Pakistan Navy under Taliban Fire- An Institutional Vulnerability to Terrorist Attacks?
June 10, 2011
Pakistan is reeling under the impact of the Taliban strike on its naval base PNS Mehran. In an audacious attack on May 23, 2011, militants infiltrated the high security facility in Karachi, carrying out multiple explosions that reportedly killed at least ten naval personnel and destroyed two P-3C Orion Maritime Reconnaissance Aircraft. The Taliban said the strike was a reprisal attack for the May 2 U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
So daring was the strike that it initially stung the Pakistani security forces into a state of paralytic inaction. They soon recovered and after 17 hours of sustained counter-operations and offensive commando action, the terrorists were eventually neutralised. But it did raise the stakes immensely for the security forces to guard against future attacks on military installations, also raising the spectre of a terrorist strike on Pakistan's nuclear facilities.
While this is the first instance of a high security naval base being struck by the Taliban, the attack is significant as it is for the third time in the past four weeks that the Pakistan Navy (PN) has been targeted. On April 28, Taliban militants attacked a naval bus with a roadside bomb, killing four navy personnel. Two days earlier, two bombs hit buses carrying navy personnel in a residential complex at Karachi, killing four people. Curiously, it is after a gap of a few years that a wave of militant attacks has struck the Navy. After the Pakistan Navy War College attack in May 2008, in which five people were killed, this is the second time that the Pakistan Navy has been targeted by militants - only this time, the Taliban have struck in a wave of three quick attacks.
On the Taliban’s Crosshairs
The brazenness and sheer audacity of the strikes raises some fundamental questions about security of naval facilities at large. What are the real reasons behind the recrudescence of terror hits on the Pakistan Navy? Why are naval installations and assets perceived to be vulnerable to terrorist attacks? Is it happenstance that the Taliban struck the expensive and high-value P-3C Orion aircraft?
A navy’s readiness to deal with a terrorist attack is, most often, a theoretical proposition. This is because the idea of exercising naval power is, by its inherent nature, a notion premised on fighting an organized, conventional and mostly respectable adversary. The lofty concept of naval war-waging on the high-seas is somehow far removed from the prosaic idea of security provisioning against low-brow terrorist or guerrilla strikes. The militants proclivity to target the Pakistan Navy appears, in part, to be driven by its own model of security that tends to underestimate the magnitude of a terrorist threat and encourages militants to target the soft underbelly of its land infrastructure. Such an approach may however not be limited to the PN alone. Subliminally, the outlook to security in Navies, in general, does not seem to actively account for a terrorist threat.
An Effective and Intelligent Ploy
The first major terrorist attack on the PN was in Karachi, in May 2002, in which 11 French engineers were killed. Since then there have been five attacks on the navy, including the 2 failed bid of a suicide-bomber on the PN Headquarters in Islamabad in June 2009, and the three strikes in May this year. The Mehran attack is, however, one of the biggest assaults on a naval establishment ever, and quite unprecedented in scale and intent.
From a purely tactical point-of-view, a terrorist hit on a naval facility is the most effective and intelligent way of making a political point; effective because it entails hitting an armed force in a supposedly well-protected urban area – an act that accrues much publicity and media attention; intelligent, as it targets a principal, less likely to be fully prepared to tackle the threat.
Typically, most of these strikes are directed at stationary high value targets (viz. naval aircraft, radar facilities, etc) and services (buses and other modes of mass transportation). Each has been seen to involve improvised explosive devices that result in high casualties. But the Taliban have also seemingly taken advantage of organisational „stock responses. to heighten the effectiveness of their attacks. By virtue of its small size and limited experience to high-risk security situations, the PN appears to lend itself to a reactive and exaggerated response matrix. For instance, within hours of the first attack in Karachi on the naval bus, it announced the shutting down of all schools and other facilities in the defence area, a move that kept the media mills churning for many days after the attack. The pronounced reaction creates much speculation in the media and plays perfectly into the militants’ game-plan.
Another strong pattern to have emerged is that multiple terror strikes are directed at the same facility within a relatively short span of time. Within two days of an attack on two buses with navy personnel on April 26, a second strike was carried out on a similar target. Terrorist attacks in well-defended areas are uniquely distinctive in the false sense of assuredness they cause in their aftermath – no one expects them to occur again in the near future, almost as if the law-of-averages altogether discounts such a possibility. The Taliban know this phenomenon well; the PN is only beginning to discover it.
