The Pakistani Taliban today claimed responsibility for a deadly attack that killed at least 28 people — including all 10 militants — at Karachi’s international airport late on Sunday night.
The group had originally planned to hijack a plane, according to Shahidullah Shahid, a spokesman for Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), as the Pakistani Taliban are formally known.
"Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan takes full responsibility for this great victory; which is an answer to the American drone strike, which was allowed by the Pakistani Government, in which our leader Hakimullah Mehsud was martyred. We also congratulate the whole Muslim world for this victory where fellow brothers were martyred causing damage to the enemies," Shahid told VICE News, referring to a Taliban leader killed in a drone attack in November 2013.
"TTP had showed a very positive and welcoming attitude towards the negotiation talks. In Mehsud's last interview, he made it very clear that TTP would welcome negotiation talks unless the government tried to sabotage it. However, the government responded by martyring Mehsud and launching an operation against us," Shahid said. "TTP and other jihadi organizations' serious efforts to benefit our country and Islam have been answered by the government waging a war against us."
"As long as we are breathing, our attacks will be continuing 'til the end of our lives," Abdullah Bahar, a commander of the Pakistani Taliban, reportedly said.
Ten militants disguised as police entered the premises of the Jinnah International Airport. Police uniforms are easy to find in Karachi and many retailers don’t check the credentials of people buying them.
The men never reached the runways, but engaged in a lengthy gun battle with security forces that left several officers and some airline workers dead. Pakistan's largest airport was shut down during the attack, as passengers were moved to safe areas and flights were diverted.
In addition to ammo, rocket-propelled grenades, and automatic rifles, the fighters reportedly entered the airport with food and water — a sign that they had planned for a longer siege.
The attack — which came in the midst of collapsing peace talks between the Taliban and the government, and as divisions deepen among the Taliban themselves — started late on Sunday and lasted several hours.
Security forces had regained control of the airport by dawn. There were also reports of additional gunfire on Monday morning — though government officials said their officers had remained in charge. The airport has since reopened and flights have resumed.
The video below shows the scene outside the airport today, as emergency response teams arrived at the scene and as smoke rose from the terminal buildings.
The attack comes on the heels of the faltering peace deal between the Pakistani Taliban and the government. This has been deeply criticized both by the general public, because it was perceived as legitimizing the militants, and by other radical groups, as well as segments of the TTP itself.
The Taliban had repeatedly threatened retaliation over a series of government military strikes, particularly in North Waziristan, a Taliban stronghold.
North Waziristan is home to several foreign jihadis, as well as Pakistani ones, and the high-profile scale of the attack led some to speculate that outside groups might have been behind the airport assault.
'There doesn’t seem to be clarity on the origin and nationality of the attackers, there’s speculation that they are of Uzbek origin but it’s not clear.'
Foreign fighters sheltered in Pakistan’s tribal regions have expressed concern about a possible peace deal between the TTP and the government.
Pakistani authorities suggested some of the gunmen might have been Uzbek, according to several reports.
"There doesn’t seem to be clarity on the origin and nationality of the attackers, there’s speculation that they are of Uzbek origin but it’s not clear," Faiysal AliKhan, a fellow at the New America Foundation, told VICE News. "Although the TTP have claimed responsibility it doesn’t explain why there's all this talk of foreign militants coming in."
A surge of Uzbek fighters joined the Afghan Taliban in the 1990s. They’re now easily the highest population of foreign jihadis in Pakistan.
Those fighters have not taken too well to the prospect of a government deal with the TTP — which would put their own status in Pakistan in jeopardy.
“We can’t go back. We face too many problems, even on the way back into Uzbekistan,” Muhammad Usman, a member of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan based in Waziristan, told VICE News in May. “Our government will not give us a safe passage, and on top of that, we didn’t leave Uzbekistan for a cushy life. We left for jihad. We went where we had the opportunity to fight for Allah, and we will fight in Pakistan, in the Middle East, any part of the world.”
Karachi has often been a target of Taliban attacks.
“It’s a very bad precedent for the government to engage with any sort of anti-state group which is committing crimes against the citizens of the country, and questioning the very existence of the country,” AliKhan said. “If you start talking with one group, then what does this mean for all these other groups?”
Political leaders heralded the government talks with the TTP as historic, but others are concerned that peace with the Taliban is a dim prospect. The talks may serve only to legitimize violent insurgencies.
But while violent attacks are on the rise in Pakistan, the Karachi airport assault might mark a tipping point.
“In the media, and among the people here, there seems to be more and more call for action against these anti-state actions," AliKhan said. He is referring to both increased military strikes by the Taliban in North Waziristan and "some kind of cleanup operation in Karachi," where members of the TTP control several neighborhoods. "One of the things that seems to be clear across all political parties is that they all condemn these militant groups, distance themselves from them, and call for more action against them.”
Members of TTP themselves were reportedly split over the prospect of peace talks with the government, but Sunday's attack was proof that, despite divisions, the group is still capable of large-scale attacks on major targets. Following this assault, different members of the TTP took to social media to praise the militants involved — and to threaten the media and the government with more violence.
"This was a huge attack on our major airport, and every day there have been incidents taking place across the country, not just restricted to any one province," AliKhan said. "This is probably going to increase in the coming months, as we continue to see this turmoil in the country. One can expect more violence, and more reactions from these various anti-state groups.”
Osama Motiwala contributed reporting from Karachi.
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter:@alicesperi
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