By: Air Commodore (Retd) Shahid K Khan, S.Bt.
On the night of Sunday the 22nd May 2011, Pakistan Naval Station Mehran, located in the middle of Karachi, was rocked by an explosion of mild intensity. This was followed by a series of additional blasts, explosions and gunfire which continued sporadically for 16 hours. Almost immediately the entire national media converged upon the scene and began telecasting live an unfolding terrorist attack on a highly sensitive naval installation. The more resourceful were able to secure vantage points from where they broadcast live color video of two aircraft burning fiercely, billowing black smoke. The entire spectrum of military and civil personnel responded. The Navy, the Air Force, the Army, the Rangers, the DSG, Police, the Intelligence agencies, Civilians, Military, paramilitary; yes even the coastguard arrived. They came in trucks, jeeps, personnel carriers, helicopters. They flocked to the scene, onlookers and other responders, the ambulances, the media, the curious, the jaded; every one came. Families climbed to the rooftops to catch a glimpse of the disaster. Life across the nation stopped as everyone focused on PNS Mehran. Bleary eyed ‘experts’ were dragged from their beds to studios across the nation to expound theories on what was happening. One resourceful individual brought along a pair of binoculars for better viewing. Bad idea. Wrong place, wrong time. He was promptly hauled up by the police and has by now most probably confessed to every crime committed in the greater Karachi area in the last decade.
I live a stone’s throw from PNS Mehran. I pass in front of its main entrance regularly. I am reasonably well aware of the congested nature of the base and its tarmac. As an air force officer who first walked the Mehran landscape in 1964, I am extremely well versed with the terrain, layout and the assets within the huge military complex that sprawls the eastern approaches of Karachi. Despite the fact that I live about a kilometer from the site, I first came to know of the incident when a friend from Islamabad rang to inquire if we were safe. I had heard the explosions and the gunfire but because we are blessed with marriage halls all around us, these are routine sounds heard each night as yet another bride, joyously anticipative, is dispatched to her nuptial bed by an emotional family. Alerted, I turned on the TV and began watching the unfolding scene. The next thing I did was tell my wife of my analysis which, inevitably ended up in a serious argument. She did not share my perception of the incident and berated me for being a “contrarian”. As the night wore on, a stalemate having obviously developed, I went to sleep, only to wake up next morning to find that the drama was continuing and the terrorists were now holed up inside a hanger, determined to fight until death. They had hunkered down for the long haul.
In the event however, it was not to be so. By late afternoon it was all over; everyone flashed the victory signs and headed home. As the dust settled over the incident, both literally and figuratively, ‘facts’ began emerging. • There were six terrorists. • They breached the perimeter defenses using ladders and wire cutters. • They trekked almost two kilometers inside the military compound to arrive at PNS Mehran. • Upon arrival, two of the terrorists promptly blew themselves up alongside two aircraft. • Two were killed during the night. • A dead terrorist’s photograph was taken by a cell phone. • The other dead terrorist was buried under the rubble of a wall and, apparently still remains so. • The last two terrorists then took a defensive position in a hangar where they planned to fight until death. • They held off the entire force deployed against them for an entire day. •For some obscure reason, they changed their mind about fighting until death and disappeared during late afternoon.
I have tried to believe what is being said officially but my gut feeling, a sense developed over almost fifty years of living, breathing and studying warfare, air power and military and civil aircraft operations tells me otherwise. As facts continue to emerge, my conviction becomes stronger and my belief is reinforced that this was no terrorist attack. The politically correct thing to do keep quiet but I am unable to do so. I see my nation going down a self-delusional route and I am compelled to voice my beliefs in the hope that there may be others who have a similar perception.
Here is my assessment of the situation. I do not believe that terrorists attacked PNS Mehran. What happened was an unfortunate ground accident at a military facility which was allowed to spiral out of control simply due to the anarchy and chaos that prevails in our country. This unfortunate state of affairs is constantly being fuelled by multiple, sensationalist, uninformed, self-promoting individuals and organizations especially the media channels desperate to outdo each other in making news; least bothered whether the news they broadcast are fact or figments of imagination. Here is what happened on the night 22nd May.
A spurious, unplanned ignition took place in close proximity of a parked Orion aircraft. Anything could have led to this; a whole range of reasons exist for such an occurrence to take place. All aircraft operators across the world know of these, the most common and those that have periodically resulted in destruction of aircraft are: • Static discharge. • Faulty grounding of aircraft and support equipment close to the aircraft. • Improper refueling techniques. • A spark from equipment being used on the aircraft. • Faulty ground support equipment. • Overheated brakes of aircraft or vehicles around it. • A careless smoker. • Failure to follow SOPs. • Accidental discharge of a hand weapon. • Electrical shorting. • Friction • Fuel leaks The list is considerably longer.