The Taliban have time and again shown that they are keen to exploit loopholes in security in well-protected cities, not just to prove a political point but also to effectively showcase their destructive prowess. An attack in the heart of a well defended urban hub creates a splash, giving terrorists the most media mileage. More importantly, even if the attack is partially foiled, as it did in the case of the April 28 attack on the Navy bus in Karachi, it still succeeds in making the required impact. Even few casualties in a well-known urban centre have the propensity to create panic.
A False Sense of Security
The repeated targeting of Pak Navy facilities in Karachi shows that an urban environment tends to promote a certain sense of complacency among military units positioned in its midst. Because terrorists are deemed to be disgruntled elements that live on the fringes of society, there is a false perception that they seek easy targets in an exposed and insecure environment, leaving well-defended urban areas alone. The misplaced confidence in security also stems from the knowledge that the might of the security establishment is focused on protecting defence establishments and installations – an irrational approach that makes a terrorist strike seem like an 'aberration'.
It could be plausibly surmised that the Taliban expect the military response following a terrorist strike to be relatively muted. if the lesser known Navy is targeted. An attack on the 3 Pak Army - perceived as being on the front line of the war on terror – is certain to be taken as another serious tactical blow and an affront to the military establishment that would result in a serious counter-attack. A terror strike on a navy facility, on the other hand, would be seen as just another dangerous act of terrorism that must be guarded against in the future.
Adopting Force Protection Measures
So what is it that needs to be urgently done to counter the threat?
By their essential war-waging philosophy, naval forces are more given to launching offensive combat operations than protecting against terrorist attacks. The official inquiry into the USS Cole incident in 2001 had held that a lack of „force protection measures. had been principally responsible for the success of the terrorist attack. The inquiry report concluded that "the commanding officer the ship did not have the specific intelligence, focused training, appropriate equipment or on-scene security support to effectively prevent or deter a determined, pre-planned assault on his ship" and recommended significant changes in Navy procedures. It is a lesson that many navies need to learn fast.
The US Navy’s security postures today have strengthened, not just at sea, but at ground installations and bases throughout America. It is a differentiated, place-and-situation specific security system, wherein different security measures could come into play in diverse facilities under specific circumstances. Naval Base commanders are now known to routinely change their security measures for exercises or to publicly present a random force protection posture. Persons entering an installation are subjected to additional screening including searches as security levels increase. An annual force protection exercise, titled “Curtain-Citadel Shield” (held in February this year) involves a comprehensive testing of naval installations levels of readiness and the ability to maintain increased security measures for extended periods of time. The exercise, meant to improve security and vigilance, also ensures that security personnel are well-trained and equipped to deal with exigent situations. It is a model crying out to be duplicated by other navies.
The siege of the Mehran would doubtless lead to serious introspection within the PN and an upgrading of security measures. It must result in a perceptual change in force protection philosophies, training procedures and security management. It should also serve as a stark reminder to other navies of the perils of lax security, and make them conscious of their own vulnerability to terrorist attacks.
(The article first appeared in the Eurasiareview.com on May 31, 2011)
The Siege of the PNS Mehran: A Saga of Systemic Failures,
Radicalised Cadres and Compromised Loyalties
The terror strike on the PNS Mehran is a serious setback for Pakistan. A brazen assault on Pakistan navy‟s premier air base in Karachi, it has stunned the country’s politico-military establishment making it one of the most traumatic moments in the nation’s history. How militants infiltrated the high-security facility in Karachi on May 23, 2011, carrying out multiple explosions, killing scores of naval personnel and destroying two P-3C Orion Maritime Reconnaissance Aircraft, is a question that will haunt the people of Pakistan for a long time. What is clear is that behind this body-blow to Pakistan, lie causes of a fundamental nature, pointing to systemic inadequacies and ideological beliefs that are hollowing out the Pakistani defence services.
