Sep 272008

Pakistan’s security forces need extensive training in security aspects and how to respond to what threat. They also desperately need training in forensics as well as crime scene investigation

At around 8 pm last Saturday, September 20, a truck, carrying (we are now informed) a combined 600 kg load RDX/TNT and phosphorous powder, rammed into the barrier at the entrance to the Marriott Hotel in the heart of Islamabad. The resulting detonation took sixty lives and left untold wounded. Like the Lal Masjid episode, discussed threadbare earlier, this too is already being treated as another failure of the ISI.

The question arises: is this another failure of intelligence organisations or is Pakistan’s security system not geared to protect its citizens?

Eyewitness accounts, confirmed by CCTV footage, relate that the truck engine caught fire as it rammed into the barrier. Some security personnel, including a policeman and an intelligence individual rushed to the truck, tried to put out the fire and attempted to extricate the driver, who was still revving the truck — probably in the hope of getting past the barrier and closer to the building. If he had succeeded the damage would have been manifold.

Then followed an initial explosion, destroying the front cabin and killing the driver; the main explosion took another two to three minutes. The interval between the truck ramming into the barrier and its explosion was long enough for the son of the Marriott’s owner to come out to make inquiries, find his car and flee the scene.

The presence of phosphorous would explain the swift spread of fires in the hotel. In fact, survivors who left the scene through the kitchen minutes later testify to being covered by a film of ashes; probably the phosphorous which burnt out in the air.

For the unaware, RDX is considered among the most stable explosives, TNT only a little less so; both melt in a fire and do not explode unless detonated. What is more, both explosives are unrecognisable except to the trained eye.

At all checkpoints, throughout the country, no individual trained to identify explosive material is available. Even at locations where more sophisticated equipment is available, it is unlikely that they would be able to identify explosive material, unless it had already been made into an obvious explosive device.

What is more, even if there were individuals capable of identifying explosives, explosives like RDX can be painted and placed in innocent looking packages, which even the trained eye could miss. This is why dogs trained to sniff out explosives are still considered the most reliable method for security personnel at checkpoints to identify vehicles carrying explosives. Pakistan has none of these.

Intelligence agencies were aware and had issued warnings to all security agencies that a number of individuals with explosives had entered the capital as well as other major cities — they had even warned of a possible attack to coincide with Zardari’s address to parliament. And yet this truck could apparently move around unchecked, except in the vicinity of Parliament House, and that too only because vehicles without authorised stickers were not permitted to approach.

While rumours abound regarding the Marriott hosting US Marines for a special operation, and that they were the real target, the probability is that that Parliament House was the intended target and, finding it inaccessible, the attack was diverted to the Marriott. This conclusion is borne out by the fact that until the last possible moment, the bomber was revving his vehicle in an attempt to reach the main building, demonstrating that he was unaware that attempt was impossible.

Now, to return to the attack; there are all kinds of detonators, including timed devices and those that will go off in the event that the truck rams into something. Considering the interval between the ramming and the explosion, it could not have been the latter.

It becomes necessary here to speculate a little based on the events. Perhaps the first explosion that killed the driver was simultaneously supposed to detonate the explosive and something went wrong; perhaps the driver had a remote controlled device with a time-delayed detonator, or an alternate fuse-fitted detonator was a fall back, to ensure explosion in case of a fire. One will probably never know.

However, this much can be concluded: the security personnel did not comprehend the threat, perhaps because the truck ramming the barrier did not trigger the explosion. Had they done so, they would either have fled the scene in an attempt to save their own lives or, if determined to sacrifice their own, would a) have attempted to warn the hotel occupants to move as far back as possible, or b) they would have attempted to push the truck as far back from the hotel as possible.

Like the rest of the nation, I too mourn the loss of innocent lives; mostly drivers, security personnel etc, belonging to the lower class. Many were the only source of income for their families. However, it is important that those in positions of authority, instead of issuing unnecessarily misleading statements, identify our area(s) of weakness and redress them.

Pakistan’s security forces need extensive training in security aspects and how to respond to what threat. They also desperately need training in forensics as well as crime scene investigation. To this end, the government may seek help from any and every possible source, including the FBI and Scotland Yard.

Finally, in our environment, there needs to be much closer cooperation and interaction between the various intelligence agencies, and between the intelligence and security agencies, to prevent as many such dastardly acts as possible, before the Disaster Management Cell need be activated. To this end, it would be worthwhile to have an intelligence and security coordination committee working directly under the prime minister or the president — whoever is going to be calling the shots in reality.

This article is a modified version of the original written for the daily National

Source: Daily Times, 27/9/2008

 Posted by at 10:11 am

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