Attacks on Saudi Diplomats in Karachi May Be Part of a Saudi-Iranian Proxy War

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 23

A diplomatic staffer of the Saudi Consulate in Karachi, Hassan al-Qahtani, was killed by unknown gunmen riding two motorcycles in Karachi on May 16 (Dawn [Karachi], May 16). A few days earlier, unidentified assailants had thrown Russian-made HE-36 hand grenades at the Saudi Consulate in Karachi, though there were no injuries in this case (The Nation [Karachi], May 11; Dawn, May 12). In both attacks, the assailants managed to escape. The consulate was defended at the time of the grenade attack by paramilitary Rangers and officers of the Foreign Security Cell (FSC – a police unit assigned to diplomatic security), three of whom were subsequently suspended and detained (The Nation, May 12). Privately-hired security also failed to take any action to prevent the assault or pursue the attackers.  Following the attacks, the Saudi government recalled non-essential staff and families of diplomats stationed at its Karachi office. The U.S. Consulate in Karachi also announced it had detected threats to its facility and urged American citizens in Karachi to keep a low profile and take precautions in their movements around the city (Pakistan Observer, June 3).

While it is believed that the attack on the Saudi Consulate and the murder of its staffer in Karachi might be retribution for the American May 2 Abbottabad operation that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, there is also speculation that the attacks may have been related to the Saudi troop deployment in Bahrain to suppress Shiite-led protests against the kingdom’s Sunni royal family. As such, one Karachi-based security official suggested they may be intended to reignite long-standing tensions between the Sunni and Shiite communities of Pakistan. [1]

This assertion was seemingly corroborated by Karachi’s Crime Investigation Department (CID) when they claimed the involvement of the Shiite Sipah-e-Muhammad Pakistan (SMP) in the attacks on Saudi interests in Karachi. An official of the CID, which is responsible for operations against banned militant outfits in Karachi, announced the arrest of SMP militant Muntazir Imam, suspecting his involvement in the killing of the Saudi consulate officer as well as twelve other assassinations of rival Islamist leaders (The Nation, May 19; Saudi Gazette, June 8; Express Tribune, May 29). Local authorities said that it was impossible to rule out the diplomat’s assassination was part of a dispute between rival sectarian organizations composed of supporters and opponents of Saudi Arabia (The Nation, May 18). Calling Imam’s arrest a breakthrough, a CID official said that it would be premature to say the SMP was involved in the killing of the Saudi diplomat as the investigation is still underway (Central Asia Online, May 26).

While no group, including the banned Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), claimed responsibility for the attacks, they might also have been related to the Saudi government’s reported refusal to accept Bin Laden’s body. Other reports have emerged in recent days revealing the Saudis have been providing intelligence to the United States (Express Tribune [Karachi], May 12). Saudi Arabia stripped Bin Laden of citizenship in 1994 after he criticized the royal family’s reliance on U.S. troops to protect the Kingdom after the Iraqi invasion of neighboring Kuwait. The Saudi government has also refused to accept the repatriation of the three widows and nine children of Bin Laden currently in protective custody in Pakistan. During his recent visit to Riyadh, Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik made a formal request to Saudi authorities to accept Bin Laden’s family, but the Saudis declined (Express Tribune [Karachi], May 19).

The killing of the Saudi diplomat may not only be a mark of protest by al-Qaeda against the Saudi Kingdom’s indifferent attitude toward Bin Laden’s family, but also a warning to Pakistan against the possible deportation of the family to the United States. [2] One media report quoted an anonymous Pakistan security official who claimed that the murdered Saudi diplomat was an intelligence official who was looking into Saudi dissidents who have found refuge in Karachi and this is most probably why he was targeted (New York Times, May 16). Saudi authorities said al-Qahtani was involved in relief operations and facilitating the travel of Pakistani pilgrims taking part in the Hajj (Pakistan Times, June 4).

Saudi interests in Karachi have been targeted in response to the situation in the Gulf, specifically the Saudi military intervention in Bahrain. Saudi Arabia sent troops into Bahrain in March to help the royal family quell the anti-state protests in the tiny Gulf kingdom. However, the deployment angered Shiite Pakistanis, with nationwide protests condemning the Saudi involvement. [3] Shiites were also angry about local newspaper advertisements seeking to recruit hundreds of former soldiers to work for the Bahrain security forces and help with the crackdown on protestors. The Fauji Foundation, a company which has strong links to the Pakistani Army, announced it was sending 1,000 Pakistanis to join the Bahrain National Guard (Weekly Humshehri [Lahore], March18).

Sunni groups have also jumped into the fray with demonstrations and rallies in support of Saudi Arabia, openly accusing Iran of being behind the unrest in Bahrain and other Gulf states. In a sign of local Shiite-Sunni tensions, walls across Karachi, Lahore and other Pakistani cities are filled with slogans and posters condemning Saudi Arabia and Iran, exacerbating the already tense atmosphere between Sunnis and Shiites. [4] In this campaign, banned sectarian organizations hailing from the both sects, including the Shiite SMP and the Sunni Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) have become active in marking walls with derisory slogans and organizing sectarian rallies.

The attack on the Saudi Consulate and the killing of its staffer clearly show that the fight for Bahrain has shifted to Pakistan and could ignite the decade-long Sunni-Shiite rivalry in the country, especially in Karachi. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have funded hard-line Sunni militants groups in Pakistan for years, angering the minority Shi’a community, while Iran has channeled money to Shiite militant groups.  In the 1980s and 1990s, Pakistan was the scene of an effective proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with Karachi being a particularly bloody battleground in the struggle. The involvement of hard-line religious groups from Afghanistan in Pakistan’s internal affairs has further complicated the sectarian conflict. Since 1989, sectarian fighting has engulfed the entire country, claiming nearly 7636 lives, mostly from the Shi’a community. [5] Sectarian violence is an unpredictable menace in Pakistan, but the recent activities of Sunni and Shiite religious groups could develop into yet another phase of proxy warfare on Pakistani soil.


1. Interview with a Karachi-based security official who requested anonymity, May 26, 2011. See also Terrorism Monitor Brief, January 7, 2010.
2. Interview with Islamabad-based political analyst Zakir Hussain, May 26, 2011.
3. Interview with Karachi-based senior journalist and researcher Ahmed Wali, May 27, 2011.
4. Ibid.
5. Sectarian violence in Pakistan 1989-2011, South Asian Terrorist Portal,