Saturday, August 1, 2015

Assassination attempts on senior Pakistani army officers

From Dr Hamid Hussein.

Marked for Death - Assassination Attempts on Senior Officers of Pakistan Army
Hamid Hussain

Since 2002, Pakistan army is involved in a rapidly evolving struggle against terrorism.  When the first shots of this new war were fired, Pakistan army was neither trained nor prepared for the conflict.  Confusion, complacency and utter incompetence at all levels gave an upper hand to the extremists all over the country.  First, the government lost the control of tribal areas followed by the loss of the large swaths of the settled division of Malakand.  Militants established themselves in tribal regions and from there launched forays into major cities.  They abducted, killed and bombed civilians and soldiers alike all over the country sending the whole nation into a deep depression.

Police and paramilitary forces faced the brunt of the militant onslaught.  Many soldiers and disproportionately large numbers of young officers of army were killed and wounded in clashes with militants.  Militants embarked on a deliberate course of targeting senior officers of security forces including army.  Many senior police, paramilitary and army officers were targeted by militants.  This was a multipronged strategy with objectives of eliminating individual officers to shake morale of officer corps and on psychological plane sending the signal to general public that security forces couldn’t protect them.

On June 10, 2004, the convoy of Karachi Corps Commander Lieutenant General (later General and VCOAS) Ahsan Saleem Hayat came under attack that resulted in death of eight soldiers.  Ahsan’s driver and co-driver were shot killing co-driver on the spot while driver was seriously wounded and later died.  Driver’s foot remained on the accelerator and car kept moving but in a zigzag fashion.  Ahsan’s ADC seated behind the driver got hold of the steering wheel and got out of the ambush.  Attacker’s plan was to first detonate an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) stopping Ahsan’s car and then spray it with bullets to finish the job.  IED failed to explode and attackers hiding near the bridge opened fire killing several guards but Ahsan survived.

On February 25, 2008, Surgeon General of Pakistan army Lieutenant General Mushtaq Ahmad Beg was killed when a suicide bomber blew himself near his car stopped at a traffic signal in the garrison town of Rawalpindi.  He is the senior most army officer killed by militants.  On November 19, 2008, retired Major General Amir Faisal Alvi was shot and killed in Islamabad.  Alvi had served as GOC of army’s elite Special Forces Special Services Group (SSG) and involved in many early operations in tribal areas.  He was known for joining his troops in the heat of the operations that boosted the morale of his troops. After his retirement, militants had issued several threats to him and finally succeeded in killing him.

In a three week time period, three serving Brigadiers of Pakistan army were targeted in the capital city of Islamabad sending shock waves among the officer community.  On October 22, 2009, Brigadier Moinuddin Ahmad along with his driver was shot dead in Islamabad.  A week later, another Brigadier Waqar Ahmad Malik was shot in Islamabad. He was director Defence Services Guards (DSG).  On November 05, 2009, Brigadier Sohail and his driver were shot and injured when their car was ambushed in Islamabad.

On December 04, 2009, terrorists attacked a mosque in Rawalpindi cantonment used by soldiers and their family members killing more than forty people including several children.  Two suicide bombers blew themselves inside the mosque while other two threw hand grenades and sprayed the congregation with automatic rifle fire.  This was one of the most devastating attacks on army fraternity.  The dead included Major General Bilal Omar, Brigadier Abdul Rauf, Lieutenant Colonel Manzoor Saeed and Lieutenant Colonel Fakhar ul Hassan.  The only son of then Peshawar Corps Commander Lieutenant General Masood Aslam was also among the dead as well as sons of Major General Nasim Riaz, Brigadier Mumtaz, Brigadier Sadiq, Colonel Qaiser, Colonel Shukran and Colonel Shabbir.   Fathers of Major General Awais Mustafa and Colonel Farooq Awan were also among the dead.  Colonel Kaleem Zubair lost his father as well as his son in the carnage. This was the most heart breaking tragedy until militants trumped their own brutality when in December 2014 they attacked Army Public School in Peshawar killing around 150 students as well as many teacher.

On September 07, 2011, two suicide bombers targeted the residence of Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of Frontier Corps (FC) – Baluchistan Brigadier Farrukh Shahzad.  In a devastating precision and coordination, first suicide bomber rammed the explosive laden car targeting FC vehicles waiting to escort the DIG-FC who was coming out of his residence killing several soldiers.  Five minutes later rushing through the chaos, second suicide bomber was able to barge through the damaged gate and partially demolished walls of the residence and detonated his explosives.  The second attack inside the residence killed the wife of Brigadier Shahzad, FC administrator Colonel Khalid Masood and injured Brigadier Shahzad and one of his children.  Thirteen FC personnel lost their lives and another sixteen injured in this incident.

In September 2013, GOC of Swat Major General Sanaullah Khan Niazi was visiting a remote outpost in Dir when his vehicle hit an IED killing him and Lieutenant Colonel Tauseef Ahmad.  It was a planned attack and later militants released a video of the attack.  Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader Mullah Fazlullah claimed that they were planning to target the Corps Commander of Peshawar based XI Corps but Niazi’s turn came first.

Though rare, but militants have also attempted to kidnap officers or their family members with the objective of exchanging them for the release of captured militant leaders.  Son-in-Law of then Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC) General Tariq Majeed; the senior most officer of Pakistani armed forces was abducted by militants and kept in Waziristan for several years.  He was from a wealthy family and militants asked for a large sum of money as well as release of some high profile militants under army’s custody.  He was released but the terms of his release are not known.  On October 11, 2012, Brigadier Tahir Masood who had retired a week before from the media wing of Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) was kidnapped right from the heart of Islamabad while his driver was killed.  To date, he has not been recovered and believed to be in the custody of militants in Islamabad.

There were two major assassination attempts on then Chief of Army Staff (COAS) and President General Pervez Mussharraf in December 2003.  The first attack was on December 14, 2003 when terrorists planted large amount of explosives under a bridge.  When Mussharraf’s convoy reached the bridge, it was blown but no one was killed.  Over five hundred pounds of explosives were placed on the farther side of the bridge and explosive charge was detonated by an operative on the site via a telephone call to the receiver attached to the explosive charge.  Terrorists hoped that by this placement the oncoming car of General Mussharraf would either hit the concrete flying in car’s direction or ram into the exposed steel bars.  In case of missing these two eventualities, the car may plunge into the huge gap in the bridge slamming down in the bed (see the pictures below).  The operator in an effort to be not too visible positioned himself in such a way that obscured his direct visual contact with the convoy.  The result was that he couldn’t time the detonation with the car getting on the bridge.  These precious few seconds saved everybody.

Two weeks later on December 25, Mussharraf’s convoy was hit by two suicide car bombs in quick succession.  The driver of first attack was later identified as a Kashmiri named Mohammad Jamil.  The skin of his face blew off clean from skeletal structure preserving features.  An army plastic surgeon reconstructed it and it matched the picture on burned out identity card.  His cell phone was damaged but SIM was intact and from the calls as well as his diary recovered from his home provided some clues.  The driver of second car was a Pathan named Khaleeq.  The tracking of this piece of the investigation led to discovery that two soldiers of elite Special Services Group (SSG) were helping militants.  One named Dogar had served in the security detail of General Mussharraf and other Arshad was in the security detail of Vice Chief of Army Staff (VCOAS) General Yusuf Khan.  Later Military Intelligence (MI) recovered powerful rockets from his house in Kahuta.

General Mussharraf assigned the task of investigation of the assassination attempts to then Rawalpindi based X Corps Commander Lieutenant General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani.  This interaction brought Kayani very close to Mussharraf and later resulted in his succession to Mussharraf as COAS.  The puzzle of the December 14 attack was solved by a chance discovery by military authorities in Quetta.  They found that a civilian chap named Mushtaq had links with extremist elements in technical staff of Pakistan Air Force (PAF) at Quetta and Peshawar bases.  Quetta based XII Corps commander Lieutenant General Shahid Hamid called Kayani and informed him about this information.  This information led to arrest of several low level PAF technicians who were involved in the assassination attempt.

