Karachi airport attack—a synopsis 

karachi-airport-attack2By S. M. Hali 

The June 8, 2014 six-hour siege of Karachi airport resulted in the death of more than 30 persons including 10 Taliban militants. Karachi is the largest and most populous metropolitan city of Pakistan, while Jinnah International Airport is Pakistan’s busiest. Whereas the attack was brazen and caught the defenders by surprise, the Army, Rangers, Police and Airport Security Force (ASF) must be appreciated for their courage in bringing an end to the siege, saving precious lives and further loss, albeit at great personal sacrifice.

The episode has exposed a number of fault lines, which need to be examined to avoid recurrence of similar assaults. To start with, it was not an intelligence failure. Threat warnings had been issued regarding a possible attack on Karachi Airport but instead of adopting cognitive measures to prevent the assault, the matter was buried in bureaucratic red tape.

Recently the federal government has formulated a National Internal Security Policy (NISP) but its implementation is awaited. In the initial hours, the defenders appeared to be in a state of disarray, with no visible sign of unity of command and control.

The fact that the perpetrators infiltrated the line of defence a second day also with impunity, targeting the ASF training institution, speaks volumes for inherent weaknesses in the defence mechanism and the resolve of the assailants to inflict maximum physical damage and cause mental trauma.

Airports are regarded as high value targets and their plan of defence is layered and well thought out. The assailants had done their homework and took advantage of the gaping holes in the security system penetrating with their weapons and paraphernalia wreaking havoc.

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The defenders have blamed the media for irresponsible reporting and compromising security. Certainly the role of the media merits censure but first a few words on the responsibility of the defenders in handling the media. Any plan of action is incomplete without outlining the responsibility of media management. The vibrant and free Pakistani media is keen to zealously report all events but it still needs to be guided in the coverage of sensitive operations. This scribe was posted at Riyadh in 1991. During the Gulf War, the US forces had established media pools and provided timely briefings to whet the voracious appetite of the media. Those outside the pool were not permitted to file reports. The US media managers went to the extreme extent of using Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) to jam the transmission of a TV channel, which was dispatching the images of a USAF F-16 fighter aircraft, which experienced a tyre burst during takeoff and had blocked the runway. The media managers estimated that the broadcast of this information may jeopardize the security of their operations as well demoralize the forces and viewers back home.

During the Karachi Airport attack, the media had little or no direction, nor did it have any checks and balances. It was running amok, reporting live the position of own security forces, the weapons they were carrying and problems they were facing, thus inadvertently aiding and abetting the enemy with vital information. This problem should have been tackled at two ends; firstly by the ASF in briefing the media and drawing redlines regarding media coverage and secondly by the media managers themselves.  Specific information regarding the movement of own echelons, tactics being employed by own forces, supervision of operation by a particular tier of command, arrival of higher officials and reports submitted to Army’s high command must not be released during the ongoing operation, lest it provides timely information to the assailants and jeopardizes mission success.

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In crisis situation lives are at risk. Media should not disclose names of victims, vital locations, forces and weapon used and tactics adopted. It is also the duty of media to create and maintain sense of optimism among domestic audience, especially when the operation is still going on. In the same vein, messages by the terrorist spokespersons should not be aired as it may create despondency amongst the viewers. The statement by the TTP spokesperson, claiming responsibility for the attack and declaring more fierce attacks in future was obviously meant to demoralize the defendants and the people. It must be avoided. A lesson here can be learnt from the British Army’s operations against the IRA in the 1970s. British media had been directed not to provide media space to IRA spokespersons and it complied.

The attack on Karachi airport may have been in retaliation to the attack on Afghan Presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah. Apparently, US interests were targeted as their drawdown is being completed using Karachi Airport (old terminal). In this context the possibility of Taliban’s next attack through Karachi Seaport cannot be ruled out.

It is imperative to draw lessons from the attack and incorporate changes in the plan of defence.