ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- The devastating terrorist assault on Pakistan's military headquarters, which ended early Sunday after nearly 24 hours, exposed the threat of extremist groups operating in the heart of the country and the vulnerability of its most sensitive sites, raising concerns over the security of its nuclear arsenal.
"The only thing that stands between al Qaida and nuclear weapons is the Pakistan army," said Shaun Gregory, a professor at Britain's Bradford University and an expert on Pakistan's nuclear weapons. "It is an incredible shock that terrorists can strike at the heart of GHQ (general headquarters)...Terrorists could mount this sort of assault against Pakistan's nuclear installations."
U.S. officials hope that the attack on the seat of Pakistani military power will help convince the country's top military and intelligence officials to stop supporting militant groups fighting in Afghanistan, which is essential for the Obama administration to achieve even limited progress there.
However, the attack also could deepen some Pakistani officials' conviction that the American war against al Qaida and the Taliban is a catalyst for Islamic extremism in the region and to keep hedging against an eventual U.S. withdrawal by continuing to support some militant groups while fighting those it deems a threat to Pakistan.
The raid and ensuing hostage crisis resulted in 11 army personnel and civilians dying inside the military complex in Rawalpindi, while nine terrorists were killed and their ringleader was captured, injured but alive. A rescue operation early Sunday brought out 39 hostages, but left three others dead. The onslaught came just before the army begins a planned U.S.-backed offensive against the Pakistani Taliban in the country's wild Waziristan region on the border with Afghanistan, the hub of extremism in Pakistan.
Evidence suggested that the assailants came from Pakistan's core Punjab province, rather than ethnic Pashtuns from Waziristan or elsewhere on the northwest fringe. Some experts said that Pakistan's military establishment, long accused of backing some extremist groups while cracking down on others, should now be forced finally to abandon its deadly game of "good" militant, "bad" militant, as once-loyal groups have turned repeatedly against the Pakistani state.
The ringleader of the attackers, Aqeel alias Dr. Usman, came from Punjab province, almost certainly from a militant outfit that was once patronized by officials and that had linked up with Taliban groups from the northwest. Punjab is untouched by the military's anti-extremist operations.
With the administration of Barack Obama reportedly weighing whether to shift its Afghanistan focus to a "Pakistan first" policy, the attack highlighted Pakistan's fragility, while many commentators in the country concluded that it would escape the wrath of the jihadists only if Islamabad broke its alliance with Washington. Pakistan, not Afghanistan, houses al-Qaida's leadership, which ought to make it a bigger priority, according to some U.S. officials.
Most of the terrorist attacks seen in Pakistan over the last two years have been suicide bomb strikes, often by young or mentally disturbed men, but the GHQ attack on the weekend was a commando gun and grenade assault by well-trained jihadists against a highly protected target. Such military-style tactics could be used against nuclear sites, Gregory said, which could result in installations being bombed, set on fire or nuclear material stolen.
The same sort of attack was seen in the blitz on Mumbai in late 2008 by a Pakistan-based group. Also, the ambush of the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team in the Pakistani city of Lahore earlier this year - and Aqeel was already being hunted as the mastermind of that attack.
U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, visiting London, said that that GHQ attack was "another reminder that the extremists in Pakistan are increasingly threatening the authority of the state." However, Clinton, who's expected to visit Pakistan shortly, added that "we see no evidence that they (extremists) are going to take over the state. We have confidence in the Pakistani government and military's control over nuclear weapons."
Pakistan allied with Washington after the 9/11 attacks, abruptly cutting its ties with the Afghan Taliban. The U.S. Congress recently approved a $1.5 billion a year civilian aid package for Pakistan. But the U.S. is deeply unpopular inside Pakistan.
Asad Durrani, a former head of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence military spy agency, said: "Their (American) presence in Afghanistan and their interference in Pakistan is making it worse for us."
Aqeel is a member of the banned group Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI), according to Amir Rana, director of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, an independent think tank in Islamabad. Some reports, however, said that he was a member of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, another banned militant group.
Confusingly, a claim of responsibility on Saturday came in the name of the "Amjad Farooqi"
wing of the Pakistani Taliban. Farooqi, who died in 2004, was a senior member of HUJI, a group that has been active in both Afghanistan and the Kashmir region, which is disputed between India and Pakistan. The group, once closely linked to the ISI, is affiliated with al Qaida.
The Punjabi militants recruit largely from the south of the province, where radical madrassahs - Islamic schools - indoctrinate students. Much terrorist training is done in camps in Waziristan, where the leadership of Punjabi extremist groups is mostly hiding, under the patronage of the Pakistani Taliban who control that area.
The complex inter-linkages between Punjabi and Taliban groups in Pakistan means that playing favorites is risky. The ISI has used jihadist groups to fight proxy wars in both Kashmir and Afghanistan, a weapon that many believe it is reluctant to abandon.
Zaffar Abbas, an editor at Dawn, a Pakistani daily, wrote in a commentary published Sunday: "Perhaps the attack on the GHQ may prove to be a watershed that compels the security and civilian establishment, as well as most of the opposition groups, to realize that the time to distinguish between 'good' and 'bad' religious militants or Taliban was over, and a consensus was needed to confront all such groups as enemies of the state."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2009