Karachi airport attack signals alarming tactical shift by Taliban

Jun 12 2014, 13:05 IST
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SummaryWhen 10 Taliban militants attacked Pakistan's Karachi airport...

It was the shoes that betrayed Corporal Faiz Mohammad's would-be killers.

When 10 Taliban militants attacked Pakistan's Karachi airport on Sunday night, sparking a five-hour gun battle that killed at least 34 people, Mohammad and his fellow officers from the Airports Security Force (ASF) were the first line of defence.

"There was a moment of confusion because the militants had the same ASF uniforms as us," said Mohammad, 30. "But then we saw their shoes." ASF officers wear black leather shoes, but the men who stormed Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, Pakistan's chaotic commercial capital, wore white-soled sneakers.

All 10 militants were dead by dawn, shot down by the security forces or blown up by their own suicide vests. That the Taliban failed in its main objective - to hijack an aircraft and hold its passengers hostage - should bring no comfort to embattled Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, since the attack signals an alarming shift in tactics by an increasingly formidable foe.

The strike at the airport in Karachi, home to 18 million people, deals a blow to Sharif's bid to attract foreign investors to revive the economy. It has also destroyed prospects for peace talks with the Taliban and made an all-out military offensive against militant strongholds along the Afghan border a near-certainty.

Government air strikes on the strongholds in the North Waziristan region triggered the tactical shift, said sources at Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), as the Pakistani Taliban is formally known. Angered by the raids and anticipating a ground assault, the militants are targeting Pakistan's heartland.

A top Taliban commander confirmed to Reuters that attacks involving aircraft were part of a new strategy to counter the government's preparations for a full-scale operation against them in North Waziristan.

"We decided to change our strategy and hit their main economic centres," he said. "They will kill innocent people by their bombs and we will hit their nerve-centres in major cities."

Tariq Azeem, a senior official in Sharif's administration, said a full-scale military operation was imminent in North Waziristan, and seemed resigned to it sparking terror attacks elsewhere in Pakistan. "Everybody knows there is going to be blowback," he said.

PATTERN OF MUMBAI, WESTGATE MALL

The Taliban is most likely to rely on small militant teams, emulating the protracted, high-impact operations like those in Mumbai in 2008 and Nairobi's Westgate mall last year.

"In Mumbai, and in Kenya, you will find a lot of

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