A night of terror

A chilling account of the Taliban attack on Karachi Airport, by civilians and troops who were in the middle of the action

A night of terror
Two people armed with sub-machine guns and wearing Airport Security Force (ASF) uniforms approached a checkpost at Karachi’s old airport which now handles VVIP, Cargo and Hajj flights. Muhammad Ashraf, an actual ASF operative, immediately suspected foul play. He told them to back off. “But it was too late,” according to another operative Yaqoob Khan. “A sniper took off the two guards stationed at the gate along with a PIA staff member who had just finished his duty.” In a commando formation, five militants armed with AK47 assault weapons, rocket propelled grenades, walkie-talkies, suicide belts, grenade launchers and food, stormed into the old terminal. Another team of five militants approached separately from a different side, after being given the cover.

Aeronautical engineer Fakarul Khan was on a night-shift in one of the hangars close to where the cargo planes are parked. Upon hearing gunshots, his colleagues ran to find refuge in one of the cold storage units. Caught by surprise, he couldn’t run and was shot dead.

At 11:20pm, officials had realized the gravity of the situation. All flights coming to Karachi Airport were diverted. A spokesman for PIA, Mashud Tajwar, added that two domestic flights bound for Karachi had been diverted to nearby airports. The situation, according to Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) spokesman Abid Qaimkhani, was “uncertain but these are the days we were trained for.”


Later, Interior Minister Chaudry Nisar said the attackers “wanted to hijack a plane and possibly take hostages”. That is perhaps why they had brought food, medicine and flying manuals with them.

Back inside Jinnah Terminal – the new Karachi airport right next to the old terminal – Ghazala Kamran was heading PIA’s shift, working with over 400 colleagues. “Evacuate the airport. There are terrorists inside the airport,” her boss told her over the phone. Ghazala remained calm and reported the incident to security. Soon, Pakistan’s largest airport was on red alert, with paramilitary forces taking over the terminal.

[quote]"If even a single aircraft is damaged, we are not commandos"[/quote]

“We thought that there had been a coup, seeing all the paramilitary forces and military troops entering Jinnah Terminal. They wouldn’t allow anyone to leave the airport,” said Habib Khan, 38, a stranded passenger.

Meanwhile, Emirates flight 602 was already on the runaway, caught in the midst of one of the largest attacks on any airport in the history of the world. Saim Rizvi was on board along with hundreds of passengers who were informed by the captain about the incident. Ground staff had deserted the plane. “We were hearing gunshots and sounds of explosions and there was panic in the plane,” said Rizvi, who was tweeting from inside the aircraft all along.

Approximately a kilometer and a half away from the stranded flight, the 10 militants on the move in 5x5 formations were getting closer to the runway, shooting at anyone and everyone on their way. Their target, according to one senior intelligence official, was “to hijack several planes and possibly explode them”.

One of the attackers fired an RPG towards the runway, chanting “God is Great”. It did not hit a plane.

Dressed in t-shirts and jeans, Shalwar Kameez, and commando and ASF uniforms, these men had been sent by Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), led by Mullah Fazlullah, to avenge their ex-emir Hakimullah Mehsud’s killing in a drone strike.

[quote] "You have to follow your guts because there are no written manuals for such situations"[/quote]

A few kilometers away, in the PAF base Faisal in Karachi, Squadron Leader Khan was given the signal to get ready for action.

One of the militant sprayed chemicals on the walls of the building in which the fleeing staff had been hiding in a cold storage unit, and set it on fire. Television cameras showed the flames rising high.

In an hour’s time, ASF commandos and Rangers had isolated the terrorists after breaking their formations. “The first terrorist was taken out by a sniper of ASF. It was a head shot!” said an official who asked not to be named. He said the building had been set ablaze to create smoke for cover.

[quote]"We thought that there had been a coup"[/quote]

Civil Aviation fire officer Atiqur Rehman was an experienced campaigner at 43. He was one of the first to reach the runway with his fire engine staff. “It was like going into a war zone. When we reached the site and began to extinguish the fire, we were shot at.” Atiqur Rehman was shot in his hand, and passed out because of excessive bleeding. He was taken to Jinnah Hospital.

The fire could not be put out until the next day. Seven dead bodies were found on the cold storage.

By 11:40pm, the V Corps of the military, and the paramilitary Rangers, had taken control of the airport, where they set up a joint command and control center in the old airport building. They were in touch with all the staff and looked at all the CCTV feeds.

By now, a Special Services battalion had entered the airport from two sides. One group was assigned to secure the aircraft, and the other to eliminate the nine remaining militants.

“The country needs us. If even a single aircraft is damaged, we are not commandos,” their colonel had told them, before they left chanting patriotic slogans.

They were backed by cutting edge surveillance gadgets and air surveillance from a mini-drone.

In the series of shootouts that followed, another militant was down by 12:47am. A police constable was sent to confirm he was dead. Saim Rizvi heard a loud explosion inside his plane. The militant had exploded his vest, killing himself and the brave constable.

Policemen show weapons seized from the dead attackers
Policemen show weapons seized from the dead attackers

Back in the Pahalwan Goth locality of Karachi, a slum close to the airport, intelligence officials held several men, including an individual with a camera.

At 1:09 in the morning, the Special Services company had isolated four of the militants after fierce fighting. They killed two of them, both shot in the head.

The captain of the Emirates flight 602 had been warned not to open the doors and stay put. The passengers feared the militants would try to get in. There was an argument between the pilots and the air traffic control.

Air Traffic Officer Umair had never been in such a situation before. “In situations like this, you have to do what you have to do,” he said. “You have to follow your guts because there are no written manuals for such situations.”

Back at the old airport, just behind the cargo terminal, four militants were holed up, putting up a strong resistance. “You are an infidel army,” shouted one of the militants in Pashto language. “You will find out very soon who is an infidel,” a soldier responded. It was then that an SSG sniper took out two militants, both shot in the head. A third one exploded himself.

Other commandos had secured the plane and began to rescue the passengers, who were escorted to the passenger lounge.

The dead militants were recognized as Uzbeks. Many Uzbek militants, previously fighting with the Taliban, had arrived in Pakistan’s tribal areas after the US arrival in Afghanistan in 2001.

The same year, militant leader Tahir Yuldashev co-founded the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan IMU, and settled down in South Waziristan. Tahir Yuldashev became good friends with Baitullah Mehsud, who later founded the TTP. The two formed an alliance. They were both killed in drone strikes.

[quote]"You are an infidel army," shouted one of the militants in Pashto [/quote]

The group is now led by Abu Zarr Azzam, a Pakistani of Burmese descent, and therefore also known as Abu Zarr al-Burmi and Abu Zarr al-Pakistani. IMU has collaborated with the TTP for attacks on Peshawar Airport, Kamra Air Base and the Mehran Naval Base in Karachi.

“The Uzbeks have been giving their men to the TTP for several operations in Pakistan,” said Gen (r) Muhammad Ali, who has closely watched the two groups over the years.

By 2:30am, all the militants had been killed.

Soon, TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid began making phone calls to reporters to accept responsibility for the attack. “It is our revenge for the North Waziristan bombings and for the assassination of Hakimullah Mehsud,” he said. “This is just the beginning.”

A day after attack, a suicide attacker hit an FC checkpost in Boya area of North Waziristan, and four militants on a motorcycle carried out a brazen hit and run attack on ASF targets in Karachi again.

In Islamabad, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif chaired a meeting of the national security crisis cell with his cabinet and military chief Gen Raheel Sharif. Analysts are asking if Pakistan will carry out the long-deliberated operation in North Waziristan after the attack. “We must, for our survival,” a military source said.