Al Qaeda’s attempted hijacking of the warship PNS Zulfiqar failed—thanks to Operation Zarb-e-Azb and Gen. Raheel Sharif’s clarity.
It took two days for the Pakistan Navy to confess that its dockyard in Karachi had been attacked on Defense Day, Sept. 6. “The group tried to penetrate the dockyard area,” said a Navy spokesman. “Navy security personnel responded valiantly and, in the ensuing encounter, killed two intruders while apprehending four miscreants alive.”
Entirely missing from this succinct statement were some startling facts. The attack was on PNS Zulfiqar—a missile-equipped warship built by China and Pakistan four years ago—and it was perpetrated by Al Qaeda in collaboration with former and serving Navy personnel. This latest incident was in keeping with the 2011 attack on the Navy’s Mehran airbase in Karachi. That one took place between the killing of Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad and the mysterious murder of journalist Saleem Shahzad, who had written about radicalization in the military. Indeed, the Mehran attack was triggered by the Navy’s alleged refusal to release scores of its employees arrested over suspicion of loyalty to Al Qaeda.
But the PNS Zulfiqar attack is more significant than others—because of its failure. Zarb-e-Azb, the ongoing military operation in North Waziristan appears to have weakened the “martyrdom”-aspiring, ideological hold of Al Qaeda. This time, the Navy’s response was also robust. This is what the taking alive of several attackers suggests. The captured terrorists failed to kill themselves, and were made to sing. As a result, law enforcement agencies were able to nab more Al Qaeda abettors—including, reportedly, 17 employees and ex-employees of the Navy—from across Pakistan.
This was also the first time that Sindh province was named as Al Qaeda’s new grazing ground. Owais Jakhrani, said to be the son of a senior police officer, was identified as one of the PNS Zulfiqar attackers. He had served in the Navy and his body was found drowned near the vessel. The attack, it turns out, had come from the sea and some of the attackers had managed to land on the warship.
Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent has owned the attack. “The attackers were former Pakistan Navy officers-turned-jihadists,” said its spokesman Osama Mahmood. The plan was to hijack PNS Zulfiqar to launch an attack on a U.S. aircraft carrier. “They had taken over control of the ship and were proceeding to attack the American vessel when they were intercepted by the Pakistan Armed Forces.” Mahmood has promised to release a video of the attack. If this pledge is fulfilled, it will likely open another can of worms about the Navy and the extent to which it has been infiltrated.
All three services—the Army, Air Force, Navy—face challenge from radicals within their ranks. But the infiltration of the Navy looks massive given its size. Including reservists, the Navy is a force of about 35,000 personnel. (Like the other services, the Navy is striving, through affirmative action, to make itself more nationally representative: In 2007, it gave commission to the first Baloch naval squadron, and it has established three additional facilities in Balochistan to recruit and train personnel.)
Early last month, Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri spoke to the world through an hour-long video, vowing to “return India to Islamic rule.” Does Al Qaeda have a base in India, as the new AQIS franchise suggests?
Zabihuddin Ansari alias Abu Jandal, an Indian terrorist arrested in Saudi Arabia and surrendered to New Delhi in 2012, revealed connections between the 2008 Mumbai attacks and India’s own Muslim radicals. “Militants do have a presence in India,” according to Foreign Affairs in September, “and a history of responding to Hindu nationalist provocations.” The U.S. publication says: “A radical offshoot of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind known as the Students Islamic Movement of India broke away from its pacifist parent organization in response to the intensifying Hindu nationalist movement of the 1980s and was radicalized by the destruction of the Babri Mosque and other instances of violence against Muslims in 1992. Protesting the rise of Hindu nationalism—and the moderate response of India’s Islamic institutions—SIMI openly called for jihad against the Indian government and the creation of a caliphate. Today, the group is believed to have about 400 full-time operatives and 20,000 members.”
Had Al Qaeda been successful in hijacking PNS Zulfiqar, it would have been a “suicide ship.” Its fighting days would have been curtailed in short order by two strong naval presences, India’s and America’s, in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. Targeting an American carrier would have proved difficult. An exchange of fire would have made short work of an adventure clearly meant to publicize Al Qaeda now that the region has other more savage competitors, like the Islamic State (formerly ISIL). But could India too have been endangered?
