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.