At about 11:30 am on Saturday, October 10, the GHQ came under a terrorist attack. This was not the first time: a few months ago, an explosive-laden vehicle attempted to ram through the checkpost from a different direction, killing five soldiers. The warning from the Punjab government not withstanding, this attack was expected as soon as the issue of Baitullah Mehsud’s successor as leader of the Tehreek-e Taliban was settled. In fact, it was surprising that it took so long.
The public is appalled by the fact that even the GHQ, the most well defended army installation, is unsafe and can be penetrated — the impression that it was penetrated was given credence by the fact that a brigadier and a lieutenant-colonel were among the casualties. There is also concern that the attack could succeed despite the warning by the Punjab government.
An explanation of what exactly transpired is necessary.
In days gone by, the GHQ had a number of entrances; most are now sealed off, and those now in use have two checkposts each, one at the outer perimeter and the second, at the inner perimeter, a hundred yards or so further in. The main gate lies at the junction of two roads, both turn from the Mall. One is the extension of Murree Road and the other from opposite the rear gate to the Fatima Jinnah University, via the Armour Mess. The triangular space between the two roads is the GHQ car park, protected by a high spiked wall.
Security personnel man the checkposts, reserves are located around the GHQ gates, and the office housing personnel responsible for organising the security of GHQ, headed by a lieutenant-colonel, are located outside the GHQ premises, in the vicinity of the inner checkpost on the road extending from Murree Road. Personnel inside the office building, though outside GHQ premises, in accordance with policy, are unarmed.
Apparently, six terrorists dressed in army camouflage uniforms, available in abundance in the market for used clothes, riding a small van bearing army number plates, approached the outer checkpost from along the extension of Murree Road. Whatever warnings may have been received, the natural reaction of any soldier at the checkpost would be to approach and ask for identification; upon which the terrorists opened fire with automatic weapons and grenades, killing all personnel at the outer checkpost.
The inner perimeter, being warned, engaged the terrorists. In the meantime, another six terrorists, also in army uniforms, jumped the spiked wall. Upon hearing the sound of automatic weapons and grenades, the lieutenant-colonel in charge of administering security and the brigadier holding the overall responsibility of GHQ security, who sits within GHQ, rushed out to take control of the situation. Seeing terrorists in army uniforms, both took them to be their own reserves, and were shouting instructions at the terrorists when they were shot and killed.
Out of the six terrorists approaching along the road, four were killed and two captured. Those that had jumped the wall were being presumed to be reserves by the actual security personnel and, in the confusion, managed to enter the building housing unarmed personnel responsible for administering security, outside GHQ premises and take forty odd people hostage, including seven officers, none above the rank of major. GHQ premises were never penetrated. As soon as the situation became clear, the building was surrounded and contained.
In accordance with standard operating procedures, all electricity connections were severed for a limited duration during the night between October 10 and 11, during which nine hostages escaped, providing invaluable information on the numbers and location of the terrorists, particularly the one(s) carrying explosives.
Armed with this information, SSG personnel attacked the building at dawn on October 11 and, targeting the suicide bomber(s) first, killed four, and captured one alive, suffering only two casualties. They rescued the bulk of the remaining hostages, though three hostages lost their lives during the rescue. The entire saga took a total of nineteen hours; the dawn attack, only five minutes. Among those captured was the mastermind, an ex-soldier of the Army Medical Corps, Aqeel alias Dr Usman.
Analysing the entire operation, I must give credit to the terrorists for coming up with an imaginative plan, one that could take advantage of the obvious confusion ensuing from the fact that both genuine security personnel and terrorists were identically dressed. The attack was obviously well planned and the fact that it targeted GHQ, apart from the symbolic significance, has been successful in increasing the feeling of insecurity among the public at large. It has also once again raised doubts about the ‘safety of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal’, even though it was never in danger. Masterminded by an ex-soldier, this attack had to be more successful. The fact that a brigadier and a lieutenant-colonel were also killed has added to the insecurity.
To the extent of its psychological impact, its success is indisputable. However, Aqeel is no ordinary terrorist: he is reputed to be the mind behind a number of other attacks. The fact that he came to personally supervise this attack and was prepared to commit suicide when he was about to be captured could be seen as demonstrative of a certain desperation.
Having said that, it is my considered view that the security forces responded in an exemplary manner and really could not have done much better; their success must be lauded, as much as the fact that the brigadier and lieutenant-colonel exposed themselves to danger, paying for it with their lives, to personally fulfil their duty. Within a couple of hours, security forces had traced the location where the terrorists had been housed, had recovered arms, ammunition, explosives, army uniforms, and had arrested the owner. The terrorists were prevented from entering GHQ premises and had to be satisfied with taking hostages outside the premises, the bulk of whom were successfully rescued.
Within nineteen hours, hostages had been rescued, with minimal ‘collateral damage’ and the mastermind captured alive, after preventing him from committing suicide.
There are, of course, always lessons to be learnt. First, security personnel of all kinds will have to discover some secret means, known only to them, of being able to identify the genuine article from an impersonator in any such situation in future. Second, there should be an unmanned barrier about thirty yards ahead of the outer perimeter which can be operated by remote control; where approaching vehicles are forced to stop and identify themselves, thus ensuring the safety of soldiers manning the outer check post; the more vulnerable one.
This article is a modified version of one originally written for the daily ‘National’. The writer is a former vice president and founder of the Islamabad Policy Research Insititute (IPRI)
Reproduced by permission of Daily Times