Target and Attackers Still a Mystery in Islamabad’s Marriott Bombing

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 35

The September 20 terrorist attack on Islamabad’s American-owned Marriott hotel shook the whole country. Shocking scenes of flames engulfing the 290-room hotel were televised live. Mostly used by foreign dignitaries and local elites, the luxury hotel continued to blaze for around 12 hours, taking the lives of 60 people and injuring more than 280. Among the dead were two U.S. nationals and the ambassador of the Czech Republic. A number of other foreign nationals were among those critically injured, including Germans, Britons, Saudis, Danes, Swedes and Libyans. The terrorists struck hours after new president Asif Ali Zardari issued a stern warning to terrorists in his inaugural speech to parliament (Daily Times [Islamabad], September 20; The News [Islamabad], September 20). The president quickly reacted to the deadly attack in a televised address, declaring that Pakistan will not be deterred by “cowardly acts of terrorism” and pledging his government’s commitment to eliminating “the cancer of terrorism” from the country (Pakistan Television [PTV], September 20). The attack was the biggest terrorist bombing in Pakistan since it joined hands with the U.S. in the ongoing War on Terrorism, leading some Pakistani officials and analysts to term the incident “Pakistan’s 9/11” (Aaj TV, September 20).

As usual, fingers were first pointed towards al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban, led by militant commander Baitullah Mahsud (It is worth noting, however, that western media sources reported that Mahsud died from natural causes on October 1, 2008). The Prime Minister’s advisor on Internal Affairs, Rahman Malik, claimed that all roads from the bombing led to Waziristan, part of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the home base for Mahsud and his followers. Malik said there were strong reasons to suspect the involvement of al-Qaeda and Mahsud’s banned Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) – a claim he made on the basis of similar investigations or confessions made by earlier would-be suicide bombers or their handlers. Malik also said that the deadly bombing had similarities with a June 2 blast outside the Danish embassy in Islamabad for which al-Qaeda took responsibility (The News, September 22).

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, however, put the blame on an unlikely alliance of foreign militants, including Chechens, Afghans and Uzbeks he alleges are hiding along the border with Afghanistan (Daily Times, September 22). Some initial media reports pointed out that the attack could be the joint work of al-Qaeda and banned militant organizations like Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI) and Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LJ) (The News, September 26). At a time when media and officials were making their wild guesses, responsibility for the attack was taken by a new militant outfit calling itself the Fidayeen-e-Islam (Partisans of Islam). Pakistan’s intelligence agencies are so far clueless about this organization. It is suspected that the Fidayeen-e-Islam could be only a cover for some other organization.

The militant outfit considered most likely to be involved in this deadly attack is Harkat-ul-Jehad-e-Islam, led by al-Qaeda ally Qari Saifullah Akhtar, who was previously detained in connection with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto (Dawn [Karachi], February 27, September 24; Daily Times [Islamabad] September 24). Nevertheless, the day after claiming responsibility, the Fidayeen-e-Islam (FI) threatened to target every person aiding the United States Army in Pakistan. In a message sent to an al-Arabiya TV reporter in Islamabad, the FI rejected the Pentagon’s claim that only two U.S. Marines had been killed in the Marriott blast. The FBI was quoted as saying a large number of U.S. Marines, FBI officials and European diplomats were staying at the hotel the day of the bombing (Daily Times, September 25). The detachment of 30 Marines was part of a security team brought to Islamabad in connection with the visit of U.S. Chief-of-Staff Admiral Michael Mullen. Speculation about the presence of the Marines is rampant in Islamabad after a number of people, including parliamentarians, witnessed the servicemen bringing a truckload of steel boxes into the hotel without passing them through the security scanners in the hours before the bombing (The News, September 21; Saudi Gazette, September 28).

There were also conflicting reports about what was the real target of the attack—the nearby parliament building where President Asif Zardari made a speech in the presence of all the important personages of the state only a few hours before the attack, or the Marriott building where the American Marines were staying that night. Rahman Malik said that a last-minute change of venue for a dinner party that evening saved the country’s top leadership from the suicide blast. According to Malik, the real targets of the suicide bomber were the president, prime minister and other leaders who were to attend a dinner party originally scheduled to be held at the Marriott hotel. Because of security concerns the event was moved to the Prime Minister’s house (Dawn, September 25). However, the management of the Marriott hotel has denied that the top Pakistani leaders were due to have dinner at the hotel, saying there was no reservation from the government that night (AFP, September 23).

The new civilian government has been facing great challenges, with the rising tide of militancy being at the top of the list. The Marriott bombing has generated a new debate in Pakistan surrounding the question: Whose war is this? In his speech to the UN General Assembly, President Zardari clearly said the War on Terror is Pakistan’s own war, and that the Marriott bombing is Pakistan’s national 9/11 (Daily Statesman, [Peshawar], September 26). This perception, however, is far from having universal acceptance in Pakistan. The right-wing religious parties quickly blamed the nation’s leadership for playing into the hands of the Americans and fighting someone else’s war on its soil, warning that the suicide bombings will continue until Pakistan disengages itself from the “U.S. War on Terror” (The News, September 24).