Al Qaeda carried out the 2008 Mumbai attacks with the help of Pakistani radicals—like Ajmal Kasab and David Headley, who made lengthy confessions after being arrested. Had AQIS succeeded in hijacking PNS Zulfiqar, already uncertain relations between Pakistan and India would have worsened. Even now, the outlook is dicey.
G. Parthasarathy, a former Indian envoy to Pakistan known for his hardline views, put a negative gloss on Zawahiri’s video message, making it look as if it was inspired by Pakistan. His piece in The New Indian Express after the dockyard attack says: “It is striking that the Zawahiri diatribe is couched in language used by the Pakistani military establishment over the past six decades. He describes the creation of Bangladesh as a ‘conspiracy’ by ‘agents’ of India. He reflects Pakistani animosity towards the secular Bangladesh government of Sheikh Hasina, as enjoying ‘the blessings of both India and America’ and calls on scholars in Bangladesh to ‘fulfill the role Islam has given them to fight against secularists and atheists.’ India is predictably called an ‘enemy of Islam.’ He notes: ‘The events in Bangladesh and Burma are not too distant from the oppression and killings of Muslims in Kashmir, or the racial cleansing in Assam, Gujarat and Ahmadabad earlier.’”
Parthasarathy’s analysis appears patently emotive and divorced from the new reality post-June, when Zarb-e-Azb was launched. The military operation has resulted in the wholesale exodus of foreign militants, particularly the Haqqani network, from Pakistani territory. But, unfortunately, every country neighboring it nurses negative views about Pakistan. This will take time to change.
India, Afghanistan, Iran and even China believe that Pakistan or at least its territory is involved in terrorist activities in the region. In 2011, the-then U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, called the Haqqani network—a branch of the Afghan Taliban based in Pakistan’s tribal areas—“a veritable arm” of the Pakistani state.
But if the Taliban are Pakistan’s “veritable arm,” why do they frequently attack and kill Pakistani troops? This is worrisome for the Pakistani military strategist because it points to possible internal contradictions of the Pakistani state and conversion of state employees to the toxic worldview of those it calls terrorists. It is not often that Pakistan officially recognizes this fact the way it has in the case of the dockyard attack.
In his book, Inside Al Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11, journalist Shahzad provides an estimate of Al Qaeda’s mind-control in Pakistan: “Since 1979, at least 100,000 Pakistanis were active members of different jihadist cadres. Over 1 million students were enrolled in various Islamic seminaries, and there were several hundred thousand supporters of Pakistan’s Islamic religious parties. The main handler of the Afghan Jihad against the Soviets had been the Pakistan Army, which itself was not immune to the influence of radicalism.”
He continues: “Several Army officers had pledged their allegiance to different jihadist spiritual leaders, including Maulana Akram Awan of Chakwal. These groups were known in the Army as pir bhai groups. Although Gen. Pervez Musharraf had purged some of these elements from the Army after 9/11—including his very close friend, the-then Deputy Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Muzaffar Usmani—he was unable to completely eradicate the radical tendency, which had become deep-rooted in Pakistan’s security services from 1979 to 2001.”
After he ordered the Kashmir jihad closed, Musharraf was attacked not only by jihadist organizations but also by serving and retired military personnel. He survived several assassination attempts. In 2003, Musharraf nearly got killed after attacks from Al Qaeda through Abu Faraj al-Libbi, Jaish-e-Muhammad and some Air Force personnel. (His successor, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, also got a taste of the same tough medicine after he was seen by Al Qaeda-affiliated groups as becoming soft on the Americans, a factor that may have nurtured in him a hesitation to grasp the nettle of North Waziristan’s “safe haven.”)
Musharraf had wanted a counterattack in South Waziristan but was thwarted by his corps commander in Peshawar, Lt. Gen. Ali Muhammad Jan Aurakzai, who preferred retirement to an operation. In 2004, Aurakzai’s successor, Lt. Gen. Safdar Hussain, struck truce with Taliban commander Nek Muhammad at Shakai, binding him from attacking Afghanistan and requiring him to get rid of foreign militants. Muhammad did not abide by the peace accord.
In Scorpion’s Tail, Zahid Hussain recounts that General Hussain told him he wanted the Americans “trapped in Afghanistan.” The general was seen on TV dubbing Nek Muhammad “a soldier of Islam.” After the Taliban commander was killed by a U.S. drone in June 2004, the general signed another peace accord, this time with Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud at Sararogha and gave him half a million dollars to abandon loyalty to Al Qaeda. Mehsud, too, did not abide by the terms of the accord.