A Case of Selective Targeting
has been said in the Pakistani press about the attack and essential weaknesses it highlights, but curiously, when it first happened, it was sought to be portrayed as an “unfortunate incident” – merely a “shocking” case of militant forces managing to get past a weak security cordon and striking the soft interiors of a defence establishment. That this attack appeared to target high-value naval assets (including the two P3C Orions), was initially seen as more “happenstance” than a case of selective targeting.
On closer examination, however, it became clear that the Pakistan Navy was being pointedly targeted. The Mehran strike was, after-all, the third time in four weeks that the Pakistan navy (PN) had been hit – the previous strikes being the April 26 attack, in which Taliban militants had attacked a naval bus with a roadside bomb, and the strike two days later in which two bombs hit buses carrying navy personnel in a residential complex at Karachi killing four people.
The impunity of the strikes also raised some elementary questions about security in the Pakistan Navy. Defence analysts pondered over the reasons why the PN was targeted and tried explaining causes that may have lead to the navy being perceived as a vulnerable target. To be fair, some of the criticism appeared legitimate. The militants‟ penchant for targeting the Pakistan navy, in part, appeared to be driven by its own model of security that tended to underestimate a terrorist threat. Analysts now say, security arrangements at the PNS Mehran were not up to desired standards (at least in the days preceding the attack), and this could have served as encouragement for militants to target the establishment. The PN, it was suggested, inadvertently seemed to discount a terrorist threat. But despite all the speculative guesswork and theorising, no-one seemed quite sure how the attack was made so easily possible.
A week after the attack, an intrepid journalist with extraordinary contacts with Islamic militants was found dead and the blurry picture crystallised dramatically. Salim Shahzad, whose body was found in a canal on the outskirts of Islamabad on June 1, was one of the most enterprising and resourceful members of the Pakistani journalistic community. A reporter for the Asia Times Online, he had been doggedly pursuing the Taliban beat for the past few years – an undertaking in which he had managed to unearth links between the militant outfits and the Inter services Intelligence (IS).
The Saleem Shahzad Disclosures
In a sensational report filed two days before his death, Shahzad claimed that the Al-Qaeda had carried out the attack on PNS Mehran after its talks with the Pakistan Navy failed, with the PN refusing to release service personnel arrested on suspicion of al-Qaeda links. The Al-Qaida threatened the PN with dire consequences – including attacks on naval installations - following which, the arrested men were moved to a secret detention centre. But the militants tracked down the new location and issued a fresh threat.
A rattled Pakistan navy realised that Al-Qaida was receiving accurate insider information – a testimony to its sizeable penetration into the navy's ranks. A senior-level naval conference was then called to address the problem, in which, intelligence officers insisted that the best way to deal with the issue was to open a line of communication with al-Qaeda. In the talks that followed, the navy proposed stiff terms for the release of the arrested cadres, which the Al-Qaida out-rightly rejected. In the days that followed, navy buses were hit twice by the militants, supposedly as punishment for the PN‟s intransigence.
The problem for the PN, according to Shahzad, went beyond dealing with a few renegade cadres. The attacks on its facilities pointed to a systematic and large scale permeation of militant ideology and to scores of compromised units within the organisation. Officers feared that, if not treated imminently and efficaciously, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) supply lines in Karachi port could be at risk. Moreover, Americans who often visit naval facilities in the city could also be conceivably targeted.
So, another crackdown was conducted in which personnel from different ethnic backgrounds were detained – another pointer to the dire nature of the problem of compromised PN cadres. The navy’s pro-activism in interrogating defaulters, ostensibly to gather more information on other compromised cadres, only infuriated the Al-Qaida further. Then, Bin Laden was killed by American Navy Seals in Abbottabad on May 2, and militants decided the “the time was ripe” to teach the PN a lesson.
Within a week, according to Shahzad, insiders at PNS Mehran made all necessary information - maps, pictures of different exit/ entry routes, the location of hangers etc –available to the militants, after which the attack was organised. Shahzad’s report brings out, with remarkable vividness, the in-depth information at the militants‟ disposal that helped them penetrate the heavily guarded facility. The P3C Orions targeting, the report claims, was no coincidence. The militants came in to destroy naval assets and they were intent on hitting the expensive P3C Orions – an aspect only too evident, when seen against the evidence of Pak Air Force planes, parked nearby, not being touched at all. Finally, Shahzad, notes that the attack was so well-conceived and precisely executed that one group of militants even managed to escape, under cover fire provided by the others – an incredible occurrence, considering that security forces had surrounded the establishment and blocked all exit routes.
