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Latest Suicide Bombings Highlight Terrorist Threat in Pakistan

September 4, 2007 at 6:30 PM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Pakistanis woke up this morning to news of the latest bomb attacks targeting the country’s security personnel. This time, two nearly simultaneous explosions in Rawalpindi, one of them utterly demolishing the ministry of defense bus and the passengers inside, the other an attack on a market nearby.

Rawalpindi, sister city of the capital, Islamabad, is the very heart of the Pakistani military establishment. An old British garrison town, it now serves as the headquarters of Pakistan’s armed forces. Shaken local residents were alarmed the bombers have been able to hit such a supposedly secure site.

KHALED HUSSAIN, Victim’s Husband (through translator): We are too worried, too worried that this does not feel like our Pakistan. It seems that somebody has cast an evil eye on the country.

SHAKEEL AHMED, Store Owner (through translator): Everybody is afraid. Nobody is safe. Here, you don’t know what will happen to you in two minutes’ time.

MARGARET WARNER: Today’s attack is not the first time Islamic militants have brought their firepower to the doorstep of the Pakistan government. In July, the Red Mosque in the center of Islamabad was the scene of a violent gun battle between the army and Islamic extremists and students holed up inside. The students had been terrorizing the neighborhood with kidnappings of suspected brothel workers.

At the time, President Musharraf vowed to come to grips with Islamic militants who have brought terror to the streets of the country’s leading cities.

PERVEZ MUSHARRAF, President of Pakistan (through translator): Extremism and terrorism have not yet ended in Pakistan. This should be clear to us. But it is our resolve that extremism and terrorism, wherever it is in this country, we have to eliminate it.

Islamic militant influence

Sajjad Niazi
Head of Protocol, Jamaat-e-Islami
We want a free Pakistan, a democratic Pakistan. We want to run this country according to the culture and belief and aspirations of the people of Pakistan.

MARGARET WARNER: That is a tall order. Vast parts of the western tribal areas of North and South Waziristan have become a safe haven for al-Qaida and Taliban militants to launch operations in Afghanistan, throughout Pakistan, and worldwide.

The government has sent 80,000 Pakistani troops to try to control them, but the militants in Waziristan seem able to kidnap and even behead Pakistani troops at will. They're currently holding 300 soldiers hostage, demanding the release of 15 suicide bombers held in jail.

Government officials said it was too early to know if today's attacks came from religious extremists or from militants and tribal sympathizers who are angered by the army's anti-terrorism campaign. Sheik Rashid Ahmed, a federal minister in the Musharraf government, says the militant backlash has been fierce.

SHEIK RASHID AHMED, Government Minister: They don't want any eye on them. They want that army should go back and there should not be any check-posts and army shouldn't stop their movement. And for this, you know, they are attacking the armed forces.

MARGARET WARNER: Are the militants basically now in control of the tribal areas?

SHEIK RASHID AHMED: Yes, government is facing tough times. You can't say the government has lost its control. They are all over the country, also. So if things move bad, they can move to in different cities, also, and they are sending suicide bombers in every capital cities.

MARGARET WARNER: Islamic militants who want to transform Pakistani society aren't waging their war only with bombs, as they did here. They're also hard at work penetrating Pakistan's political structure. And in that mission, they're making real headway.

In the city of Lahore, we visited the headquarters of one of Pakistan's leading Islamic political parties. The mosque at the headquarters of Jamaat-e-Islami is a popular venue for prayers among J.I. members and local citizens.

From this 40-acre compound, once a film studio, J.I. leaders run their country-wide operation. Though it calls itself a "sister organization" to the Indonesian terrorist group Jamaat Islamiya, Pakistani J.I. leaders insist they don't condone violence in their quest to Islamisize Pakistani society.

Sajjad Niazi is the party's chief of protocol.

SAJJAD NIAZI, Head of Protocol, Jamaat-e-Islami: We want a free Pakistan, a democratic Pakistan. We want to run this country according to the culture and belief and aspirations of the people of Pakistan.

