x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Mosque attack suspects arrested

Suspicions grow that the militants who killed 36 people during Friday prayers may have had inside help to evade security measures.

Soldiers carry a coffin during the funeral of the victims of Friday's mosque attack in Rawalpindi.
Soldiers carry a coffin during the funeral of the victims of Friday's mosque attack in Rawalpindi.

RAWALPINDI, PAKISTAN // Pakistani authorities have arrested more than half a dozen suspects in connection with the terrorist attack targeting senior military officers in Rawalpindi last week, according to investigators.

At least 36 people, including 16 children, were killed and more than 80 wounded last Friday when four suicide bombers armed with grenades and machine guns attacked worshippers in a mosque frequented by army officers and their families. The insurgents used a Toyota Corolla that bore a fake Islamabad licence plate. Security officials have arrested the last registered owner of the vehicle in Islamabad. "He is claiming innocence as the car was sold four times after he sold it in 2004," the investigator said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A pall of gloom enveloped this garrison city, adjacent to Islamabad, and headquarters of the country's military, as funerals of serving and retired military officers and their relatives took place over the weekend. Yousuf Raza Gillani, the prime minister; Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, the chief of army staff; and other top military brass attended the funerals. The president, Asif Ali Zardari, who is facing an increasing political isolation, was conspicuously absent.

Gen Kayani vowed not to be deterred by the attack. "Our faith, resolve and pride in our religion and in our country are an asset, which are further reinforced after each terrorist incident," he said. While there was a public outpouring of grief and expressions of solidarity with the families of the dead, the seemingly unending terrorist attacks across the north of the country are testing the nerves and morale of ordinary citizens.

The audacious suicide and gun attack has shaken Rawalpindi, even as it has become a frequent target of insurgents in recent months as the Pakistani military continues its operation against the Taliban in South Waziristan along the border with Afghanistan. Never before were so many senior officers killed in a terrorist attack, although attempts have been made to assassinate the top tier of the military hierarchy. A serving major general and a brigadier general were among the victims.

Many people here are wondering how such a security failure could have occurred on the heels of a similar attack on the military headquarters. In October, a group of armed gunmen had managed to breach the general headquarters of the Pakistani military in Rawalpindi and took a dozen hostages. The 20-hour siege ended with a commando operation, but the incident affected the public image of the army. On Friday, two militants detonated their explosives in a mosque, while two more continued to spray bullets at dozens of worshippers.

A few hours later, both attackers were killed by security forces, which had cordoned off the neighbourhood. In evening talk shows on national television channels, anchors and participants condemned the attack as "heinous and barbaric", and asked how those claiming to be Muslims could target worshippers in a mosque. Pakistani analysts have begun to question the utility of Pakistan's alliance with the United States as anti-American sentiment is running high. Many Pakistanis consider the wave of terrorism a consequence of the US military presence in neighbouring Afghanistan and US insistence that Pakistan "do more".

After US president Barack Obama's speech at the West Point military academy last week, in which he outlined a troop surge in Afghanistan, fears of instability have escalated in Pakistan. Only military officials frequented the Rawalpindi mosque, located in the Qasim Market neighbourhood in the west of the city. Special security passes were required to enter the mosque, according to Lt Col Baseer Haider, a military spokesman. But the attackers managed to circumvent the security by using a ladder to scale a wall behind the mosque. "We are looking into the possibility of someone from inside passing information to the militants and assisting them. It cannot be ruled out," an official belonging to the joint investigation team said on condition of anonymity.

"It is improbable that the attackers were able to evade the security radar without inside help." Low level officials within the Pakistani armed forces have long been thought to have sympathies with Islamist militants and several such officials in the army and air force have been arrested in recent years in connection with terrorist attacks. Some analysts, however, see a silver lining and portrayed the latest strike as a sign that the militants are desperate and attacking wildly as the latest military operation in their stronghold of South Waziristan chokes them.

"The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan is facing a strategic dead end as it is veering towards nihilistic violence," said Arif Rafiq, a political analyst based in Washington. "In recent months, they have killed Pakistani civilians and security personnel on an almost daily basis. At the same time, the organisation has drastically lost territory and public support," he said. "Meanwhile, the army's resolve is growing firmer, which is due in part to the backing of the masses and media".