Pakistan Attacks Show Tightening of Militant Links

By JANE PERLEZ

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A wave of attacks against top security installations over the last several days demonstrated that the Taliban, Al Qaeda and militant groups once nurtured by the government are tightening an alliance aimed at bringing down the Pakistani state, government officials and analysts said.

More than 30 people were killed Thursday in Lahore, the second largest city in Pakistan, as three teams of militants assaulted two police training centers and a federal investigations building. The dead included 19 police officers and at least 11 militants, police officials said.

Nine others were killed in two attacks at a police station in Kohat, in the northwest, and a residential complex in Peshawar, capital of North-West Frontier Province.

The assaults in Lahore, coming after a 20-hour siege at the army headquarters in Rawalpindi last weekend, showed the deepening reach of the militant network, as well as its rising sophistication and inside knowledge of the security forces, officials and analysts said.

The umbrella group for the Pakistani Taliban, Tehrik-e-Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attacks in Lahore, the independent television news channel Geo reported on its Web site.

But the style of the attacks also revealed the closer ties between the Taliban and Al Qaeda and what are known as jihadi groups, which operate out of southern Punjab, the country’s largest province, analysts said. The cooperation has made the militant threat to Pakistan more potent and insidious than ever, they said.

The government has tolerated the Punjabi groups, including Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, for years, and many Pakistanis consider them allies in just causes, including fighting India, the United States and Shiite Muslims. But they have become entwined with the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and have increasingly turned on the state.

The alliance has now stepped up attacks as the military prepares an assault on the Taliban stronghold of South Waziristan, where senior members of the Punjabi groups also find sanctuary and support.

“These are all Punjabi groups with a link to South Waziristan,” Aftab Ahmed Sherpao, a former interior minister, said, explaining the recent attacks.

In a rare acknowledgment of the lethal combination of forces, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said that a “syndicate” of militant groups wanted to see “Pakistan as a failed state.”

“The banned Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, Jaish-e-Muhammad, Al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi are operating jointly in Pakistan,” Mr. Malik told journalists, pledging a more effective counter strategy.

In Washington, senior intelligence officials said the multiple coordinated attacks were a characteristic of operations influenced by Al Qaeda. But the officials said they were still sifting through intelligence reports to determine whether the attacks indeed marked an attempt by Al Qaeda to assert more influence over the Pakistani Taliban’s operations.

They said the assaults also might have been orchestrated by the Taliban to avenge the death of Baitullah Mehsud, the Pakistani Taliban leader, and send a stark message that the insurgents could still carry out daring attacks without him.

The fresh violence highlights the expanding challenges as the Obama administration tries to bolster Pakistan’s civilian government and encourage the military to press its campaign against the Taliban.

On Thursday, President Obama signed a civilian aid package for Pakistan of $7.5 billion over five years. The package has prompted friction over conditions for the aid — like greater civilian oversight of the military and demands that Pakistan drop support for militant groups — which army officers and politicians considered infringements on Pakistan’s sovereignty.

The White House issued a statement on Thursday noting the shared interests of the countries. However, in a sign of scant sympathy for the unappreciative reaction to the money, there was no signing ceremony.

The rise in more penetrating terrorist attacks may now add its own pressure on the Pakistani government to crack down on the Punjabi militants. It is time for the government to come out in public and explain the nature of the enemy, said Khalid Aziz, a former chief secretary of North-West Frontier Province.

“The national narrative in support of jihad has confused the Pakistani mind,” Mr. Aziz said. “All along we’ve been saying these people are trying to fight a war of Islam, but there is a need for transforming the national narrative.”

The jihadi groups were formally banned by the former president, Pervez Musharraf, after the Sept. 11 attacks, when Pakistan joined the United States in the campaign against terrorism.

But the groups have entrenched domestic and political constituencies, as well as shadowy ties to former military officials and their families, analysts said. Even since the ban, they have been allowed to operate in Punjab, often in the open.

Punjab is the major recruiting center for the Pakistani Army and it hosts more army divisions than any other province. Yet “these groups proliferate and operate with impunity, literally under the nose of Pakistan’s army,” said Christine Fair, assistant professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

A large congregation of jihadi groups, including Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, met six months ago in Rawalpindi, the city where the army headquarters was attacked last Saturday, said Mr. Sherpao, the former interior minister.

The nature of the Lahore attacks drove home the point that the “war has come to Punjab,” and that the government can no longer hide the alliance between the Taliban in South Waziristan and the forces in Southern Punjab, said Zaffar Abbas, a prominent journalist at the English-language newspaper Dawn.

Until the people are told the real situation, the government will never win the support of the people “to fight this bloody war,” Mr. Abbas said.

In fact, many Pakistanis do not see the jihadi groups as the enemy, said Farrukh Saleem, the executive director for the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad. “They feel America is in the region and the Pakistani Army is fighting for an American army and the jihadis have a right to retaliate,” he said.

The senior personnel in the security forces seem to understand the gravity of the militants’ strength and the durability of their network, Mr. Saleem said. But they cannot bring themselves to say publicly that those whom they created are coming back to bite them, he said.

The ringleader of the assault on the army headquarters on Saturday, identified as Muhammad Aqeel, was a member of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, according to the military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas. Mr. Aqeel, who was captured alive, is also a former soldier in the Army Medical Corps, a background that appeared to have helped in planning the attack.

Two of the facilities attacked in and near Lahore on Thursday — the six-story building of the federal investigations agency, and a police training unit in the suburb of Manawan — were hit by militants in deadly assaults in 2008 and earlier this year.

The coordination of the attacks by three teams between 9 and 10 a.m. startled police officials as they scrambled to send commandos to each of the sites.

The raid on the headquarters of the Punjab elite police training school was seen as particularly insulting because its graduates, trained in counterterrorism techniques, are considered the pride of the province.

Five militants scaled a wall of the elite training school, where more than 800 recruits had just started classes, said Maj. Gen. Shafqat Ahmed, the officer commanding security forces in Lahore.

Six police officers were killed and seven were wounded in a gun battle that lasted more than two hours, police officials said. All five of the attackers were killed, they said.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/16/world/asia/16pstan.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&emc=eta1

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