MARGARET WARNER: Niazi says that means ending Pakistan's support for the U.S.-led campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan and the tribal areas, and it means introducing strict Islamic Sharia law throughout the country. In that quest, he says, Jamaat-e-Islami has many sympathizers throughout Pakistan's power structure.

SAJJAD NIAZI: They are everywhere. They are in bureaucracy, in military, everywhere. So they are, if they are working there, they are doing our job.

MARGARET WARNER: Jamaat-e-Islami also spreads its message through social outreach programs that include a hospital and clinic for the Lahore community and a humanitarian foundation that responds to natural disasters. And they're a force in politics, part of a coalition of religious parties that hold around 20 percent of the seats in parliament, control one provincial government, and share power with Musharraf's party in a second.

SAJJAD NIAZI: Nobody can rule this country without the consent of Jamaat-e-Islami smoothly. We are in a position to give the government and take the government.

Education in Pakistan

Surraya Naz
Public school teacher
In this school, first we need teaching staff. Then the building needs to be finished, and all of our needs should be met.We don't have lights, and we need to arrange a supply of water.

MARGARET WARNER: The gift shop in the compound offered evidence that the group, or at least some of its members, may be embracing means beyond the ballot box. Alongside DVDs of American cartoons were videos glorifying militant acts of violence. These are widely available and hot sellers throughout Pakistan today.

Yet the vast majority of Pakistanis don't share this absolutist form of their Muslim faith, nor embrace the radicals' political agenda. They practice more tolerant, private expressions of Islam, like Sufism, which regards jihad as a spiritual, peaceful quest for enlightenment, but radical Islamists see an opening to change that in the breakdown of a major civic institution here.

The public school system is a near total failure, except in wealthy neighborhoods. A girls' primary school chosen at random on the road from Lahore to Islamabad had one teacher and one crumbling classroom for 115 girls, with no electricity, water or enough books to go around.

SURRAYA NAZ, Public School Teacher (through translator): In this school, first we need teaching staff. Then the building needs to be finished, and all of our needs should be met. We don't have lights, and we need to arrange a supply of water. If we do somehow manage to arrange anything, the kids from the village come and destroy it.

MARGARET WARNER: For nearly 20 years, the void has been filled by an Islamic network of more than 12,000 religious schools, or madrassas, which today educate a 1.5 million-strong generation of young Pakistanis. They get free food, shelter, clothing, and pocket money, and learn the Koran by rote.

After 9/11, the Pakistan government tried to impose a broader curriculum on them, but more than a third of madrassas failed to register with the authorities, and the government has hesitated to confront those that haven't complied. Many of Pakistan's civilian political figures see the rise of radical Islam as a real threat to Pakistan's historic identity, including former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, now making a bid to return to the country from exile overseas.

BENAZIR BHUTTO, Former Pakistani Prime Minister: I have no doubt in my mind that these are very ruthless people. They have no sense of sanctity of human life. They kill the women and children in Pakistan, and they can kill women and children anywhere. And so we in Pakistan need to save our own nation before there is an internal collapse.

MARGARET WARNER: President Pervez Musharraf portrays himself as the West's indispensable bulwark against extremism, but another would-be returnee, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, argues that continued military rule by Musharraf will only enhance the radicals' position.

NAWAZ SHARIF, Former Prime Minister of Pakistan: Musharraf will not allow liberal forces like me to play their role, and the extremist forces can take over. The vacuum can be filled by extremist forces. And let me tell you, these things never take roots in democracies. They are the byproducts of martial laws, byproducts of dictatorship.

MARGARET WARNER: Even some retired members of the Pakistani military, which has been given the job of confronting extremism here, say military means are a part of the fight against radicalism, but not military rule.

GEN. TALAT MASOOD (Ret.), Pakistani Army: If Musharraf stays, you can be sure of the mullah, you can be certain about the mullah. The reason is that the only conduit, the only channel open to the people then is the religious and the extremist parties and the mosque.

