar. Responsibility for the Lahore attack was claimed by the Pakistani Taliban, whose leadership said it had been revenge for military operations in Swat province, where the Pakistani army is claiming considerable success against the militants.
"If the government - at the behest of America - launches more operations against us, more government installations will be targeted," AFP was told by Hakimullah Mehsud, who is a deputy to the organisation's leader, Baitullah Mehsud. "I appeal to them [citizens of Pakistan] to vacate their cities as there will be more such massive attacks, more dangerous than this and we will target government buildings and places."
However, a separate group, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Punjab, also claimed responsibility for the Lahore bomb through a posting on a Turkish militant website. If there is some uncertainty about which group carried out the attack, it seems on the surface at least to be a clear-cut Taliban offensive. And that, according to Professor Rohan Gunaratna, might be what we are supposed to believe. He thinks there is a larger dilemma in Pakistan, in the shadowy shape of al Qa'eda.
The author of the seminal text Inside al Qa'eda: Global Network of Terror and head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore, Prof Gunaratna spends a lot of time following up violent incidents in countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan where al Qa'eda is thought to be operating. He landed in Islamabad after the Marriott Hotel bombing last September, and has even travelled to Pakistan's tribal belt. His conclusion: al Qa'eda is growing stronger than ever in Pakistan.
"Al Qa'eda is a very small organisation in terms of numbers," he told The National. "The numerical value of foreigners linked to al Qa'eda in tribal Pakistan is below one thousand." But by sharing technology and expertise with local extremist groups such as the Pakistani Taliban, al Qa'eda had been able to motivate and use local insurgents to carry out attacks that serve its purposes. It was rare, though not unknown, for al Qa'eda to play an active part in planning attacks in mainland Pakistan.
"The Marriott bombing in Islamabad was a joint operation launched by both al Qa'eda and the Taliban," said Prof Gunaratna. "Al Qa'eda was also involved in planning assassination attempts on former president, Pervez Musharraf, and bombing the Danish embassy [in June 2008]." One of the clearest indications of al Qa'eda's active presence in Pakistan came on April 19, he said, when a lorry parked inside an al Qa'eda compound in South Waziristan was hit by a CIA missile. The vehicle had been loaded with enough explosives for an attack even more lethal than that on the Marriott, in which 52 people died.
However, Prof Gunaratna said this week's Lahore bomb lacked the hallmarks of a typical al Qa'eda operation, though it might well have provided funding and training to the attackers. "Al Qa'eda tends to go after iconic targets and westerners." Security experts say Baluchistan - Pakistan's largest and most poorly governed province - is becoming the new home of al Qa'eda as efforts to flush militants out from the tribal belt take effect. Nevertheless, there is reluctance among Pakistani officials to accept that al Qa'eda is working inside the country. The man responsible for leading counter-terrorism efforts in Baluchistan is Major Gen Saleem Nawaz, the inspector general of Baluchistan's Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force made up of police and army elements. He pooh-poohs claims that al Qa'eda is active in the province.
"It just shows that those who are talking don't understand the aims and ambitions of al Qa'eda," he said. "Al Qa'eda is a global organisation with a global mandate. Why would they be interested in staging attacks on Pakistan's government and army? It makes no sense." On being pressed, he admitted the possibility of al Qa'eda members stealing across the border from the Afghanistan border and seeking shelter in Baluchistan.
"I am not saying they are not moving both into and out of Baluchistan, and some of them have left their families here because it's safer," he said. "But there is no evidence to substantiate that al Qa'eda members are staging attacks in Pakistan or are active in any such operations." Others are less sanguine. Bruce Hoffman, a world-renowned terrorism expert and professor at Georgetown University in Washington, thinks there is little doubt that al Qa'eda has become more powerful in Pakistan since September 11, 2001, and especially since 2003.
It is a matter of survival, he says. "They cannot operate without a sanctuary. This is why al Qa'eda is focusing so heavily on Pakistan. There is too much international presence in Afghanistan so Pakistan seems like the next logical home." Those who discount al Qa'eda's presence in Pakistan point out that it has rarely claimed responsibility for attacks attributed to it. Prof Hoffman counters that this is a sign of maturity.
"They have learnt from their mistakes in Sudan and Afghanistan that when they become too prominent, it ends up creating disillusionment and resentment in the local population. They have realised it's better for them to work through the local population." The idea that al Qa'eda has transformed itself into a more sophisticated organisation, eager to seek and retain the support of the local population, is also supported by James Forest, the director of terrorism studies at the United States West Point Military Academy.
"Even where al Qa'eda's central leadership is directly responsible [for planning attacks in Pakistan] they are not interested in taking credit because they are hoping these attacks will encourage and inspire others to take a similar initiative locally," he said. "If al Qa'eda's leaders take credit for everything, that would seem to diminish the incentive among the young wannabe jihadists to 'take matters into their own hands', as it were."
This is borne out by the imitators themselves. According to interviews with militants from various local insurgent groups in Pakistan, al Qa'eda has long provided support in the form of training. A member of Lashkar-e-Taiba said he had been trained in an al Qa'eda camp in Kabul in 1999. Another from the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen said his training camp in the tribal belt was managed by al Qa'eda. "Our main instructors were Arabs and Uzbeks, and the Pakistani leaders seemed to be in awe of them," he said.
An official with ISI, the Pakistani intelligence service, said the army was well aware of al Qa'eda's growing presence. "But concrete proof of its involvement in attacks on mainland Pakistan is missing," he said, adding that many senior members of the ISI shared the view that al Qa'eda was working with local organisations. "A consensus on this subject does not exist so far." That is certainly true. Consensus on this point is absent even in the academic community.
Paul R Pillar is a 28-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency and was chief of analysis at the agency's Counterterrorist Centre in 1993. He told The National that he did not believe al Qa'eda was becoming more powerful within Pakistan, though it did benefit from "any extension of the presence and activity of its friends in the Taliban". He, too, believes that the organisation's focus remains global. "They may consider Pakistan - at least an unstable north-west Pakistan - useful as a base of operations for activities carried out elsewhere," he said, "but their emphasis is global and not local."
* The National