Chaudhry Aslam at a press conference on January, 2013 (Photo: ppiimages/Demotix)
Early on January 9, police stormed the Manghopir neighborhood of Karachi, Pakistan. The area is known to be a Taliban hideout, and the cops were there targeting suspected militants. After a gun battle, three men were transported to hospital, where they were pronounced dead on arrival.
The operation was similar to hundreds of others coordinated by Chaudhry Aslam, often referred to as Pakistan’s toughest cop. But this one would be his last. Aslam was killed hours later when a car packed with some 440 pounds of explosives slammed into his convoy, blowing up his bullet-proof vehicle, destroying nearby buildings and killing Aslam and two other officers. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack.
"Aslam was involved in killing Taliban prisoners in cells in Karachi and was on the top of our hit-list," a TTP spokesman said.
In the days since his death, Aslam has been lauded as a "Taliban-hunter," a brave and resourceful police officer who stood up to terrorists when no one else would. But his methods were controversial—particularly his reputation for extrajudicial killings. These so-called "fake encounters," in which police stage an assault on their targets so they can kill them and circumvent the justice system by claiming self-defence, are a popular practice across South Asia, and Aslam was frequently accused of encouraging or condoning the method.
"His legacy is a reflection of the challenges of law enforcement in Pakistan," said Huma Yusuf, global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Centre for Scholars. "He is being hailed as a hero and an exceptional police officer. But it’s well known that his main success came from [the] extrajudicial killings of many of the militants he caught. That raises questions about why he was forced to resort to these tactics. It’s an indictment of Pakistan’s overall lack of counter-terror police and its weak, corrupt criminal justice system."
The aftermath of the attack on Aslam's convoy (Photo: ppiimages/Demotix)
Aslam had been the target of up to ten assassination attempts since joining the police force in 1987. Before becoming head of Karachi’s counter-terrorism operations in 2010, he had taken on the city’s infamous mafias and criminal gangs, and was one of the officers who endured a bloody police and army operation to bring Karachi under control in the 1990s, when the city was consumed by street battles between different ethnic groups.
"He became the reason I joined the force, because he represented the ability of the police to do good, to help the helpless," Omar Shahid Hamid, a former policeman and friend of Aslam’s, wrote in the Express Tribune newspaper.
In recent years, Aslam had become particularly well known for his relentless pursuit of extremist militants. The TTP alone had tried to assassinate him at least three times, and in 2011 the group detonated a massive bomb outside Aslam’s house in Karachi. He emerged unscathed, helping to clear the debris and rescue the injured. "I will bury the attackers right here," he told TV cameras in the immediate aftermath of the explosion, pointing at the enormous bomb crater outside his house. "I didn’t know the terrorists were such cowards. Why don’t they attack me in the open?"
In a country where many politicians and public figures are afraid to speak out against the Taliban and other extremist groups, Aslam’s belligerent attitude earned him a folk hero status. When I met him in December of 2012, he was dressed, as usual, in a white salwar kameez (Pakistan’s national dress) and a flashy watch. He chain-smoked and carried a Glock pistol. "My religion tells me that everyone must die in the end," he told me. "So I fear nothing. I have seen too much to be afraid."
Footage from outside Aslam's home after it was bombed in 2011
Karachi is a sprawling city with a population of more than 20 million people, and it is wracked by political and ethnic violence, with criminal gangs continuing to vie for control of the city amid the threat of Islamist militancy. Partly attracted by Karachi's lawlessness, extremists like the Taliban have set up bases in the city. Coping with this complex and dangerous web of crime is a police force just 40,000 strong, which given the circumstances really isn't a lot, considering New York City almost as many police officers for its 8.3 million residents.
Aslam, however, was an important psychological force rallying the city’s police against those odds. "He was an inspiration who epitomised bravery and public service," another Karachi policeman, who wished to remain anonymous, told me. "We will not be cowed. Instead, we will fight harder against the terrorists to honor his memory."
Still, in many of the tributes pouring in for Aslam, there is an unmistakable note of fear; if someone so fearless, forthright, and apparently indestructible can be killed, then nobody is safe. Killing the head of counter-terrorism operations in Pakistan’s biggest city—particularly one who was so symbolically important in the fight against terror—is undoubtedly a publicity coup for the TTP.
And so it remains to be seen what impact Aslam’s death will have on policing. Successive Pakistani governments, the intelligence community, and police have yet to form a coherent anti-terror policy; Karachi’s criminal underworld retains close ties to powerful politicians; and police forces nationwide remain chronically underfunded and understaffed. If Aslam is to have a lasting legacy, it should not be "martyrdom", it should be an examination of the factors that led to his rise, and to his death.