The ending of the saga of these two assassination attempts is tragic as well as comic.  On April 15, 2012, 150 to 200 heavily armed militants attacked central jail in Bannu freeing over 400 prisoners including a chap named Adnan Rashid.  Adnan was involved in assassination attempt on General Mussharraf.  Details of his arrest were never disclosed and there is some confusion.  A senior police intelligence official informed me that he was single handedly apprehended by an inspector of Intelligence Bureau (IB) (this inspector was later killed in a target killing incident).  Adnan was a PAF technician and may be member of the group suspected to have links with militants.  Later, he was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for his involvement in assassination attempt on General Mussharraf.

After his escape from Bannu jail, Adnan became another alligator in the swamps of Waziristan and quickly rose among the militant cadres due to his discipline and thorough planning.  He was no boy scout and was busy planning high profile strikes.  He established a small elite group and personally trained them for another assassination attempt on General ® Mussharraf.   He planned and executed a mass jail break in 2013.  On July 29, 2013, over one hundred heavily armed militants stormed central jail in Dera Ismail Khan freeing around 180 inmates from the center of the city flooded with police, paramilitary forces and headquarters of a whole infantry division of the army.  This was another sad day for the state of Pakistan.  In July 2014, Adnan was arrested in South Waziristan when military started a push in Waziristan.

Another key member of the group that planned attack on General Mussharraf was a chap named Mushtaq.  He was arrested and kept in the custody of PAF at a base in Rawalpindi.  In November 2004, when he came out of shower he saw the guard sleeping.  He put on an overall used by PAF technicians, walked to the main gate where guards waved him and then asked a uniformed PAF soldier on motorcycle to give him a ride to the bus station close by and disappeared.  A deeply embarrassed army vowed to capture him and a special cell in Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) was assigned for his capture.  Mushtaq was not the one to be happy with this one in a life time chance.  He went straight back into the belly of the beast and started planning another strike on General Mussharraf.  ISI got his scent, followed his contacts and he was finally arrested when he was travelling from Lahore to Islamabad.

Pakistan army paid a heavy price in the last decade and loss of such a high number of senior officers is unprecedented in recent military history. With the hind sight of 20/20, it seems that many of these losses were avoidable. One much neglected aspect is orientation towards personal security.  In my own observations, I found that almost all officers use drivers and in some cases guards.  Analyzing many assassination attempts, it is quite clear that assassins first shoot the driver thus immobilizing the target.  This quite clearly shows that if you are not driving your own vehicle, you are a sitting duck as you cannot escape from the ambush.  Compare this with the notorious case of Raymond Davis who was driving his car alone in a foreign country carrying his own personal weapon, reacted quickly and shot two who tried to stop his vehicle. If competent and professional, guards can provide some screen but in most cases they fail to protect their charge.  Personal security is a special task and simply handing a weapon to a lazy soldier from the cantonment does not equate to security.  I recall attending a high profile wedding in rural Pakistan.  I was chatting with one of the guests; a local garrison commander. I observed that he had three armed soldiers in civilian clothes guarding him. Even casual look showed that they were probably from supply or signals, handed a weapon and asked to accompany the local commander.  Few minutes later I noticed that two handed their weapons to the third and probably either went to rest room or eat food.  The lone guard had his own weapon slung over his shoulder while the two weapons of his colleagues were at his feet.  I sincerely hoped that garrison commander carried his own personal weapon and was not putting his life in the hands of his guards.  Many officers at the forefront of the operations have been threatened by militants.  Officers should be briefed about basic principles of personal security.  Two simple measures of driving their own vehicles and carrying personal weapon will help to keep the initiative in their own hands.

A decade ago, Pakistan army stumbled into a war with an unhealthy mix of confusion and hesitation at the highest level and unpreparedness at all levels thus handing the initiative to the militants. It took several years for the army to take the fight to the militants.  In the last one year, cleaning of some of the swamps of tribal areas and clean up in the cities has dramatically reduced violence all over the country.  Now that the militants are on the run, it is important to keep the momentum in tribal areas as well as cities to keep the citizens of the country soldiers and civilians alike safe.

Acknowledgements: Author thanks many for their valuable input and clarifications.  However, conclusions as well as all errors and omissions are author’s sole responsibility.


Sources of information are based on author’s frequent visits to the troubled regions and interaction with a diverse group of individuals.  Most of the information about attempts on General Mussharraf is from his autobiography, Pervez Mussharraf.  In the Line of the Fire: A Memoir (London: Simon & Schuster), 2006

Hamid Hussain
July 31, 2015

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