Despite early questions, a suicide car bomb attack occurring just one block away from the U.S. Consulate in Karachi, Pakistan, killing a U.S. diplomat, his Pakistani driver, a Pakistani Ranger, and injuring scores more, has all the markings of a sophisticated al-Qaeda operation.
The attack came on the eve of U.S. President George W. Bush’s visit to Islamabad amid heightened security in Karachi and throughout the country. It also took place against simmering popular unrest in Pakistan over the controversial depictions of the Prophet Muhammad caricatures in Europe, a major Pakistani military offensive in Waziristan and a crackdown in Balochistan.
Initial Pakistani reports from the scene alleged the car bomber meant to destroy the heavily fortified U.S. Consulate, but instead targeted the diplomatic vehicle as a last resort after failing to penetrate the hardened security perimeter around the building. At a news conference 11 hours after the incident, Niaz Siddiqi, a Karachi police officer, declared that “due to strict security arrangements, the suicide bomber could not reach his target [the U.S. Consulate] and blew the car up on the way, when a motorcade of U.S. diplomats was passing through” (The News International, Jang, March 3).
Mir Zubair Mahmood, the official Karachi police spokesman on the incident, also claimed that the attack did not amount to a breach in security, but admitted that the target of the bomber was the U.S. Consulate vehicle. When questioned about security measures designed to prevent explosives from entering the vicinity of the consulate, he replied that Pakistani security did not use metal detectors to search vehicles for explosives and instead relied on physical checks (The Nation, March 4).
According to Pakistani sources, the suicide bomber parked his explosives-laden vehicle, described as a white Suzuki Mehran, in the parking lot of the five-star Marriott Hotel, which is situated adjacent to the consulate facility and in front of the Pakistani Naval Surgery Hospital (Pakistan Tribune, March 4). The Marriott and the U.S. Consulate are separated by a parking lot that is shared between them and divided by a narrow lane. The driver was reported to have then left the parked vehicle, only to hurry back after approximately 20 minutes while speaking on his cell phone. Once behind the wheel, witnesses say the attacker reversed the car at full speed directly into the diplomatic shuttle, setting off the explosives with devastating precision (The Pakistan Newspaper, March 4).
The initial attack sparked a large secondary blast after igniting the fuel tank of other vehicles in the parking lot, blowing out the windows on all ten floors of the Marriott Hotel, injuring some guests and staff. Debris from the blast was found over 200 yards away. The blasts also damaged neighboring buildings in the immediate vicinity of the explosions, including the Naval Hospital, Qasr-e-Naz (State Guest House), Sheraton Hotel, Hotel Metropole, European Bank, Pakistan International Airlines Cargo office, and other property, including more than 20 cars in the parking lot (Frontier Post, March 3).
Reports from the site claim that the explosion was the result of over 10 kilograms of explosives. The approximately 10 x 10 foot crater left at the site of detonation is roughly consistent with the amount of explosives believed to have been on board the vehicle (Frontier Post, March 3).
Pakistani security officials, in collaboration with U.S. investigators, reported that they have closed-circuit footage of the suicide bomber, which was taken from security cameras mounted outside the consulate. They describe the driver as a bearded young man, but have not released more information (Pakistan Tribune, March 4).
Details regarding the vehicle used in the incident remain in question. One local report claims that the car used in the bombing was stolen at gunpoint from an Islamabad-based businessman on a visit to Lahore in 2005. The owner was shot and seriously wounded during the incident, but survived. Pakistani security officials hope that this incident will provide some clues as to the origins of the attacker (The Pakistan Newspaper, March 4). Another source mentions that the registration number of the vehicle driven by the bomber was tampered with, making it difficult to determine its true origin at this stage of the investigation (The News International, Jang, March 3).
Some Pakistani accounts raised doubts as to the effectiveness of the security in an area deemed prone to repeated terrorist strikes, especially considering that the bomber was able to circumvent spot security checks and other measures and park his vehicle so close to the target. Pakistani authorities have long since turned the road in front of the U.S. Consulate, one of Karachi’s major streets, into a permanent traffic bottleneck for security reasons, yet at least one source claims the sense of security is a facade (The News International, Jang, March 4).
So far, no group has claimed official responsibility for the strike. Upon cursory examination, however, the attack has all the markings of al-Qaeda, both in terms of planning and execution. Some Pakistani sources suspect that the Jund Allah (Army of God), an obscure organization believed to be linked closely with al-Qaeda, may be responsible. Eleven members of the organization were recently sentenced to death by a Pakistani court for their role in an attack on a senior Pakistani army commander in Karachi that claimed 11 lives and injured many others. The commander survived the attack. Jund Allah is known to operate in Karachi and is blamed for a series of attacks in recent years (Dawn, March 4).
As in previous instances, the Karachi strike fits al-Qaeda’s pattern of returning to previous targets for bold follow-up attacks. For example, the latest attack came in broad daylight at approximately 9:00 AM. In March 2004, a 200-gallon liquid chemical bomb in a van outside the U.S. Consulate’s perimeter wall was defused minutes before detonating on the eve of a visit by then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to Pakistan. In February 2004, a gunman shot and killed two Pakistani police officers guarding the facility, and wounded several others. The consulate was also the site of a 2002 truck bomb attack that killed 12 people. Eleven French engineers were killed in a 2002 attack against the Karachi Sheraton Hotel. In 1995, two U.S. diplomats were killed and a third was injured as their van took fire from armed gunmen.
Despite heightened security measures in and around the U.S. Consulate facility in Karachi, which surely included irregular arrival and departure times for the U.S. staff to evade tracking, enhanced surveillance and other countermeasures, along with a more robust local security presence given the upcoming Bush visit, militants successfully identified an opportunity to strike and hit a target.
The attack also demonstrates al-Qaeda’s ability to modify and adapt its scope of operations and tactics based on the environment and its current capabilities and to attack at a time of its own choosing. Certainly, for al-Qaeda, destroying the consulate represents the ideal, but given the prevailing conditions, namely, enhanced security measures and other obstacles, killing a U.S. diplomat sufficed.
This latest incident may inspire similar attacks elsewhere following al-Qaeda’s strategy of targeted assassination strikes against hard to reach high-value assets such as diplomatic personnel and other notables, especially in or around heavily fortified locations deemed too difficult to penetrate. Aside from cars, light and compact high-intensity explosives like those used in the Karachi attack can be fixed on mopeds manned by suicide bombers. Mopeds and motorcycles can more easily navigate traffic jams or security barriers and reach potential targets such as shuttle buses and other vehicles transporting diplomatic personnel.