Pak assaults show tightening of militant ties

Attacks on military bases indicate deepening reach of terror network



The assaults in Lahore, coming after a 20-hour siege at the army headquarters in Rawalpindi last weekend, showed the deepening reach of the militant network, as well as its rising sophistication and inside knowledge of the security forces, officials and analysts said.

The umbrella group for the Pakistani Taliban, Tehrik-e-Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attacks in Lahore, independent news channel Geo reported on its website.

But the style of the attacks also revealed the closer ties between the Taliban and al-Qaeda and what are known as jihadi groups, which operate out of southern Punjab, the country’s largest province, analysts said. The cooperation has made the militant threat to Pakistan more potent and insidious than ever, they said.

The government has tolerated the Punjabi groups, including Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, for years, and many Pakistanis consider them allies in just causes, including fighting India, the US and Shiite Muslims. But they have become entwined with the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and have increasingly turned on the state.

The alliance has now stepped up attacks as the military prepares an assault on the Taliban stronghold of South Waziristan, where senior members of the Punjabi groups also find sanctuary and support.

“These are all Punjabi groups with a link to South Waziristan,” Aftab Ahmed Sherpao, a former interior minister, said, explaining the recent attacks.

In a rare acknowledgment of the lethal combination of forces, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said a “syndicate” of militant groups wanted to see “Pakistan as a failed state.”

Counter-strategy

“The banned Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, Jaish-e-Muhammad, al-Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi are operating jointly in Pakistan,”Malik told journalists, pledging a more effective counterstrategy.

In Washington, senior intelligence officials said the multiple coordinated attacks were a characteristic of operations influenced by al-Qaeda. They said the assaults also might have been orchestrated by the Taliban to avenge the death of Baitullah Mehsud, the Pakistani Taliban leader, and send a stark message that the insurgents could still carry out daring attacks without him.

The jihadi groups were formally banned by former president Pervez Musharraf after the September 11 attacks, when Pakistan joined the United States in the campaign against terrorism.

But the groups have entrenched domestic and political constituencies, as well as shadowy ties to former military officials and their families, analysts said.

Even since the ban, they have been allowed to operate in Punjab, often in the open.
A large congregation of jihadi groups, including Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, met six months ago in Rawalpindi, the city where the army headquarters was attacked on last Saturday, said Sherpao, the former interior minister.

The nature of the Lahore attacks drove home the point that the “war has come to Punjab,” and that the government can no longer hide the alliance between the Taliban in South Waziristan and the forces in Southern Punjab, said Zaffar Abbas, a prominent journalist at the English-language newspaper Dawn.

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