First published on the India Foundation
The attack on Pakistan’s Naval Dockyard on September 6, which is celebrated as Pakistan’s Defence Day, was a landmark event. The naval dockyard is a highly sensitive security zone, where naval ships, submarines and auxiliaries are not only berthed, but also repaired and built. It undertakes all indigenous construction projects like Missiles Boats, Mines Counter Measure Vessel and Agosta 90-B Submarine. So shocked was the Pakistan’s security establishment with the attack that the whole news was kept under wraps for two days and even today the details of the attack have not been made clear.Little news that has trickled out reveals that the terrorists had not only infiltrated through the dockyard, but also targeted PNS Zulfiqar, a Chinese built frigate of the Pakistan Navy (PN). The involvement of many naval personnel and claim by newly created Qaedat-ul Jihad or Al Qaida in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), as well as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) of involvement,has raised suspicion that the terrorists wanted to hijack the ship and take it out to sea. A fully armed warship with terrorists at sea can be an extremely potent weapon that can be used to target any unsuspecting ship at sea including the US warships in Gulf. AQIS has subsequently claimed that a US supply ship was the target.
Fortunately, for Pakistan, the naval commandos responded promptly and in the ensuing encounter killed three terrorists while apprehending seven terrorists alive, while one petty officer of the navy was killed and six others sustained serious injuries. Five 9mm pistols, three intercoms, four suicide jackets, two detonators, handcuffs and other ammunition was recovered. The main accused is believed to be Owais Jahhrani, a former naval officer, who wasexpelled from the force in 2013 for his rigid religious views. He died during the attack and is the son of an Assistant Inspector General (AIG) of Police from Karachi. Subsequently, three other naval officers were arrested at Mastung in Balochistan enroute to Quetta, from where they were planning to escape to Afghanistan. The arrests have also been made at the Ormara Airbase. Accomplices were also arrested from Swabi, south Punjab and interior Sindh. The whole investigation process has been kept under wraps as the security forces do not want the international community to know that radical virus has afflicted Pakistani Armed Forces. The security establishment has been so sensitive about propagation of such facts that investigative journalist Syed Saleem Shehzad was brutally killed in 2011 for publishing a story which highlighted the presence of Al Qaeda cells within the PN.
However, despite the attempts to brush aside such acts under the carpet, the attack on PN Dockyard has not been a one off act, but just one incident in a series of terrorist attacks where members of the armed forces were involved. Every single attack on a military installation bore clear marks of collusion by elements from within. Many Pakistani Air Force (PAF) and army personnel including six officers were convicted for attempts on General Pervez Musharraf in December 2003. An army soldier, Abdul Islam Siddiqui, was hanged on August 20, 2005 after an in camera Court Martial for triggering an explosion to target Musharraf in Rawalpindi. On another occasion, an anti-aircraft gun was discovered on the flight path of General Musharraf’s plane, when he was taking off from Rawalpindi Air base on a pitch dark night. There were also occasions when Army and Air Force officers preferred being court martialed than to fight the Taliban. In one of the most bizarre case, 200 armed security personnel were taken captive by 20 militants in Federally Administered Tribal Areas(FATA). There have also been numerous instances of sabotage in the PAF to prevent aircraft from being deployed against the militants. In one of the many attempts on Musharraf, over 100 Air Force personnel were convicted and three were sentenced to death. One of those sentenced to death was Adnan Rasheed, who was housed in Bannu Jail, till TTP decided to break open the jail and release all the prisoners. Immediately after his release Adnan led attack on PAF station at Kamra.
Former army personnel were also involved in the attacks on GHQ, with the possible collusion of insiders. In 2010, two former army officers along with two serving officers including a colonel were convicted by a court martial for planning an attack on the Shamsi airbase, which was being used by the Americans to fly their drones. The attack on PNS Mehran was another case of collusion by serving personnel. Kamran Ahmed, a former naval commando and his brother Zaman Ahmed were arrested for aiding the attackers. Another marine commando from Waziristan, who had been posted at PNS Mehran, was arrested in January 2011 for having links with Al Qaeda and Taliban. During an in-camera briefing, the parliamentary committee on defence was informed that three Navy officers, one sailor and four other personnel had assisted the terrorists.In fact in order to identify the personnel with terrorist links within the Navy, the Navy has decided to re-interrogate those Naval officers who had been arrested for their alleged involvement in Mehran.
The growing radicalisation of the Armed Forces is nothing but a manifestation of the growing extremism in Pakistani society. As radical militant outfits thrive in Pakistan, they share their recruitment base with the armed forces. Consequently, most of the inductees into the armed forces are already imbued with the radical hue and as they live in the same society, the radicalisation further increases. Various religious organisations with puritanical zeal like the Tableeghi Jamaat or Al Huda have liberal access to military personnel and their families. Similarly, pan Islamic outfits like Hizb-ut Tehrir, which do not believe in Westphalian concept of a nation state, have also made deep inroads into Armed Forces. Once a person has been moulded in a particular ideology by these organisations, it is not very difficult for the militant organisations to recruit him for their cause. There has been large number of cases, where officers and men from the military have resigned to join the radical outfits.Although all the three armed forces have been affected by the menace of radicalisation, the impact is more pronounced in PN and PAF, probably the regimental system of the army has succeeded in mitigating the impact of radicalisation to some extent.
Though the military leadership in the last decade has tried to cleanse the forces of radical elements and has succeeded in purging overtly religious generals. However, the junior officers and other ranks by and large reflect the prevailing views of rapidly radicalising society. Many of them still believe that the war against Taliban is America’s war and have serious reservations about fighting them.This is bound to create rifts within the military,which is the glue that binds a fissiparous state like Pakistan. However, the immediate concern for the international community is the prospect that there could be some closeted militants in Strategic Planning Directorate (SPD) of Pakistani Army, which is tasked with guarding Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile.
Alok Bansal is the Director Centre for Security and Strategy, India foundation. The views expressed are his own.