On Saturday night, this past weekend, Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) staged its first major attack within the region, laying siege to a Pakistani naval dockyard in a brazen attempt to seize the frigate, PNS Zulfiqar. While the details of the attack have been widely reported, what is most concerning is the manner in which the attack was carried out. AQIS managed to recruit Pakistani naval officers, allowing its agents to infiltrate the dockyard.
The group boasted about its ability to recruit inside the Pakistani military in a statement released on September 11, three days ahead of the attack. Usama Mahmood, AQIS’s spokesperson, issued a separate statement in Urdu following the attack in which he declares: “The Naval officers who were martyred on Saturday in the attack in Karachi were al-Qaeda members. They were trying to attack American marines and their cronies.” The statement confirms that AQIS has not abandoned Al Qaeda’s core strategy of attacking the Western governments that the group perceives as supporting unjust and corrupt regimes in the Middle East (contrast this with ISIS,which concentrates its fight on the “close” enemy instead of the “far” enemy).
The statement after the attack detailed the attack (at least from AQIS’s perspective): “[The attackers] had taken over control of the ship and were proceeding to attack the American carrier when they were intercepted by the Pakistan military … These men thus became martyrs. The Pakistani military men who died defending enemies of the Muslim nation, on the other hand, are cursed with hell.” The Pakistan Navy noted that four attackers were arrested, and Pakistani news outlets reported that among the arrested were two naval officers. In what is very likely a first for Pakistan’s defense ministry, the defense minister acknowledged that insiders were culpable in enabling this attack: “Without assistance from inside, these people could not have breached security,” Defense Minister Khawaja Asif noted in parliament.
This attack is concerning for several reasons. First, and most obviously, it is further evidence of a long-time concern shared by U.S. and Indian officials alike that Pakistan’s military apparatus is not immune to infiltration by Al Qaeda and related groups. The attack will shake the United States’ (admittedly already shaky) faith in Rawalpindi’s ability to keep its house in order. According to an anonymous Western counterterrorism official cited by the Wall Street Journal, “If we are to work with the Pakistan Navy, we have to be able to trust them. This attack raises a lot of questions.” This helps explain why Al Qaeda hasn’t shied away from taking responsibility for and publicizing such a profound failure of an attack. Even if the attack failed, it puts the Pakistan military in a difficult place (admittedly, the Pakistani military does a good job of doing this on its own most of the time).
Interestingly, the attack took place on the same day that PNS Zulfiqar was slated to set sail for the Indian Ocean to join an international flotilla. This suggests that Al Qaeda’s infiltration went beyond having a naval officer unlock the gate for its operatives ahead of an attack — the group was clearly being fed information about Pakistani military operations. “It appears the officers on board were to be joined by other militants who were to arrive by boat from the sea and then stow away on board,” noted one Pakistani security official, adding that “the plan was to get close to the U.S. ships on the high seas, and then turn the shipboard weapon systems on the Americans.” Had the attack succeeded, U.S. navy ships in the Arabian Sea faced the prospect of a serious naval engagement — the Zulfiqar is equipped with antiship missiles with a 300 kilometer range.
Pakistan seems to have no clear plan for combing its military — particularly its navy — for Al Qaeda sympathizers and operatives. Back in 2011, we saw that the navy was already infiltrated by officers sympathizing with Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The attack on the PNS Mehran naval air base took place after failed talks between the Pakistan navy and Al Qaeda over officers who had been arrested over suspected links to the group. As one report back then noted, the “deeper underlying motive” for that attack was a “massive internal crackdowns on al-Qaeda affiliates within the navy.”
In the aftermath of the PNS Mehran attack, it became clear that Pakistani naval intelligence had some competence in tracing Al Qaeda sympathizers within its own ranks. While its methods may not have been fool-proof, it was apparently successful to the degree that it arrested Al Qaeda operatives within the navy, prompting the sequence of events that led to the 15-hour siege on the PNS Mehran base. As the Asia Times Online notes, citing one senior navy official, Pakistan’s naval intelligence was spurred into action by the potential negative impact that this infiltration could have on the Pakistani military’s important relationship with the United States.
Back then, when Pakistani naval intelligence detained officers suspected of having links to Al Qaeda, it noted that it immediately received threats from Al Qaeda cells. When it moved the detainees to a different site, it continued receiving threats that indicated Al Qaeda knew almost instantly where its infiltrators were being kept. “It was clear the militants were receiving good inside information as they always knew where the suspects were being detained, indicating sizeable al-Qaeda infiltration within the navy’s ranks,” the Asia Times Online noted. In the three years since the PNS Mehran incident and the Pakistan navy’s failed attempts to mediate with Al Qaeda, it seems little has changed.
Finally, this weekend’s attack helps to shed some light on the role of Al Qaeda’s new wing in the Indian subcontinent. While Ayman al-Zawahiri may have declared India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar its battlefield, logistical factors make it highly likely that Pakistan will continue to be Al Qaeda’s primary area of focus in South Asia. While Al Qaeda’s continued operation in Pakistan was all but a certainty before this attack, what remains uncertain is the degree to which the group has successfully infiltrated the Pakistani military.