Islamabad – A regular Monday morning at the Islamabad district courts turned in to a scene of murder and mayhem when at least three unidentified gunmen terrorized the legal fraternity with methodical firing and two suicide bombings, killing 11 people, including an additional sessions judge, and injuring over two dozen others.
By noon, the labyrinthine and congested compound of the district courts in sector F-8 echoed with a silence only death can master.
But hours earlier, lawyers and eyewitnesses said they were rattled with the sound of gunshots — bullets fired with such persistence that those present in the courts soon knew it was not just two rival gangs fighting or armed men come to free some criminal produced in court.
Police officials said three to four armed men entered the district courts around 8:45am through an entrance in the back. A little-known militant group, Ahrarul Hind, believed to be a splinter group of the Tehreek-e Taliban (TTP), reportedly claimed responsibility for the attack. But the TTP tried to disassociate itself from the attack in a statement issued by its spokesperson on Monday afternoon.
The court compound, a poorly guarded area with defunct body scanners and over 20 street entrances, had around 50 policemen on security duty at the time, according to Islamabad Police officials. None proved able to effectively neutralize the attackers, who police said were in their mid-20s, wore short beards and khaki shalwar kameez.
“The three armed men opened fire as soon as they entered the area,” Chaudhry Nisar, the country’s Interior Minister and the boss-superior of Islamabad’s police force, said.
Eyewitnesses, most of whom put the number of attackers at around four to seven, said the gunmen started firing near the courts of civil judges Naveed Khan and Azhar Nadeem. Both judges were injured in the incident.
The firing lasted for around 15 minutes, Senior Superintendent Police (SSP) Operations Muhammad Rizwan told The Express Tribune. During this time, eyewitnesses said the gunmen “roamed freely” through the narrow streets lined with lawyers’ chambers, firing at will, without ever being stopped by policemen, who like everyone also ran for cover.
“The law enforcement failed us miserably,” said Advocate Kamran Asghar Khan, who said he carried his colleague — a lawyer shot in the leg and belly — outside the compound to get him medical care.
Lawyers said the death toll could have been much more but a hand grenade hurled by one attacker in to the Waqar Gillani hall, a cafeteria-like area where lawyers huddle in the morning, did not go off.
Some eyewitnesses said the attackers were only targeting government servants and lawyers and told other civilians to leave the premises. Some guessed at the cases a judge killed in the attack was hearing or had heard in the past to fix motive.
But police said it was “definitely a terrorist attack” and an initial investigation report submitted to the Interior Ministry by security agencies stated “the attackers had no specific target.”
TTP spokesperson Shahidullah Shahid said the attack should not be associated with his organisation. However, Asad Mansoor, a self-proclaimed spokesperson for Ahrarul Hind, claimed responsibility and said it would continue to fight until the imposition of Sharia in the country.
The group, a splinter faction of the TTP, had issued a statement in February announcing it did not agree with TTP’s peace talks with government.
Hospital authorities said 29 people were injured in the Monday’s incident. Three of them were in critical condition.
The dead included people who were in court for hearings (Shabbir Hussain, Mian Aslam, Kamran Ali, Talib Hussain), police constable Muhammad Riaz, lawyers (Rao Rasheed, Fiza Malik, Akmal Umar Tariq, Tanvir Hyder, Haji Sanaullah) and Additional Sessions Judge Rafaqat Awan.
Awan was hunted down in a chamber inside his court by one of the gunmen, according to Muhammad Banaras, a Munshi who works at the district court.
“The gunman broke the glass of Awan’s court with a fire and then he shot straight at the judge,” Banaras said. A PIMS medical report stated Awan was hit twice in the arms and once in the chest.
The unknown attackers used hand grenades, automatic rifles and explosive-laden suicide vests during the attack, Rizwan said. Inspector General of Police Sikandar Hayat confirmed two suicide bombers blew themselves up at separate locations inside the compound.
Worst hit was Block number 3, where the attacker who had shot Awan exploded after being hit in a firing exchange with an Anti-Terrorist Squad officer. The block included Awan’s court and the courts of two additional sessions judges Muhammd Adnan and Sikandar Khan, who escaped in time before the blast.
Their court rooms, however, were completely destroyed in the blast. Shattered white-tinted glass littered the floor of the alley in front of the courts. Inside the rooms, furniture and file cabinets were smashed violently against each other. Throughout the compound, there were bullet holes staring back from windows and blood stains and tiny bits of flesh strewn on the streets.
Another suicide bomber exploded a few blocks to the south of Awan’s court, causing a crater. Police found the head and legs of one of the bombers. Intelligence sources claimed one gunman, wearing a red sweater, escaped the scene.
Police forces of Islamabad and Rawalpindi were conducting search operations in the twin cities to find him but no arrests were made till the filing of this report. The capital was put on high security alert and security was beefed in the city’s sensitive Red Zone.
Rangers and police also evacuated and cleared the district courts by 11 am, but lawyers said the incident was a “security lapse” and police should have acted when it was time.
Police countered the criticism by saying lawyers felt offended and insulted whenever police tried to enforce a strict security regime in the area. They also blamed it on the difficult topography of the place.
“It is like a maze,” SSP Rizwan said. “We enforce security there in the form of police pickets.”
The Margalla Police Station, located less than a kilometer away from the courts, registered a case against unknown attackers for murder, attempted murder and act of terrorism. Minister Nisar has ordered an inquiry into the incident. So has the Islamabad High Court.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Tassaduq Hussain Jillani took suo moto notice of the terrorist activity and ordered IG Hayat, Chief Commissioner Islamabad Jawad Paul and the federal Interior Secretary for a hearing on Tuesday, March 4.
Monday’s suicide blasts were the first such incident in Islamabad since a suicide bombing outside a private bank in 2011. A suicide bomber tried to blow himself up at a mosque in Bara Kahu in August 2013 but his vest malfunctioned and he was killed by a security guard.