Smoke drifts over grounded planes at the airport in Karachi after the attacks. Photo: Getty
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For people in Karachi, the airport attacks show once more that fear has become a fact of life

It is mind-boggling that such an audacious attack should be possible in such a major airport in a major city. What does it say about the state of Karachi, and of Pakistan, that it was able to happen at all?

Every time I fly through Karachi’s Jinnah International airport, I am struck by the sheer volume of security checks. Your bag is scanned and ticket checked before you enter the airport, then again when you check in, and again before you go through to departures. Of course, if metal detectors made that much difference to terror attacks, Karachi would hardly have any: the city is dotted with the things. They stand incongruously outside bakeries, mobile phone shops, malls; a sort of comfort blanket against the dangers outside.

Around midnight last night, around 10 Taliban gunmen launched an attack on the airport. Wearing military uniforms, they shot their way into the facility. And of course – what good is a metal detector when someone is armed with guns, rocket launchers, grenades, and suicide vests? There were dramatic photographs of planes on fire (subsequently, it transpired that the fires were simply near the planes). It was reported that militants had hijacked one; it has been suggested that this was the aim but that it was ultimately unsuccessful. Terrified passengers trapped on planes on the runway tweeted about their predicament and desperately phoned home. Security forces battled the gunmen all night. In total, at least 28 people – including the 10 or so militants – were killed. The operation to secure the area is ongoing.

What does this say about the state of Karachi, and of Pakistan? Firstly, it should be noted that this coastal megalopolis is not just the biggest city in Pakistan, but one of the biggest in the world. Home to around 25 million people, it is the economic hub of Pakistan and one of the most important cities politically. It is mind-boggling that such an audacious attack should be possible in such a major airport in a major city. To their credit, security forces were fast on the scene, but how did it happen at all? This comes at a time when the conservative government is emphasising the need for peace talks with the Taliban. Once again, this incident raises the question that many outraged commentators have posed: what is there to discuss? And where do discussions begin when one party seeks the destruction of the state as its basic starting point?

Secondly, terrorism aims – as its name implies – to create terror. As I sat in London last night, watching the news and running through a list of friends and relatives in Karachi and their travel plans, I certainly felt that. But in much of Pakistan – particularly Karachi, a city beset by more than three decades of political and terrorist violence – people live in a chronic state of fear. It is mundane and normalised, a boring fact of life that hovers in the back of people’s minds and becomes more acute only when incidents like this raise the stakes. When I lived in Karachi I was struck by how people’s energies are directed simply towards getting on with things. Rioting breaks out, or a terror attack, or sectarian violence, and the first response is not panic, but how to get home, how to check on friends and family, and how to ensure that basic needs will be met. In this way, the fear is not debilitating, it is simply – tragically – a fundamental fact of life.

Today, recriminations will start. There have been reports that some of the gunmen were Uzbek, which provides a neat excuse for those within Pakistan who wish to deflect the debate away from the country’s very real homegrown militancy problem. Already, many are asking – with some justification – how the security agency failed to deflect such an attack. On social media last night, many were distressed: “I don’t know how much more of this we can take.” For people in Karachi, and across Pakistan, this is just one more assault on their right to a normal life.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.