Something very insignificant can cause a fire and, if an aircraft begins to burn, the resultant fireball is truly impressive. If another aircraft is parked close by, the fire will travel and it too will ignite and burn. It is almost impossible to save an aircraft that has started to burn. Fire can be caused by many other, environmental factors also. PNS Mehran is situated smack in the middle of an area where such factors exist in plenty. Errant fireworks, a bullet fired in the sky returning to earth, brush fires, spark from a faulty vehicle, cinders from food cookouts; there are triggers that are routinely available around Mehran and each can start a fire. The place is, by its very nature of business, extremely rich in fuel, explosives and flammable materials. What most likely happened is that for whatever reason, a fire started and an aircraft exploded. Another adjacent aircraft was then engulfed in the flames also. It also exploded. Secondary explosions started. All military aircraft have explosives on board that begin to ‘cook off’ when the structure burns. These are squibs, bullets, igniters, propellants; flares, cartridges, survival packs; the list is long. And then there are random ejections of projectiles. High pressure cylinders, actuators, valves, pipes, hoses can take off in random directions in a manner that duplicates the intensity and trajectory of a projectile. The fact is that such incidents have happened across the world; many times. They are all unfortunate, expensive events but are occupational hazards that will take place despite the most aggressive of accident prevention programs.
What makes the Mehran incident different is that there were jumpy, jittery, emotionally charged, weapon toting guards and security personnel deployed within the perimeter. All that was needed was for someone to interpret the incident as a terrorist attack. All that was needed was for someone to fire a weapon at a shadow. Someone did. And that is all it took; one jumpy guard, to begin a fratricidal firefight that would last for sixteen hours and leave behind ten dead and many more injured. As the two aircraft burnt, everyone turned up, each bearing arms. Each on tenterhooks, each expecting and indeed, finding, terrorists in the shadows of the Karachi night. There was no central command and control; it was a free for all. A simple, explainable accident snowballed into the nation’s worst military compromise. And yes; the Taliban promptly took credit; why wouldn’t they? Maybe I am wrong. Maybe there were terrorists; suicidal individuals determined to humblePakistan’s military.
For me to believe this, I need to have the answers to the following questions: • If blowing up oneself with an airplane each was the plan; why not destroy six aircraft? There were at least six terrorists; so we are told. • They number of terrorists started off at about 20 but the figure kept getting refined. When the showdown ended, the figure stood at six. • Why were the terrorists in a rush to self-destruct?. Why did they not blow up many more aircraft before departing for their rendezvous with the virgins? • The total aim of any terrorist is to cause maximum deaths, inflict maximum damage. Why were these terrorists so different in their philosophy? • The tarmac at PNS Mehran is always crowded, almost all the naval assets are there in plain sight. Adjacent to them is a fleet of army aircraft. You do not have to take my word for it; just see it on Google Earth. • The terrorists were in the midst of almost the entire naval air assets of Pakistan. Why did they not destroy more aircraft? All that was needed was a burst of gunfire at each fuselage. • Why did they ignore the third Orion parked right in front of them? • Having sought refuge in a hanger, full of eminently destroyable hardware, why did they not blow up or at least damage these assets also? • Why were two terrorists tasked to blow themselves up immediately upon arrival while the other four had planned to fight it out until the end? • What was the urgency; the terrorists obviously had achieved surprise and did manage to evade the opposition for a full sixteen hours. • Why did the two holed up terrorists have a sudden change of heart? • Why did they elect to call it quits and disappear? • And How? This is the most perplexing of all questions. How do two strangers walk through multiple layered defenses that have been placed around the site?
I refuse to believe that this was a terrorist attack. It was gross incompetence; first on part of the Pakistan Navy in allowing such an incident to take place and then, far, far worse, it was utter incompetence at the national level to allow this affair to morph into an event of national shame. Sadly, the truth will never be known. It is too damaging to acknowledge that what happened on the night of the 22nd was a simple ground accident. It is far more convenient for everyone, even the international powers, to make sure that this is classified as a terrorist act. It lets the nation off the hook and it enables the West to reaffirm the ineffectiveness of the Pakistan Military in keeping the Taliban and Al Qaeda at bay. The process has begun. An enquiry team has been established. Voluminous documents will be created; multiple recommendations will be put forth. Some individuals will be sacked, others will be awarded medals. Evidence will be found; if some is lacking, it will be fabricated. Replacement aircraft shall be procured; more defences will be incorporated. Funds shall be sought, funds shall be allocated, funds shall be spent. Walls shall be raised, equipment procured, perimeters fortified, pockets lined. We will move on; the incident shall be consigned to the dustbin of Pakistani history. A dustbin already full to the brim.
The writer is based in Karachi.