Attack in Rawalpindi: are Pakistan’s militant groups uniting?

October 10, 2009

An attack on the headquarters of the Pakistan Army in the city of Rawalpindi has highlighted the country’s vulnerability to a backlash from Islamist militants in the Pakistani Taliban as it prepares an offensive against their stronghold in South Waziristan. It follows a suicide bombing in Peshawar which prompted Interior Minister Rehman Malik to say that ”all roads are leading to South Waziristan.”

But what is perhaps more troubling about the attack is not so much the backlash from the Pakistani Taliban (the Tehrik-e-Taliban, or TTP)  holed up in the Waziristan tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, but rather suggestions of growing co-operation between al Qaeda-linked groups there and those based in Punjab, the heartland of Pakistan.

Analysts have long argued that the biggest danger to Pakistan would come not from the tribal areas, but from the creation of a stregthening coalition of militant groups which brought together the Pakistani Taliban, al Qaeda, and militant groups based in Punjab – which include sectarian groups and those originally set up to fight India in Kashmir.

According to the New York Times, the militants behind the attack were a mixed group from across Pakistan. It quoted an unnamed military official as saying that some came from the tribal areas, some from Punjab and some from Pakistani Kashmir.

Pakistan’s GEO TV said it had received a call from the Tehrik-e-Taliban (Ajmad Farooqi) group claiming responsibility for the attack. The caller demanded, among other things, that former president Pervez Musharraf be held accountable.

Claims of responsibility are just that - a claim that remains to be verified. But I looked up Musharraf’s autobiography “In the Line of Fire” to see what he had to say about Ajmad Farooqi. According to Musharraf, Farooqi was a senior al Qaeda operative who had been involved in the killing of U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002, and subsequently was involved in two attempts to assassinate him.  Farooqi was killed in a shoot-out with Pakistani security forces in the town of Nawabshah in Sind province in 2004, after a manhunt held under the supervision of current Pakistan Army head General Pervez Ashfaq Kayani.

Here is what Musharraf had to say about Farooqi’s links to Punjab: In the manhunt, Pakistan started by tracking his phone calls. “In September 2004 we found that he was talking to two people in particular, in the Punjabi dialect of Faisalbad, the third largest of our cities in central Punjab.”

As discussed earlier on this blog, including here and here, the danger from Islamist militants in Punjab tends to be overlooked in the focus on tackling the Pakistani Taliban in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.  But if it turns out that those behind the attack on the Pakistan Army headquarters were not only from the remote areas bordering Afghanistan but also from the heartland of the country, then the risk to Pakistan’s stability has just got a lot bigger.

(Photos: Soldiers take position in Rawalpindi; and Pakistan army chief, General Kayani)

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