MARGARET WARNER: In the wake of today's twin attacks, Musharraf's government raised the national security alert level and beefed up protection of the country's most sensitive sites. But the latest violence will only intensify the debate over how Pakistan can best combat the militancy in its midst.

An update from Pakistan

Margaret Warner
NewsHour senior correspondent
A couple of government ministers said to me tonight that there had been some talk internally about the possibility of postponing the elections, because political gatherings here, they said, are so huge.

JIM LEHRER: And I talked further with Margaret after she completed that report.

Margaret, hello.

MARGARET WARNER: Hello, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Are there any fresh developments on today's story?

MARGARET WARNER: No, not really. The body count or the death toll is expected to rise because there are so many that are wounded and very badly wounded. They have not really released much information about the incident since this morning.

But certainly, in the government circles, people are deeply upset. One minister said to me tonight, "You know, this is the price we pay for this war on terror." Pakistan has lost some 250-plus people to suicide bombings and other kinds of attacks just since July at the Red Mosque incident, the aftermath of the Red Mosque incident, until now. So terror is quite a fact of life here.

JIM LEHRER: What effect is it likely to have or could it have on the elections?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, a couple of government ministers said to me tonight that there had been some talk internally about the possibility of postponing the elections, because political gatherings here, they said, are so huge. Two hundred thousand people, it's not unusual to have them turn out for a rally, and it's certainly not feasible to put them through metal detectors.

But, they said, they realize that the political opposition and the international community would be outraged by that. And the same goes for trying to put any kind of limitation on the size of gatherings or demonstrations.

And he said, on the other hand, such large gatherings are the perfect target for suicide bombers. But it appears that a determination has been made to let them go forward, barring any other developments.

JIM LEHRER: Who would actually make that decision to stay the course on the elections or to delay them?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, there is an election commission, but, really, President Musharraf, General Musharraf, controls that. And the decision would very much be his. This is a military government, after all, in the end.

Pakistan's political future

Margaret Warner
NewsHour senior correspondent
Whether you talk to government ministers down to the lowliest person on the street, there is a recognition that Islamic extremists and militants are able to mount these attacks and cannot be 100 percent controlled.

JIM LEHRER: Now, the politics of the election. How might these attacks affect that, in terms of who is hurt the most or who is helped the most, if any, if this thing, assuming the elections do go on as scheduled?

MARGARET WARNER: I think that's very hard to determine right now because none of the major parties are ceding the ground on fighting terrorism. You heard Nawaz Sharif in London yesterday talk about, "The United States shouldn't put all its chips on Musharraf." And as I reflected in the piece, both and Bhutto say there's a better way to fight terrorism which isn't just by military means, but also through political dialogue and that, furthermore, a civilian government will do a better job, because there will be more political space for people to be engaged and air grievances and that, in a military government, there is no such space.

So I don't think you're going to see anyone, other than the religious parties, talking about, "Let's cut back on our fight against terrorism." And so I think there will really be just a jostling for making the case about who is going to be best at it.

JIM LEHRER: Based on your reporting thus far -- and I realize there hasn't been that much time since these attacks -- but based on your reporting thus far, is there an expectation among government and other political figures, as well as the people on the street, that there could be more of these kinds of attacks?

MARGARET WARNER: Sadly, yes. This country is so huge, so diverse, and the war on terrorism that President Musharraf is waging -- even though the United States thinks not fiercely enough -- but the war he's waging here is controversial enough that there's no doubt that there are going to be additional attempts.

We went to the site of the market bombing late this afternoon to film that stand-up. And even though they've announced tighter security measures, there was no -- there's no sign of that on the street right next to the army compound. And people were just standing around dazed. One of them, who had lost his wife to wounds in one of the shops, just said, "You know, we're helpless here."

So I think, whether you talk to government ministers down to the lowliest person on the street, there is a recognition that Islamic extremists and militants are able to mount these attacks and cannot be 100 percent controlled.

JIM LEHRER: Margaret, thank you. We'll be talking to you throughout the week.

MARGARET WARNER: Thanks, Jim.