The Mehran attack caught Pakistan off-guard, but it needn‟t have been so. The Pakistan navy is after-all no stranger to terrorist strikes. Since the first major terrorist attack on the PN was in Karachi, in May 2002, in which 11 French engineers were killed, five attacks have been carried out on the navy, including the failed bid of a suicide-bomber on the PN Headquarters in Islamabad in June 2009, and the three strikes this year. The Mehran‟s siege was, however, one of the biggest assaults on a naval establishment ever, and quite unprecedented in scale and intent. Some sought to explain the terrorist strikes drawing attention to the militants‟ tactical calculations – that entailed targeted a defence establishment in a well-protected urban area. By their reckoning, it helped if the target was less than fully prepared to tackle the threat.
As intrepid as he was, Shahzad, by openly flirting openly with danger, set himself up as a legitimate target. The Pakistani press is agog with speculation that the journalist was on the ISI hit-list – they had apparently warned him on many occasions earlier.
He may possibly have been a victim of Pakistan‟s all-pervading and supremely vigilant intelligence agency. The murder of a renowned journalist could only have been ordered by the highest levels of the Pakistani intelligence structure. Only someone with significant influence could have managed to erase Shahzad‟s telephoone call records of 18 days preceding his murder.
But silencing journalists will not help the PN‟s cause. There are systemic issues that need to be addressed, not to mention the problem of religious extremism that threatens to tear Pakistan‟s military apart.
The Scourge of Radicalism
By its own admission, radicalism is the bane of Pakistan’s military. Shahzad’s revealing expose refers to a Pakistan Navy officer’s private confession to him that religious extremism had taken root in the PN‟s cadres and hatred for India ran deep. Pakistan, he said, had come into existence on the two-nation theory and “no-one could separate Islam and Islamic sentiment from the armed forces of Pakistan”. The PN apparently, is not averse to the strong religious sentiment among its cadres. It is only when radicalised personnel, through their defiant behaviour, begin to obstruct the discipline of the armed forces that it starts to register as an inconvenience. But that, most often, is the point of no-return when the problem can only be diagnosed but not treated.
It is pertinent that the issue of “radicalised” and “compromised” cadres has had critical consequences for the Pak navy, affecting it in a way not experienced by the Pak army. This could be explained by a bit of theorising about basic service structures and work ethics. By virtue of larger numbers of personnel and greater redundancy, the army appears better geared to ward off the ill-effects of radicalisation. All it needs to do is isolate radicalised cadres, who can be easily replaced. The navy, on the other hand, is often less liable to extern such personnel, as it employs a much smaller number of sailors, in specific and well-defined roles. Each hand is a cog in the wheel, contributing significantly towards the essential integrity of the system, and thus hard to immediately substitute. But the navy’s failure to isolate „compromised elements‟, also has the potential to breach the system irretrievably, which is what seems to have happened in the case of Mehran”.
Threat to Nuclear Weapons
The penetration by radical elements into the armed forces also raises questions about the safety of Pakistan‟s nuclear weapons and fissile material. The Mehran attack, in an indirect way, casts doubt on the integrity of the higher echelons of the Pak Armed Forces. Notwithstanding the Strategic Plans Division’s more-than-fair record of securing nuclear weapons, the possibility of a senior officer turning „radical‟ and then going „rogue‟, cannot be ruled out. Even if he doesn’t facilitate the seizure of a warhead by militants, or smuggling out of fissile material, he could certainly raise tensions, by creating false alarms or even attempting nuclear blackmail by some irrational act.
On a structural level, the experience must result in a perceptual change in „force protection‟ philosophies, training procedures and security management. Naval warfighting, by its inherent nature, might be a notion premised on fighting an organized, conventional and respectable adversary at sea, but that must not be allowed to blunt a force’s basic instincts of protecting itself against any external attacks.
The most important lesson of the Mehran episode is that no one is “out of bounds” or “off-limits” for terrorists. Navies around the world will be reminded of the hazards of inadequate base security and of their own vulnerability to terrorist attacks.