In Inside the Pakistan Army: a Woman’s Experience on the Frontline of the War on Terror, military historian Carey Schofield, who was for a time embedded with the combat formations of the Pakistan Army, narrates the story of Maj. Gen. Faisal Alvi of the SSG commando brigade. Alvi was gunned down by renegade Maj. Haroon Ashiq on the orders of Al Qaeda’s Ilyas Kashmiri, another ex-commando, who had wanted Alvi punished for making things tough for Al Qaeda in the tribal areas. Ashiq was arrested but finally acquitted by a court in Rawalpindi. Capt. Khurram Ashiq, his brother, was also Al Qaeda and was killed in Helmand fighting the British.
After the Taliban shot education activist and schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai in Swat in 2012, Asif Ali Zardari, then president, frankly admitted to a delegation of the South Asia Free Media Association that he could do nothing to avenge her near-assassination. He said the political parties were not united over what the attempt on Malala’s life meant for Pakistan, and that the extremists ready to side with Al Qaeda were too strong and widespread. Pakistan was not yet ready, he said, for the extremist blowback from a military operation in North Waziristan.
Clearly, this was coming from what Zardari had been told by the Army chief, Kayani. What he couldn’t say, although he must have been aware of it, was that the military was encountering problems purging its ranks of elements converted or sympathetic to Al Qaeda. Two years later, Gen. Raheel Sharif proved his predecessor wrong with Operation Zarb-e-Azb. The offensive has effectively curtailed Al Qaeda’s terrorist outreach and opened up the possibility of the internal cleanup of the Armed Forces.
With General Sharif in charge, the prospect of definitively tackling terrorism appears promising. The reason is not far to seek: given that Pakistan is self-confessedly a national-security state, the Army calls some major shots in policymaking. The failure of AQIS in hijacking PNS Zulfiqar, which would have put Pakistan on the wrong side of both India and the U.S., owes in no small part to the clarity the new Army chief has brought with him.
Under Sharif’s proactive stance, it has been discovered that the jihadist infrastructure can be dismantled. The problem had previously been deliberately or unknowingly misdiagnosed. It was incorrect of the old brass to assert that terrorism radiating from jihadist desperados was for the police alone to tackle. It is no use facing outward, to deter India, when the trouble within has in various ways been connected to military strategy.
The Army must delink itself from the state’s textbook nationalist narrative and come to terms with the new world order, in which Pakistan lives and has to make progress. Much of what needs to be done has been discussed in Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and the Wars Within by Shuja Nawaz, brother of the late Army chief Gen. Asif Nawaz.
Is the Pakistani civilian mind militarized by the dominance of the Army or by the history of the people who formed Pakistan? Does Pakistani nationalism postpone the civilianizing of the Pakistani mind or is it the Army that pulls Pakistan toward the collective dream of a “winnable” and “just war” with India? The phenomenon of the “Islamic soldier” who heroically questions the legitimacy of Pakistan’s foreign-policy clinch with the U.S. ends up enlarging the challenge of the Army’s mission statement, making it potentially adventurist. The mission statement must change from its India-centric charter, which ignores, if not opposes, regional economic cooperation.
The period of the Kashmir jihad saw remarkable economic recovery in India and sharp economic decline in Pakistan. The fixed “national interest” of Pakistan had to be modified, but was not. Religion, instead of being Pakistan’s ideology, became the force that increasingly challenged and defeated the writ of the state.
Today, by turning inward and launching Zarb-e-Azb, the Army has earned the gratitude of all Pakistanis and the world at large. The Navy was able to stand up to Al Qaeda’s latest attack in Karachi because of the change in the balance of terrorist power in the country. This change is nowhere more visible than in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the province most crippled by terrorism, which has returned to relative peace and calm.
The purge of unwanted elements from the military was not unknown in the past. An FIA officer getting close to the Al Qaeda spoor in the investigation into the assassination of Benazir Bhutto was killed by an Al Qaeda agent, who was also the son of a brigadier fired from the Army for his radical links. In the wake of the new environment created by Zarb-e-Azb, the purge must be deep-cutting and broad. The state must assert its power against militancy to prevent the peaceful citizen from losing faith in its capacity to secure him against criminal behavior.
From our Oct. 4-18, 2014, issue.