Armed guards, metal detectors and no phone signal: The realities of living under a high terror alert

The threat of terror attacks in Pakistan make things difficult sometimes, but life goes on with good humour and pragmatism.

On Friday I woke up to find that I couldn’t use my phone. At first I assumed it was my BlackBerry playing up again, so I switched it off and on – but still, no signal. Over breakfast with my hosts, it transpired that no one’s phones were working. A look at the morning papers told me that all mobile networks in Karachi and Quetta were suspended until 7pm. The reason? A high risk of terror attacks, as it was the first day of Muharram, a holy month particularly sacred to Shia Muslims. Karachi and Quetta are both cities with a recent history of sectarian violence directed against Shias.

This was not the first time this has happened since I arrived in Pakistan two months ago. During Eid-ul-Azha several weeks ago, mobile phone networks across the country were suspended from the time of morning prayers until after lunch. Similar bans were imposed over Eid-ul-Fitr in August.

The thinking is simple. Not only does suspending mobile phone networks make it harder for terrorists to plan and co-ordinate attacks, but the vast majority of bombs are detonated using a mobile phone chip. It seems to be effective. On the first of Muharram, not only were there no bomb attacks, but in Karachi, there was just one targeted killing, compared with an average of 10-15 most days.

On first arriving here, I was struck by the apparent incongruity of this. The bomb threat comes from Islamic extremists – yet religious holidays and celebrations carry a significantly heightened risk of attack. Shouldn’t these fundamentalists be observing their religious duties rather than blowing up their co-religionists? Sadly, it appears that practicalities trump piety. Many people in upmarket areas of Karachi avoid going out on Fridays: it is the day of prayer, and as such, there is a higher risk of bombs or other violence, because that is the day that most people are out on the streets. Eid prayers see large numbers of young men attending mosques; therefore, a bomb detonated during these times will have maximum impact and cause a greater loss of life. A recent car bomb at the Rangers paramilitary base in an outer suburb of Karachi was set off as morning prayers ended.

If nothing else, the high risk of practising Islam in an Islamic country shows what a distorted version of religion these fundamentalists propagate. The notion of “Islam versus the west” as the two players in the war on terror totally overlooks the fact that Islamic countries are suffering a far greater loss of life than America or Europe.

Pakistan in particular has borne a heavy toll. It is estimated that up to 35,000 people have been killed in terrorist attacks since 2001. Compare that with 3,000 in 9/11 and 52 in the 7/7 bombings. The threat from militant groups is not just suicide bombs, but serious crime such as kidnap, robbery, and extortion, frequently – though not always – carried out by extremist actors as a way of funding their operations.

So what is it like living under a high terror alert? Of course, there are the inconveniences. The mobile phone suspension was more than just an irritant. Here as elsewhere, people are increasingly dependent on mobile phones, and it is difficult to function without one. I was unable to carry out a phone interview that afternoon, as I had only a mobile number to reach my interviewee. My host was running short on clean drinking water, and spent most of the morning trying to track down her distributor, who she normally communicates with by mobile phone. Such anti-terror measures have big economic implications too: the Eid-ul-Fitr ban alone cost the telecom sector around three billion rupees.

When I first arrived in Karachi, the city was tense, after two consecutive weeks of riots protesting against the “Innocence of Muslims” film. The atmosphere was one of fragile peace that could break at any minute and explode into more destruction. Newly arrived from London, the proliferation of security personnel on the streets made me jumpy, as did the warnings to stay inside the house. That Friday the city waited with bated breath to see if riots would break out again. They did not. But the ramifications are still being felt today. Only a handful of the six cinemas destroyed in the riots have reopened, while YouTube, which hosted the fateful clip, remains blocked.

In this acutely class divided society, the type of threat faced is largely determined by socio-economic status. By and large, it is the poorest in society who fall victim to suicide attacks. These are the people who cannot afford to avoid going out on Fridays, or going to crowded places like markets or mosques. But although the wealthy can largely insulate themselves from this threat, they face their own set of problems. Kidnapping is not a distant spectre; most people I speak to have a story about a friend or acquaintance who has been kidnapped for ransom, which can range from $150,000 to $1 million. I have met several people with a relative languishing in Waziristan while negotiations for their release drag on. For this reason – and the risk of robbery – people drive everywhere, barely setting foot on the pavement except to go from car to destination and vice versa.

By no means is there a state of constant fear. Karachi is a vibrant and active city, full of top quality restaurants, large malls, and a relatively buzzing nightlife, by Pakistani standards. But the partying and decadence is strictly fortified. Large gates and armed guards are the norm at most well off houses. You must go through a metal detector and bag search to enter many malls, nightclubs, or offices. Parties are protected by swathes of armed guards. A few weeks ago, I went out for dinner with an acquaintance. Travelling in the car with us was her armed guard, an amicable looking man with an extraordinary handlebar moustache and a large Kalashnikov. Leaving a Halloween party at 4am a few weeks previously, a friend gave me a lift home. Her bodyguard, too, sat in the front seat, looking out of the window as we gossiped about the evening. For many wealthy young people – particularly those whose parents are prominent in politics or business – this is the norm.

