Q. Islamabad’s Marriot Hotel has been hit by a terrorist suicide bombing, causing enormous death toll, will you help us place this tragedy in perspective.
A. Well, this is by far the biggest terrorist event in the city. We have never seen anything like this before: the carnage, the bloodbath, the inferno. Today was a historic moment in the city when we saw a president addressing the joint session of the parliament after years. In his speech, he offered to negotiate with the extremists willing to surrender arms. President Zardari talked about economic development of the tribal region, and he made a commitment to use force only as a last resort.
And look how extremists have responded. By undertaking this terrorist act, the message they have passed is that they make no distinction between a military government and a civilian government, between a military leader and a civilian leader, between the security forces and common people, and between locals and foreigners. They will confront a democracy with the same terrorist zeal they did employ against a military-led regime in the past.
Q. The Marriot Hotel, as our correspondents are telling us, was an important place for social gatherings, especially during the month of Ramadan. Tell us what kind of people might have become a victim of this attack?
A. Well, this hotel was always a central place for socialization in this city. The timing of the attack was such that there was an Iftar dinner going on there. Since there was this joint parliamentary session also, you have both members of the National Assembly and the Senate gathered in the city from across the country. However, it is too early to know how many local or foreign dignitaries became the victims of this evening’s terrorist tragedy.
Q. What do you say how the government will respond to this?
A. Well, ever since coming to power, this civilian government has consistently talked about adopting a long-term approach to the problem of terrorism, while undertaking a tough security operation in tribal Waziristan agencies and Swat valley. What we are seeing now is an immediate threat, which requires an immediate response. The talk of a long-term strategy of political dialogue and socio-economic development is irrelevant when we have such a threat which needs instant short term security measures.
So, the government has no option but to exercise the military option forcefully and vigorously. Any policy aimed at appeasing the militants and terrorists, or any justification of the lack of military action against them, is simply not affordable in the current circumstances.
Now this has surely become our war, Pakistan’s own war, and, therefore, it has to be fought with all possible means available. NATO, Pakistan, Afghanistan and every player in the region is faced with a common enemy, which can only be destroyed jointly. So, Pakistan has to coordinate with everybody to fight this danger.
Q. Do you see any ray of hope? Can we expect anything positive?
A. Well, personally, I am still hopeful. This year we have had an important political transformation in this country, from nearly nine years of undemocratic experience to a civilian regime. In February, the mainstream parties won the elections. Then they formed a coalition government. One main coalition partner is no more a part of this arrangement, because the leading ruling party differed with it on the restoration of judiciary issue. But the current coalition government is secular and has secular allies. And as far as extremist danger is concerned, there is growing political consensus in the country about its gravity.
So, this is quite a positive situation. And, since a democratic government is rooted in the will of the people, one hopes that eventually a mass-level public reaction against terrorism may eventually emerge. But for this the government has to be very proactive and creative. Such mass response to terrorism is only possible in a democratic environment.
There are these Mullahs, Mashaikhs and Ulemas. The government should bring them together, convince or even force them to publicly condemn terrorism, to issue consensual religious verdict that all of these acts of suicide bombings, including the present one, are against the spirit of Islam, as they kill innocent people. These Mulahs are still silent, despite the fact that what has happened is immoral, inhuman. It is not only un-Islamic but also anti-Islamic. Giving someone life and taking someone’s life is the right of only Almighty Allah. Anyone who kills a fellow human being is, therefore, interfering in Almighty Allah’s domain. That is why these terrorists cannot qualify to call themselves Muslims. They are the biggest enemies of Islam.
With Kemal Santa Maria (at 6:00-6:15 GMT)
Q. This is such a crucial day for the Pakistani President. This is exactly what Asif Ali Zardari didn’t need so early in his term, how do you respond to this?
A. Today, there was a very important occasion in Islamabad. The President addressed the joint sitting of the Parliament, including the National Assembly and the Senate, and apart from a message regarding recent hype in US air strikes in Pakistani tribal belt, which, in my opinion, was meant primarily for public consumption, he clearly mentioned about a three-pronged counter-terrorism strategy, emphasizing political dialogue with extremists who are willing to surrender arms,. He talked about, as a second option, economic development, and using force as a third option only as a last resort.
The irony is and the tragedy is that, on the one hand, the civilian political leadership is taking about dialogue and peace; on the other hand, the response from the extremists is violence and terrorism.
Islamabad has never seen a thing like this before. And I think the impact of this tragedy will be very significant. It will be to convince the people of this country that even if it was an America’s war at start of the years after 9/11, it has finally become Pakistan’s war. And, therefore, it has to be fought jointly by the Pakistani state and the people.
Q. I know it’s early into proceedings to look for the responsibility, but may be I can ask you what is your gut feeling who is responsible and where this has come from.
A. Well, I am pretty sure. It’s not my gut feeling alone. Because if you look at the spate of suicide bombings that began effectively in 2004. It gained momentum after July 2007, after the Red Mosque Operation in Islamabad. But it was a haphazard activity. One could say that that there were splinter groups in Swat Valley or North and South Waziristan.
But what have seen after October last year, the first attack against the convoy of former prime minister, the late prime minister Bhutto in Karachi and then the December attack, and there were so many attacks in Lahore, Peshawar and Rawalpindi, including two attacks against the FIA and the Naval Academy in Lahore, you really see the hallmarks or the footprints of al-Qaeda here; because there is a carefully calibrated strategy being pursued.
This is something that only an organized network of terrorists can do. And I think behind today’s attack, and the nature and gigantic outcome of this attack, one can say that the anarchic situation that we have had in Pakistan’s politics and broadly in the region has really given a new lease of life to al-Qaeda.