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That Nice Little Italian Place

David Montero

David Montero reporting for FRONTLINE/World in Swat Valley.

Luna Caprese, an Italian restaurant in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, was one of the most popular "speakeasies" in a country where consuming alcohol is forbidden by law.

Sometime last Saturday evening, March 15, when the restaurant was full, someone apparently slipped into the garden, and placed a bomb under one of the tables. When it detonated at 8:40 pm, it killed a Turkish woman and wounded 12 people, including five Americans, four of them FBI agents. Two of the survivors that night are my good friends. One of them crawled his way out of the wreckage, collapsing in the street.

The bombing of Luna Caprese means the end of a way of life for the locals and foreigners who mingled there, and the beginning of a dark new chapter in the rise of the Pakistani Taliban, who claimed credit for the attack.

During my years as a correspondent in Pakistan, I came to know Luna Caprese well. The restaurant is located in a typical split-level house enclosed by a pleasant garden. It could easily be mistaken for a private dwelling, were it not for a large red sign emblazoned on the wall. Entering through the front door, one was always a little surprised to find a restaurant inside.

On any given night, Luna Caprese's tables were usually full, the patio packed. Waiters in black vests moved briskly around littered tables, serving customers who spoke in English and Chinese, Urdu and French.

That was part of its charm: it felt like a secret. Otherwise, its outward appeal was limited. The decor was sparse. There were only 10 or so heavy, wooden tables in a dimly lit dining room. It was better in the small garden out back, particularly in the spring. But even then, the pasta and pizza were barely edible.

And yet, on any given week night, and especially the weekends, Luna Caprese's tables were usually full, the outdoor patio packed. Waiters in black vests moved briskly around littered tables, serving customers who spoke in English and Chinese, Urdu and French. The whole place was alive with the excitement of commerce and intrigue.

There are hundreds of foreigners living in Pakistan's capital today, probably more than at any time since September 11th. Their numbers have grown as Pakistan's importance in the war on terror has increased. They are reporters and contractors, diplomats and spies. And as their numbers have grown, so too have the number of establishments where they can congregate and drink.

Some are upscale hotels where patrons can bring their own wine, which waiters then conceal in teapots, so as to keep the illusion of propriety. "More tea, sir?" the waiters ask with a knowing glance. Others are small watering holes, unmarked houses on dark streets where the guards may stop unknown patrons from entering. At night, they are brimming with Pakistanis and expatriates.

Police barricade.

The Pakistani capital has been relatively free from extremist attacks in recent years. (Photo: Corbis)

But before the current crop of restaurants serving alcohol emerged, there was basically only Luna Caprese. And at some point, almost every foreigner ended up there. I first went in the winter of 2005, shortly after moving to Islamabad. Like many newcomers, it was my introduction to the city's nightlife, a place to huddle in a corner with friends, Pakistani and foreign, trading gossip and information.

The restaurant's proprietors capitalized on a precious commodity, a sensation really: inside the restaurant, life felt a little bit more free, and you could forget the dangers of the world outside. Not that it was particularly safe, or clandestine. There was usually only one guard at the entrance. And the menus openly advertised the wine, labeled merely as "white" or "red."

But that was what made it feel safe: the fact that patrons could not only buy a bottle of wine, but consume it openly, in real wine glasses. In every glass you savored the illusion of normalcy. It was a glaring contradiction we chose to ignore, of course, that one of the places we felt the most safe was also potentially the most dangerous. It was, after all, a place where foreigners and Pakistanis gathered and reveled in the forbidden, a double sin in the eyes of hardcore extremists.

As terrorist targets go, Luna Caprese was a brilliant one strategically and symbolically.

The restaurant bombing is certainly not the first violence in Islamabad. Four people were killed in 2002 when an extremist attacked a church in the capital. And the Marriott hotel was the target last year of an abortive suicide bombing, in which the bomber and a hotel guard who tried to stop him were killed. But despite those attacks, Islamabad has been considered relatively safe. And those of us who lived there felt secure as long as we stayed in the shadows, so to speak, in restaurants and speakeasies like Luna Caprese.

