The Attack on the ISI Office in Peshawar, the Evolution of Terrorist Tactics and the Implications for Pakistan’s Future


Any sober analysis of the military operations in Pakistan reveals that the menace of terrorism is spreading, with ever more dangerous consequences. Each operation is followed by a temporary respite followed by even more devastating terrorist attacks and increasing lawlessness. The writ of the state is gaining traction in the tribal areas but appears to be dissolving in urban centers, especially in Peshawar. Politicians are living in a bubble, increasingly unresponsive to public sentiment and thus are finding it more difficult to establish the national consensus required to govern effectively. Law enforcement authorities clearly lack the training and tools required to competently implement preventive measures.

As previously noted by PoliTact, in this situation extremists appear to be sophisticated and cutting-edge, while in reality they are merely exploiting the glaring vulnerabilities of Pakistan’s law enforcement agencies, both civilian and military. Meanwhile the government is losing the confidence of the public and its prestige internationally. The foot soldiers cannot be blamed for the shortcomings of the law enforcement agencies.

This analysis will focus on the implications of the attack on the Inter-Services Intelligence Office in Peshawar on November 13th. This followed an attack on Army General Headquarters on October 12th and one on the ISI Office in Lahore on May 27th. We also examine terrorist tactics and government security procedures in order to highlight apparent shortcomings. Lastly, we explore the future of terrorism in Pakistan vis-a-vis the situation in Afghanistan and the lessons of history.



Extremist Tactics

Below are listed the different types of terrorist attacks, each adapted to its target:

  •   Individual suicide attacks in which a person wearing a suicide belt blows himself up in a bazaar or in settings where support services for military and security personnel are present;
  • Those utilizing Vehicle Born Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIED), the most lethal and destructive, and perhaps the hardest to pull off successfully. Cars and mid-size trucks have been used in most cases, but as demonstrated by the Marriott hotel bombing in Islamabad, big trucks have been used selectively;
  • Ambushes in which a small team of assailants launch a surprise attack on a law enforcement or military facility in an attempt to kill its personnel and take hostages, thus prolonging the siege.

Extremist Targeting

The terrorists have attacked civilians, police and civil and military intelligence personnel; even players on the Sri Lankan Cricket team haven’t been spared. It must be noted, however, that responsibility for the attacks on civilians, such as the one which occurred in the Peshawar Meena Bazaar on October 28, (resulting in the deaths of more than 100 people and wounding many more), was not claimed by either the TTP or Al Qaeda. Instead, the extremists blamed American defense contractors operating in the country.

Oddly enough, political leaders are the only group that has been spared thus far. Possible explanations for this include:

  • The politicians receive better protection and are thus more difficult to attack;
  • The terrorists believe that the politicians are proving so ineffective at governing that they are best left alone; that their ineptitude actually assists the extremists prevent the development of an effective counter-terrorism strategy;
  • That politicians can be targeted later on when the escalation mounts;
  • Leaving the politicians unharmed exacerbates tensions between the nation’s civilian and military;
  • The terrorists are hoping that public discontent with the worsening situation will result in a violent revolution.

PoliTact’s analysis of September 29, 2009 identified some of the future potential targets. We also recommended closing of the Khyber Road to traffic, as it passes through areas housing sensitive government’s installations. If this measure were adopted, it would almost certainly eliminate the possibility of VBIED attacks, such as the ones launched against the ISI office and the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar. Both facilities were located about a mile from each other on the Khyber Road in Peshawar.

Law Enforcement’s Weak Spots

It should also be pointed out that the extremists appear to have developed both a short and long- term strategy. Law enforcement agencies don’t seem to have anticipated the target surveying and selection activities of the extremists. One would hope that after each attack, the law enforcement agencies would tweak their countermeasures. Sadly, this doesn’t appear to be happening; it is the extremists who are more likely to adapt themselves to new contingencies.

For example, after careful scrutiny of the attack on the ISI Office in Peshawar and other similar ones, one feels compelled to ask the following questions:

  1. How did the truck used by the terrorists to attack the facility bypass numerous check posts located along each access point?
  2. The security measures in place at the facility appear to be more suited to countering an ambush than a VBIED-style attack. Why the oversight and what steps will be taken to deal with it?
  3. What does this dismal performance by security personnel tell us about the security of nuclear installations?

