One bomb at a time: life in the throes of Pakistan’s Taliban

Foreign Scene

On a fateful September morning in 2013, police at Peshawar’s control centre received a call from one of its units in the suburbs.

The caller said an improvised explosive device (IED) had been planted on Frontier Road, which separates Peshawar from a tribal area plagued by militant-staged bomb and sniper attacks.

A policeman rushed to the bomb disposal unit (BDS) to share the tip-off with inspector Hukam Khan, who was asleep in his shabby room.

Khan, who lost four fingers while defusing a mine in Pakistan amid the extensive Soviet and US wars fought in the 1980s, initially asked one of his technicians to visit the site and defuse the device, but then put his uniform on and headed there himself.

“Today is Friday, may God have mercy on us,” he told the driver. After all, attacks are often staged on the holy day.

A group of policemen greeted Khan and pointed towards the IED. No sooner did Khan crouch over and start digging with his bare hands a loud bang slammed him to the ground.

The blast was so strong that it brought down a high-voltage power line, shaking the ground and adjacent buildings.

Khan, who had joined the BDU in 1986 as war between the Soviet Red Army and Afghan fighters raged in the country, would be one of many victims.

According to the Peshawar-based daily, The Frontier Post, about 52 bomb blasts ripped across the province as the Soviet occupation of the country neared its end in 1989. In fact, between 2007 and 2017, unit personnel had to literally tiptoe around death as they defused more than 7,000 devices across the country’s northwest region.

The decisive events of September 11 2001, pushed the region into the eye of the storm.

The US invasion of Afghanistan – and the fact that Pakistan had turned its back on fighters it had groomed with American help – opened up the gates of hell for the region once again as seething Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents upped their game in defiance and revenge over the country’s change of stance.

Indeed, the post-9/11 climate changed the dynamics of terrorism and officials who had at most defused grenades and homemade bombs were now faced with sophisticated terror tools, like suicide bombers, grenade-packed vehicles and bobby-traps.

“Pressure cooker bombs were a signature Al Qaeda device,” says Shafqat Malik, the BDU chief inspector-general who examined the area after Khan was killed.

Most of these sophisticated device-making techniques were mastered by Al Qaeda bomb-makers in Afghanistan and later used in Pakistan by the Taliban to destabilise the country.

In fact, by 2007, Peshawar had become a major target for the Taliban insurgency as thousands of fighters sneaked into Pakistan’s tribal areas in search of shelter as they waged their embittered battle.

Not only has Malik had to fight evolving terrorist tactics over the years, but he has also had to enhance the sinking spirits of a fledgling unit, which has often had to be on standby around the clock to defuse explosive devices with cutters and pliers, rushing to bomb sites in rickshaws.

Malik, who was working in Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency as a forensics expert in 2009 when he was summoned to head the Peshawar unit, says clearing the field of other explosive devices on that fateful day in 2013 was nevertheless a tough job, especially after losing an experienced colleague like Khan, who had served in the unit for 32 years.

As night fell over the unit’s barracks that evening, officers sat silently on their cots, which were lined up in a large, dimly lit hall, thinking about the commander that they just buried, the transience of life and their dangerous job.

Indeed, keeping morale high against the odds over the years has been no easy task, Malik tells TRT World.

“I was told at the time: ‘my men are dying, come and save them’.

“The unit’s morale dwindled as they buckled under the heavy pressure of ailing resources and mounting incidents of terrorism.”

His office is bereft of any decoration, with the exception of a Russian-made anti-tank mine in the far corner of the room. In fact, his chatty persona is unusual for a person who has had to defuse bombs for a living.

“In Pakistan, no one had seen a suicide jacket until 2007,” he says. “I was the first person in Pakistan to defuse one.”

Some officials were sent for foreign training with the help of the US, while the European Union and other international bodies provided bomb kits, robots and bomb suits.

The BDU today deploys 550 personnel, up from a measly 35 in 2009.

After spending about a decade at the heart of an insurgency that has orchestrated the most ruthless bombings, Malik says you have a 50/50 chance of survival when attempting to tackle an IED.

“You never know what lies beneath the device or what is going to hit you on the way,” he says.