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Attack on US consulate: The Afghanistan of Pakistan

April 06, 2010 15:22 IST

There are several similarities in the attack on the US consulate in Peshawar and the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai and it shows that despite Pakistan-US claims of success in the war on the Taliban, it has not diminished the terrorists' ability to carry out attacks, writes strategic expert B Raman.

The available details regarding the fidayeen attack on the United States consulate in Peshawar, the capital of the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan on Monday, are still confusing.

However, certain aspects of the attack are clear: It was a single target swarm attack, meant to penetrate the US consulate in a manner similar to the penetration of the General Headquarters of the Pakistan army in Rawalpindi in October last year. It was not a multiple-target attack similar to what one had seen in Mumbai between November 26 and 29, 2008, and in Kabul subsequently.

As in Mumbai and Kabul, it was a multiple modus operandi attack too, involving the use of explosives and hand-held weapons As in Kabul, there was also a mix of the suicidal and the suicide techniques. In Mumbai, the suicidal technique was used, but not the suicide technique. As in Mumbai and Kabul, there was also a mix of army-style commando attacks and conventional techniques, not requiring knowledge of military tactics.

As in Mumbai, the number of terrorists involved was few. There are contradictory versions of the number, which varies between four and eight. As in the case of the attack on GHQ, Rawalpindi, the terrorists managed to maintain the surprise element of the attack -- with the security guards becoming aware of their intentions and plans only after the terrorists reportedly used two car bombs against two security barriers outside the consulate -- one at a distance of approximately 40 metres and the other at a distance of 20 metres.

At the first security barrier, an armoured personnel carrier of the Frontier Corps was disabled through a car bomb. At least two suicide bombers were killed in the attempt to find their way across the two barriers. Before they could approach the gate, which was damaged by the second vehicular explosion, the security force of the consulate -- comprising the Frontier Corps personnel deployed by the NWFP government and private security guards employed by the US consulate -- retaliated effectively and killed the surviving terrorists wielding assault rifles and hand-grenades. The number of suicide terrorists killed is reportedly between two and four and the number of commando-style attackers killed between four and six.

The reported fatalities are eight -- three members of the Frontier Corps, two security guards of the US consulate and three passers-by. It is not known whether the two security guards and the three passers-by were Pakistani or US nationals. The US consulate is located at the Hospital Road which is closed to public vehicles.

The terrorists managed to enter the road in vehicles that looked like police cars and move for some distance -- approximately 40 metres -- towards the consulate before they were mowed down. Thus, the approach road security failed, enabling the terrorists to move towards the gate of the consulate. But the physical security enhancements at and near the gate and the quick reflexes of the Frontier Corps and consulate security personnel manning the external perimeter security ensured that the terrorists were mowed down before they could succeed in penetrating the consulate.

The reports from Peshawar bring to mind the terrorist attack on India's Parliament on December 13, 2001. The attack on Parliament was a single-target, single-MO attack, but the terrorists, who employed the suicidal and not the suicide technique, evaded the approach road security by moving in vehicles resembling government vehicles used for transporting members of Parliament and security personnel. While they breached the approach road security, they could not breach the external perimeter security due to the alertness and quick reflexes of the security personnel guarding the outer perimeter.

In the case of the attack on the GHQ in Rawalpindi, the approach road security as well as the outer perimeter security failed, enabling the terrorists to penetrate the premises. They could be mowed down only after they had gained entry into the GHQ campus, including the offices of the security staff.

The Peshawar attack illustrates two lessons in counter-terrorism, which are well-known but rarely followed: First, a physical security team which is well-trained and has good reflexes can thwart a terror attack even if intelligence fails.

Secondly, in a multi-layered physical security set-up, even if one layer fails, others can stop the terrorists. A multi-layered security set-up is a must for all sensitive establishments.

The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan has claimed responsibility for the attack on the consulate. It has been threatening attacks on US nationals and interests ever since the reported (but not yet confirmed) death of its chief Hakimullah Mehsud in January in a US drone strike. Presuming that this claim is accurate, it has taken the Taliban three months to form the attack team and train them.

American nationals and interests have been the targets of terror attacks in Pakistan right from the 1990s, but almost all previous attacks involved the use of explosives or hand-held weapons. This is the first time a US establishment in Pakistan has been the target of a military-style commando attack. Will the Taliban be able to mount a similar attack on the US embassy in Islamabad or the US consulate in Karachi? That is a question that must be worrying the US and Pakistani authorities.

Despite Pakistani claims -- endorsed by a naive Barack Obama administration -- of successes in its counter-terrorism operations in Swat Valley, South Waziristan and Bajaur Agencies of the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas, the Pashtun and the Punjabi Taliban remain as well-motivated, as resourceful, as innovative and as determined to kill as ever. They are feeling no shortage of suicide volunteers as seen from the Peshawar attack and the suicide attack (in which 45 people were killed) the same day on a rally of the Awami National Party in the Lower Dir District of the NWFP.

Lower and Upper Dirs are the strongholds of the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi, founded by Maulana Fazlulla, who hails from the Dir area. The indications are that while the Lower Dir attack was carried out by the TNSM faction of the TTP, the Peshawar attack was carried out by the Mehsud faction from South Waziristan. It is difficult to say whether the two were coordinated by the same command and control.

If the Obama administration does not wake up to the on-going Afghanistan of Pakistan, with a rainbow coalition of terror groups having a free run, the ultimate humiliation of the administration may not come from Afghanistan, but from Pakistan.

B Raman