As the dramatic jihadi attack on Jinnah International Airport in Karachi unfolded last Sunday night, and many of us watched in dismay recalling the terrifying 26/11 assault on Mumbai by terrorists who went about their bloodletting with similar military precision, the question that kept on popping up was why did they choose this target. Airports and aircraft are no doubt high profile targets that are bound to fetch instant global publicity. And, as Mrs Margaret Thatcher famously pointed out, publicity is the oxygen that keeps terrorists and terrorism alive. Hijacking passenger planes or dramatically blowing them up were the opening acts of terrorism in modern times. Few people would remember it today but the world gasped in horror when the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine blew up three planes, one each of TWA, Swissair and BOAC (now British Air), in the Jordanian desert on September 12, 1970. Civil aviation since then has never been the same again.
While media reports suggest that the attack on Jinnah International was a demonstration of strength by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, better known as TTP, niggling doubts remain. During the attack, and the subsequent standoff between the 10 terrorists (were there more?) and Pakistani security forces, people present inside the airport and a passenger on board an Emirates flight that was about to take-off but found itself stranded on the tarmac, were tweeting about what was happening on the spot. Information from them suggested that the terrorists were trying to make their way to the Emirates aircraft and seize control of it. That would lead us to the conclusion that their purpose was to hijack a passenger plane.
The likelihood of the terrorists seeking to hijack a plane with passengers on board opens up several other possibilities, among them the intent to use the aircraft as a missile as was done on 9/11. Were this to have happened, the final target of the terrorists could have been either in Pakistan or in India, more likely the latter. It is inconsequential whether Pakistan is prepared to deal with a 9/11 kind of situation – possibly they are, possibly they aren’t. Nothing that is known about that country’s policies is either reliable or verifiable. The US may pretend to be in the know, but it is doubtful whether the Americans are clued into the reality of today’s Pakistan. What is consequential for us is whether India is prepared to deal with a 9/11-like situation — in preventing a passenger-laden aircraft-turned-missile from hitting its target and, in the event of failing to do so, dealing with the aftermath. The answer to both questions, I am afraid, is not an unequivocal yes.
Here are two reasons why. First, the anti-hijacking policy that was cleared by the Cabinet Committee on Security in August, 2005, still remains veiled in inexplicable secrecy and none in the security establishment appears to be aware of its contours beyond what has been told to media. The policy, adopted after much deliberation and feet-dragging (first by the NDA and then the UPA) commits the Government of India to a set of inflexible dos and don’ts. Among these are: The Government will scramble IAF fighters to try and force a hijacked aircraft (flying in Indian airspace) to land, and, if the hijackers try to use the aircraft as a missile to strike ‘strategic targets’, as was done on 9/11 in the US, the plane will be shot down. The Bureau of Civil Aviation was to have been given the remit of preparing a list of designated ‘strategic targets’ that hijackers might attack with a commandeered plane.
So, in the event of the terrorists who attacked Jinnah International commandeering a plane and flying into Indian airspace to use it as a missile to strike a ‘strategic’ (or non-strategic) target, the Government would have had to use IAF fighters to intercept the aircraft to try and force it to land; failing that, it would have had to order the plane to be shot down. There is presumably a command-and-control structure for this purpose, put into place by the UPA. Could we, as citizens, know who takes the decision and issues instructions? Did a system spring into action on Sunday night? Was an emergency meeting of the CCS summoned within minutes of the attack on Jinnah International? Was the National Disaster Management Authority asked to be on alert?
We could brush aside these and more questions as springing from unfounded and needless apprehensions. But then, 9/11 did happen, and there is no reason to believe it won’t happen again.
The writer is a journalist, political analyst & activist