x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Suspicion falls on al Qa'eda for Pakistan attack

The detonation of most powerful terrorist bomb ever used in Pakistan had similar 'modus operandi' to previous atrocities.

Pakistani policemen stand guard in front of the devastated Marriott Hotel in Islamabad on Sept 21 2008.
Pakistani policemen stand guard in front of the devastated Marriott Hotel in Islamabad on Sept 21 2008.

ISLAMABAD // The suicide attack on the Marriott Hotel in Pakistan's capital that claimed at least 52 lives this weekend is a stark reminder that al Qa'eda still poses a viable threat, and that current counter-terrorism efforts are no longer working, officials said. Rehman Malik, the head of Pakistan's interior ministry, said Saturday's lorry bomb used 600kg of military calibre explosives to devastate the Marriott. The number of injured was more than 265. "The leads so far go to al Qa'eda, the Taliban and South Waziristan [tribal area]," Mr Malik said. He added that the "modus operandi" was similar to previous attacks on intelligence and military personnel and buildings in Lahore and Rawalpindi, the garrison town near the capital. The attack on the hotel, where diplomats, politicians and the well-heeled bourgeoisie of Islamabad went for meetings, to work out and to eat, came at a time of increasing political and security instability. The country faces a wave of militancy from terrorist sanctuaries in the country's border tribal areas. Among the dead were four foreigners, including the Czech ambassador, his Vietnamese fiancée and two US citizens. A Danish diplomat is still missing. US political leaders condemned Saturday's attack and pledged to support Asif Ali Zardari, the newly sworn-in president, at a time when the relationship between the two countries has frayed over US strikes into Pakistani territory. George W Bush, the US president, called the bombing a "reminder of the ongoing threat faced by Pakistan, the United States and all those who stand against violent extremism". Karin von Hippel, co-director of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, suggested US leaders had struck the right rhetorical tone in responding to the blasts, but worried that the unilateral strikes would undercut the "very fragile and very new civilian government".

"In terms of public rhetoric, the best we can do is what we are doing: saying we fully support you, we still stand by you and we will give you what you need to confront this terrorist threat in Pakistan - we're making the right noises," Ms von Hippel said. "In terms of policy, I think we should not be doing the work for the Pakistanis ? we need to play a supporting role." At a press conference in Islamabad, the government released security camera video footage of the suicide attack.

The footage shows a large lorry ram into the front security gates of the Marriott Hotel. A suicide bomber detonates a small explosion that sends security guards fleeing momentarily. A small fire rages in the cab of the lorry for three to four minutes while ill-equipped, poorly paid and badly trained security guards bravely but ineffectually spray the green, six-wheeled lorry with a small fire-extinguisher. There are two smaller blasts before the main blast, which was not caught on film.

"There is no footage of that because the blast destroyed the camera," Mr Malik said. The film was damaged, the images turning a fuzzy blue. Mr Malik said the blast was the result of the largest amount of explosives ever used in a terrorist attack in Pakistan, and the most deadly for the capital. Yesterday, rescuers workers searched through the remains of the hotel and found at least six more bodies. Mr Malik put the death toll at 52. Security officials said it was at least 60.

There were fears that the landmark building was at risk of collapsing. However, Sadruddin Hashwani, the owner of the hotel, was more optimistic: "I hereby will give you a room after three months, inshallah." He accused security forces of a serious lapse in allowing a lorry to approach the hotel unchallenged and not shooting the driver before he could trigger the explosives. What remains to be established is how the blast was set off: by the fire, a timed explosion, or remotely detonated by accomplices, investigators say.

The bomb was detonated at 8pm on Saturday, when the restaurants were filled with Muslim customers breaking their daily Ramadan fast. The blast left a vast crater 7.3 metres deep and 18m wide in front of the main building, and investigators continued to comb the gaping hole for evidence. A mood of national pessimism that followed the blast underscored that the government, which was elected in February and has been buffeted by events such as the removal of Pervez Musharraf, and the withdrawal of its main coalition partner, has yet to sell its pro-US "war on terror" message.

Yesterday, the government berated Pakistani news television channels for "glorifying terrorists" by broadcasting interviews with militant leaders. The new government has been at pains to point out that the "war on terror" is Pakistan's war, not just that of the United States. Ahmed Rashid, a prominent expert on the Taliban and Pakistan, said the military had underestimated the power of the jihadis and the danger they posed to the Pakistani state. He said the military had not foreseen that the Pakistani Taliban would embark on a plan of setting up a sharia state within Pakistan with the intention of the "Talibanisation" of Pakistan.

Mr Zardari, who is to meet George W Bush this week while leading a delegation to the United Nations, condemned the "cowardly attack" in a late night broadcast address to the nation, but spoke out against cross-border attacks by US forces in Afghanistan. "Make this pain your strength," he said. "This is a menace, a cancer in Pakistan which we will eliminate. We will not be scared of these cowards."

The attack drew condemnations from around the world, but in Pakistan the response was different, although people were disgusted with the attack. The public mood was one of popular anger over Pakistan's pro-US policy. People accused India, where 22 people were killed last week in five co-ordinated bomb blasts in New Delhi, blamed on Pakistan-based militant groups. "They have taken revenge for the attacks in Delhi," said Allahditta Malik, a shopkeeper whose windows were shattered in the blast.

At present, the military is conducting operations in the tribal area of Bajaur, where it claims to have killed 700 militants in the past month. Some analysts said government and US attempts to eradicate militant hideouts in the north-west would be met with bloodshed and that the Marriott bombing was just a warning. Masood Sharif, a former director general of the Intelligence Bureau, a civilian spy agency, said stepping up security and military operations in the north-west would not work.

"There are hundreds of thousands of lorries out there. You can put out high alerts 10 times over, but you can't check every single vehicle," he said. Erika Niedowski and Steven Stanek contributed to this report from Washington, DC @Email:iwilkinson@thenational.ae Eniedowski@thenational.ae sstanek@thenational.ae