Safety is factored into people’s thinking: don’t take this route at that time, don’t drive to that place alone, don’t go there on that day. These considerations become routine, allowing life to continue with a semblance of normality. But the risks cannot be totally ignored. Weeks after my arrival, a 20 minute drive home from the office turned into a two hour ordeal due to a cross-party rally protesting against the new local government ordnance. As with any event that brings crowds out onto the street, security was high. Huge sections of the city were blocked off, particularly around the chief minister’s house and other government residences. At one point, my car, stuck in the middle of five chaotic, zig-zagging lanes of traffic, got caught up in the rally. Men clad in salwar kameez, bearing placards, wove in and out between the cars. Several had large guns slung across their shoulders. As it was, the march passed without incident and I eventually made it home, but in a city with such tension and deprivation bubbling beneath the surface – not to mention such a ready supply of weaponry – it takes just an instant for violence to erupt. I arrived home to find my relatives sick with anxiety after seeing breaking news reports about fatal shootings. It turned out these were elsewhere in the city, but with the high frequency of violence, it can be difficult to tell.

People talk about the country falling apart; of their desire to get out or send their children away. Yet there is also huge pride and patriotism. There are outings to the beach, flamboyant wedding celebrations, and a general refusal to be cowed. Suspensions of phone networks, last minute changes of plan due to terror threats, and frequent roadblocks and traffic jams make it increasingly difficult to forget that this is a dangerous place. But life goes on, with good humour and pragmatism; people here are anything but defeated.

Sea View Beach in Karachi, where Pakistanis gather to have a good time, in spite of the high terror alert. Photograph: Getty Images

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

Show Hide image

What it’s like to be a Syrian refugee in Paris

“We fled from terror and it found us again here. It feels like it is always behind us, stalking us.”

Walid al Omari arrived in Paris a little less than a month ago. Having fled the slaughter of his homeland and undertaken the long and dangerous journey, like tens of thousands of other Syrian refugees, to western Europe, he was finally safe.

Ten days later, a wave of brutal violence tore through the French capital as gunmen and suicide bombers put an end to the lives of 130 people who had been out enjoying a drink, dinner, a concert or a football match.

“It felt like terrorism was everywhere,” recalls the 57-year-old Walid, a former small business owner and journalist from the suburbs of Damascus.

“We fled from terror and it found us again here. It feels like it is always behind us, stalking us.”

Syrian refugees, not just in Paris but across Europe and North America, have since found themselves caught up in a storm of suspicion. The backlash started after it emerged that at least two of the attackers arrived in Europe among refugees travelling to Greece, while a Syrian passport was found next to one of the bodies.

It has not yet been confirmed if the two men were really Syrian – all suspects whose identities have so far been made public were either French or Belgian – while the passport is widely believed to be a fake. But, already, several US states have said they will not accept any more refugees from Syria. In Europe, Poland has called for the EU’s quota scheme for resettling refugees to be scrapped, while lawmakers in France, Germany and elsewhere have called for caps on refugee and migrant numbers.

“I fear the worse,” says Sabreen al Rassace, who works for Revivre, a charity that helps Syrian refugees resettle in France. She says she has been swamped by calls by concerned refugees in the days following the attacks.

“They ask me if the papers they have been given since they arrived in France will be taken away, if they’ll be sent back to Syria,” she says.

Anas Fouiz, who arrived in Paris in September, has experienced the backlash against refugees first hand.

“One waiter at a bar asked me where I was from and when I said Syria he said that I must be a terrorist, that all Arab people are terrorists,” says the 27-year-old from Damascus, who had been a fashion student before leaving for Europe.

The irony is that the terrorist organisation that claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks, the Islamic State, is, along with Bashar al Assad’s army and other militant groups, responsible for the long list of atrocities that prompted many like Walid and Anas to flee their homes.

“As a man in Syria you have the choice of joining the Syrian army, the Islamic state or another militant group, or you run away,” says Anas.

He remembers seeing news of the attacks unfold on television screens in bars and cafés in the Bastille area of Paris – close to where much of the carnage took place – as he drank with a friend. Desensitised by having seen so much violence and death in his home city, he didn’t feel any shock or fear.

“I just felt bad, because I know this situation,” he says. “You just ask yourself ‘why? Why do these people have to die?’.”

Perhaps a more pressing cause for concern is how easily extremists in Europe can travel to Syria and back again through the porous borders on the EU’s fringes – as several of the Paris attacks suspects are thought to have done.

Both Anas and Walid speak of the lax security they faced when entering Europe.

“Turkey lets people across the border for $20,” says Walid.

“In Greece, they just ask you to write your nationality, they don’t check passports,” adds Anas. “It’s the same in Hungary and Macedonia.”

Nevertheless, and despite his experience with the waiter, Anas says he is happy with the welcome he has received by the vast majority of the French people.

In fact, at a time when fear and violence risk deepening religious and social rifts, Anas’s story is a heartening tale of divisions being bridged.

Upon first arriving in Paris he slept on the streets, before a passer-by, a woman of Moroccan origin, offered him a room in her flat. He then spent time at a Christian organization that provides shelter for refugees, before moving in with a French-Jewish family he was put in touch with through another charity.

He says the biggest problem is that he misses his parents, who are still in Damascus.

“I speak to my mum twice a day on the phone,” he says. “She asks me if I’m okay, if I’m keeping safe. She’s worried about me.”