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.

Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
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Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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