The predator's missiles killed 13 militants, including several Arabs, and sent a symbolic message from the U.S. military: "We're coming to get you, on your own soil." The bombing at Luna Caprese may constitute the Taliban's response: "Go ahead. See what happens if you do."

Not any more. "That is the end of Luna Caprese, and probably our way of life, at least for a while," an American friend in Islamabad wrote to me after the blast.

Saturday's bombing is disturbing because it marks the Pakistani Taliban's first successful attack against Westerners. Until now, in their war against the Pakistani state, the Pakistani Taliban has mostly targeted policemen and army personnel, killing as many as 600 people last year alone. The restaurant bombing suggests a shift in tactics.

There are likely to be more such bombings since they seem to be a direct response to the U.S. military's stepped-up campaign to hit Taliban militants on Pakistani soil.

On February 28th, about two weeks before Luna Caprese was bombed, a U.S. predator drone passed into Pakistani airspace and fired a series of missiles at a militant hideout in South Waziristan, considered the Taliban's base of operations. The predator's missiles killed 13 militants, including several Arabs, and sent a symbolic message from the U.S. military: "We're coming to get you, on your own soil." The bombing at Luna Caprese on Saturday night may constitute the Taliban's response: "Go ahead. See what happens if you do."

The U.S. military already seems to have answered in kind: on Sunday, the day after the restaurant bombing, a predator drone again entered Pakistani airspace and killed 20 militants in a missile strike. The Taliban has, so far, not retaliated, but it has a lot more restaurants to choose from.

David Montero has reported on South Asia for The New York Times and FRONTLINE/World and was the Pakistan correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor between 2005 and 2007. He now lives in Cambodia.

More Coverage from Pakistan

Pakistan: State of Emergency
Watch David Montero's recent broadcast report for FRONTLINE/World from Pakistan. He travels to the once-tranquil tourist spot of Swat Valley, where an emboldened new generation of Taliban is battling the army for control of the region.

Pakistan: The Men in Black
David Montero reports on the release of Aitzaz Ahsan from house arrest in March. Aitzaz is the charismatic leader of the lawyer's movement, which has been campaigning for the reinstatement of the Supreme Court and the rule of law in Pakistan. As one of President Musharraf's most vocal critics, some are tipping Aitzaz as a future prime minister.

Pakistan: Blackout
In this video dispatch, David Montero reports on the crackdown on Pakistan's independent media since the state of emergency was declared last year and talks with an outspoken news editor and critic of Musharraf whose popular current affairs program was pulled off the air.

Pakistan: Disappeared
Watch David Montero's report on how a campaign by a Pakistani housewife to find her missing husband sparked national protests that challenged Pakistan's feared intelligence agency, the ISI.

REACTIONS

William Kiernan - Santa Barbara, CA
Pakistan is yet another example of our moronic knee jerk foreign policy of money first, then, maybe, a plan. It's no wonder that anarchy, in an admitted nuclear nation will follow. Thanks, George.

S B - Washington, DC
A recent cover of the Economist read "Pakistan: The Most Dangerous Place." What I can't fathom is that this [Bush] administration and previous ones have more than sufficient intelligence on the area and especially from India who has heretofore had to put up with the burden of terrorism, and yet we can't get a handle on the situation? All we have to do is step on Musharraf and he will cough up both Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden. If Mush claims that he has TOTAL control of his nuclear weapons then he is capable enough to know through his able ISI [intelligence agency] where to pick them up. If he does not, then we better be careful as the first loose nuke is going to end up in the US ! Or is he holding out on this as the last bargaining chip? I guess it's just a matter of time now. Time tells all and I dont think we are going to like this one!
Good reporting - Be Safe !

gpp, mi
The reporters, agents and others need not become so comfortable. Let's not forget where they are located. Pakistan is a very dangerous place, even for it's own citizens They should remember the deaths of Benizhar Bhutto and Daniel Pearl.