The following are possible answers:

  1. The extremists had accomplices who helped the truck elude the check posts.
  2. The extremists know the area very well and arranged for the truck to move from a location situated between a given check post and the targeted facility, so that the truck never had to pass any check post.
  3. The fact that proper steps weren’t taken to protect the facility for VBIED attacks points to inadequate training and a failure to anticipate the worst-case scenario. A number of options suggest themselves. First, all traffic on Khyber Road should have been stopped and diverted. If this proved impossible due to public inconvenience, then the facility should have been moved to a more secure premise (inside a military base, for example), where its existence would not be common knowledge. If this was found to be untenable, blast-proof walls should have been constructed.
  4. The extremists have shown themselves to be more astute than security personnel. The pattern underlying terrorist attacks point towards multiple groups with support within the country as well as outside it. The attacks on civilians and ethnic groups could have a different source than the ones on law enforcement and military facilities but they share the same motive; to destabilize Pakistan. Since the findings of government investigations of these attacks are never made public, it is hard to build a convincing case one way or the other.

Interpreting the Terrorist Message

By demonstrating their reach, the extremists send the message that the operations against them have failed to make a dent in their capabilities and that they can still freely attack the nation’s most secure facilities with impunity. This is worrisome to the Western powers, which are anxious about the safety of the country’s nuclear facilities. On its part, Pakistan is extremely sensitive about its nuclear status and thus these terrorist attacks play upon the government’s fears, as well as destabilizing the government itself. A nuclear power cannot afford the latter, which raises questions about terrorist motivation.

One explanation: by demonstrating their capabilities and reach, the extremists want to convince the country’s government and military to end support for the US-backed war in Afghanistan, in addition to military operations in the tribal areas of Pakistan. From the terrorist perspective, if the government fails to cease and desist, then it is not being true to Islam. Therefore, in the best interests of Islam, they feel justified in taking over the control of nukes.

The Future of Terrorism in Pakistan

In the absence of a political strategy accompanying the military one, Pakistan is fast sliding into the abyss. In the meantime, the United States is engaged in an extensive and realistic review of its strategy in Afghanistan; attempting to cope with a global recession, it will most likely leave more of the fighting to Pakistani and Afghan forces. According to some in Pakistan, the situation looks like a revival of the colonial model, where the native foot soldiers were led by British Army officers. When the British finally left, it wasn’t because they had won or that they had tamed the tribal areas, but simply because of the results of the two World Wars. The lessons of World War I and II educated the global powers to avoid direct confrontations, which could have disastrous consequences (for example, Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD). Instead, “proxy powers” and “client states” emerged.

When government policies increasingly appear to be developed in response to foreign pressure and not to public opinion, it is the military where one usually detects the first signs of revolt. After all, this has been the case in other parts of the Islamic world, notably Egypt and Iraq. The Urabi Revolt of (1879-82) and the subsequent Free Officers Movement of 1952 in Egypt both provide historic antecedents and parallels to the current situation in Pakistan, as does The Iraqi Army Revolt of 1958. There is one significant difference, however: the above mentioned Arab revolts were mostly nationalistic in origin but today the reaction against pervasive corruption and perceived foreign meddling has both national and religious origins – a potentially explosive combination – one would think.

As the gap between a common citizen’s perception of reality and the elite increases, the chances of dangerous consequences escalate. The government is widely seen as corrupt and, in the public view, following foreign dictates and interests while compromising national interests. Additionally, the government and senior military officials seem to be working together with US under a tacit agreement, to conduct drone attacks on its own soil while launching military operations against its own people. Meanwhile, however, citizens are suffering under rising food prices and businesses are trying to deal with electricity shortages and price hikes resulting from IMF (International Monetary Fund) loan terms. Under these circumstances, the real question becomes, “How can a mutiny or a revolution in Pakistan be avoided?” The Western powers are bracing themselves for such an eventuality.

To prevent such a calamity, the government will have to prove to the public that it has the ability to discharge the minimal obligations of government: to safeguard human life and property. If the only security available is that provided by the extremists -that is, those occasions when they choose to initiate or conclude attacks – then why bother with a government? The need for credible leadership with the capacity to build a consensus on how to address critical issues has never been more pressing. Leadership means not only taking the initiative, but the ability to craft and then make a convincing case to the pubic on the suitable course for the future. In the interdependent world of the future the most daunting task is the ability to anticipate and cope with change as the status quo will not prevail. The institution most likely to initiate reform at this juncture, bringing a level of credibility to the system and help avoid extreme outcomes, is the Supreme Court of Pakistan and not the Parliament or the Executive.

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