ISLAMABAD — The U.S. State Department’s decision Friday to withdraw staff from its consulate in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore is the latest indication that the city of 10 million is facing a renewed threat of al Qaida infiltration.
The city, the capital of populous Punjab province, has been largely spared from terrorist attacks since 2009, when the military launched a counteroffensive against the Pakistani Taliban and their al Qaida supporters based in the country’s northwest tribal territories.
But officials of the Punjab police’s counterterrorism department, probably the best in the country, have been receiving intelligence since early last year that al Qaida-associated groups have quietly been infiltrating the ring of cities and towns that surround Lahore.
The satellite towns of Gujranwala, Kasur and Sialkot previously were recruiting grounds for Pakistani militant groups fighting Indian forces in the disputed territory of Kashmir, before the Pakistani military shut the groups down in 2002 under U.S. diplomatic pressure.
Many ethnic Punjabi militants, particularly those trained by al Qaida at camps in northern Pakistan and Afghanistan, were infuriated by the policy reversal and migrated to the northwest tribal areas, where they formed new factions affiliated with al Qaida activists in hiding there. Since then, they’ve also fought alongside Pakistani Taliban militants, in return for their hospitality.
U.S. officials didn’t divulge details of the threat that led to the decision to evacuate personnel from Lahore, except to say it was specific to the consulate at Lahore and not related to the decision earlier in the week to close 19 U.S. diplomatic facilities in 16 countries – of which Pakistan was not one. There was no impact on U.S. personnel based at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad.
The announcement of the Lahore withdrawal was coupled with a warning to Americans to defer travel to the country. As if to punctuate that warning, al Qaida-linked militants killed 13 people in attacks on mosques hours later.
One of the attacks came in the western city of Quetta, where four gunmen fired on people exiting a mosque after special Eid al Fitr prayers marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Ten people died in that attack, which came a day after a suicide bomber blew himself up during the funeral prayers for a police officer who’d been killed earlier Thursday. Thursday’s bombing killed more than 30, including most of the top brass of the Baluchistan provincial police force.
The second attack came in Islamabad, the federal capital, where three militants, including one wearing a suicide jacket, attempted to storm a mosque on the outskirts of the city, killing a private security guard and wounding three others. Fortunately, the jacket’s detonation device malfunctioned. Guards shot dead all three militants.
Americans and other Westerners have long been considered terrorist targets in Pakistan, where they’re also in danger of being kidnapped for ransom.
But they aren’t the only group in Pakistan to face a rising threat. Since last year, prominent Shiite Muslims have been advised discreetly to remove nameplates from their homes and places of business, because their names often indicate their sectarian identity.
The extent of the threat from radical Sunni Muslim extremists, including al Qaida, became apparent in July, when Pakistani intelligence arrested eight militants who’d purchased a farm neighboring the family estate of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, from where they were planning to launch an assassination attack by four suicide bombers.
Operatives stumbled on the conspiring militants while investigating the May kidnapping of Ali Haider Gilani, a son of former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.
In both cases, intelligence agencies traced the conspiracies to Mati ur-Rehman, an al Qaida-linked Pakistani Taliban faction leader based in the North Waziristan tribal area, previously described by President Barrack Obama as the epicenter of global terrorism.
Rehman is particularly notorious for his involvement in two 2002 assassination attempts on then-President Pervez Musharraf and a 2002 suicide bombing of the Sheraton Hotel in the southern port city of Karachi that killed 11 French naval technicians. He was also behind a 2004 suicide bomb attack that narrowly missed then-Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz.
The re-emergence of Pakistani al Qaida groups comes parallel to major successes this year by Pakistani security forces who are fighting Taliban insurgents in the northwest tribal areas, with insurgents expecting a decisive assault on North Waziristan before U.S.-led international combat troops withdraw from Afghanistan next year.
Many militants have migrated from the tribal areas to the urban centers of Karachi and Quetta, fueling political and sectarian attacks that have, on average, killed 300 Pakistanis a month this year.
The urban centers of Punjab are next on their list, intelligence reports and militants have warned.
Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent.