SINCE Operation Zarb-i-Azb began, there has been a significant decline in large-scale terrorist attacks in the country. Over 1,000 militants have reportedly been killed in the operation which has also destroyed their command and control structures.

To continue to register their presence in the current scenario, the militants’ best bet is to employ innovative strategies and be very selective in choosing their targets. This is what they are doing, and they appear to have shifted their focus from public places such as bazaars to more specific targets.

There has also been a shift from suicide bombings towards technological explosives, with 72 IED and 53 rocket attacks occurring in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa since the start of the operation. Only two incidents of suicide bombing have taken place here in this period, while Tuesday’s vehicle-borne IED attack in Peshawar on a Frontier Corps convoy was the first such attack since the start of the operation.

There is logic in the militants’ choice of airports as a favoured target.
An alarming trend is the number of criminals turning to terrorism, attracted largely by the pecuniary benefits. Criminals-turned-terrorists primarily carry out auxiliary tasks such as targeted killings, transportation of explosives, information collection, supplying stolen vehicles, making improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and suicide jackets.

Targeted killings as an instrument of terrorism are part of the changed strategy. In KP, there have been 18 such incidents since the operation began. Suicide bombing is a costlier tactic that also requires dedicated souls to carry out. Although IED use also requires technical know-how, hiring a target killer is the easiest option.

Among the recent victims of targeted killing in KP are several members of the Sikh community, security guards in Peshawar’s industrial area, as well as the leader of a religious party in Hangu.

In KP, as well as Karachi, terrorists are opting for soft targets such as unarmed personnel of special branch and traffic. Such killings, which demonstrate the militants’ effective intelligence gathering, not only shake police morale but public confidence too.

At the same time, even in the changed security scenario, the militants’ focus on airports continues. The attack on Karachi airport, which killed 30 people, took place a week before the military offensive began on June 15.

On June 24, a flight approaching Peshawar was fired upon from within the airport’s funnel area. The next airport in the line of fire was Quetta, when militants attacked the Samungli and Khalid air bases, but that attack was fortunately repelled.

There is a simple logic to the militants’ choice of airports as a favoured target: it instantly attracts media attention and erodes the confidence of law enforcement agencies as well as international investors.

Airports like Islamabad, Peshawar and Karachi are surrounded by thickly populated areas, and joint teams of police, Nadra, and district administration should carry out door-to-door surveys and registration. Funnel area security requires more intelligence collection, coordination, physical security and registration of those living in the vicinity.

Penetration by terrorists into such sensitive areas signifies loopholes in the cordons, which need to be traced and immediately plugged. Airport security procedures must also conform to international standards. Technology-led solutions should be synergised with coordinated efforts among different agencies and rescue services incorporated as integral structural components.

In Karachi, the terrorists disguised themselves by donning uniforms of the Airport Security Force. Had there been technology-backed, limited access into the premises, they could have been tackled at the outermost cordons. Analysis of such incidents indicates that outer cordons are the lowest priority for security managers.

The fact that the Quetta airport attack was successfully repel*led by security forces and police speaks to improved coordination among different security agencies, state of preparedness and professional handling.

In order to create confusion, terrorists are adopting new identities, which also indicates the existence of splinter groups with different leaderships and strengths. Nevertheless, these groups have identical objectives and primarily operate in areas where they exercise influence. The communication, logistical and financial linkages among such factions need to be unearthed.

Although fortunately no incident of terrorism has so far targeted the 800,000-strong IDP population in Bannu, previous attacks on IDPs and refugee camps in Nowshera and Orakzai Agency necessitate enhanced security coverage for the internally displaced.

Police should aim at better intelligence-gathering and more proactive policing to prevent militants from reconsolidating their position. The real test for police and the civilian administration will come when Operation Zarb-i-Azb concludes, for while the military will have cleared militant-infested areas, the challenge will be to retain the re-established writ of law.

The writer is a police officer.

Published in Dawn, September 25th, 2014