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If militants can hit Pakistan's military HQ, what's next? Add to ...

The devastating terrorist assault on Pakistan's military headquarters that ended Sunday after nearly 24 hours exposed the threat of extremist groups operating in the heart of the country and the vulnerability of its most sensitive sites, raising concerns over the security of its nuclear arsenal.

The raid and ensuing hostage crisis resulted in the death of a total of 11 army personnel and civilians inside the military complex in Rawalpindi, while nine terrorists were killed and their ringleader captured, injured but alive. A rescue operation early Sunday brought out 39 hostages, but three others died.

It was the climax of a week that began with a suicide bombing that killed five people Monday at a UN aid agency office in the heart of the capital, and saw 53 people killed Friday in a market bombing in Peshawar, as the army is about to begin a planned U.S.-backed offensive against the Pakistani Taliban in the country's wild Wazirstan region on the border with Afghanistan, the hub of extremism in Pakistan.

Evidence pointed to assailants from Pakistan's core Punjab province, rather than ethnic Pashtuns from Wazirstan and elsewhere on the northwest fringe. Some experts said that Pakistan's military establishment, long accused of backing some extremist groups while cracking down on others, should now be forced to finally abandon its deadly game of good militant, bad militant, as once-loyal groups have repeatedly turned against the Pakistani state.

The accused ringleader of the attackers, Aqeel alias Dr. Usman, came from Punjab province, almost certainly from a militant outfit that was once patronized by officials, who had linked up with Taliban groups from the northwest. Punjab is untouched by the military's anti-extremist operations.

"The only thing that stands between al-Qaeda and nuclear weapons is the Pakistan army," said Shaun Gregory, a professor at Britain's Bradford University and an expert on Pakistan's nuclear weapons. "It is an incredible shock that terrorists can strike at the heart of GHQ [general headquarters]… . Terrorists could mount this sort of assault against Pakistan's nuclear installations."

Most of the terrorist attacks seen in Pakistan during the past two years have been suicide bomb strikes, but the GHQ attack was a commando-style or fidayeen assault by well-trained jihadists against a highly protected target. Such military-style tactics could be used against nuclear sites, Prof. Gregory said, which could result in installations being bombed or set on fire, or nuclear material could be stolen.

The same sort of attack was seen in the blitz on Mumbai in late 2008 by a Pakistan-based group, and the ambush of the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team in the Pakistani city of Lahore earlier this year. Aqeel was already being hunted as the mastermind of that attack.

U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said the GHQ attack was "another reminder that the extremists in Pakistan are increasingly threatening the authority of the state."

However, Ms. Clinton added: "we see no evidence that they [extremists]are going to take over the state. We have confidence in the Pakistani government and military's control over nuclear weapons.

Aqeel is a member of the banned group Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, according to Amir Rana, director of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, an independent think tank in Islamabad. HUJI, formerly closely linked to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence military spy agency, is affiliated with al-Qaeda. Some reports said that Aqeel was a member of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, another banned militant group, an offshoot of Sipah-e-Sahaba, a proscribed Punjabi outfit that, too, was supported by the ISI.

The Punjabi militants recruit largely from the south of the province, where radical madrassas - Islamic schools - indoctrinate students. Much of the terrorist training is done in camps in Waziristan, where the leadership of Punjabi extremist groups is mostly hiding, under the patronage of the Pakistani Taliban who control that area. The complex interlinkages between Punjabi and Taliban groups in Pakistan mean that playing favourites is risky. The ISI has used jihadist groups to fight proxy wars in both Kashmir and Afghanistan, a tactic that many believe it is reluctant to give up on.

Zaffar Abbas, an editor at Dawn, a Pakistani daily, wrote in a commentary published Sunday: "Perhaps the attack on the GHQ may prove to be a watershed that compels the security and civilian establishment, as well as most of the opposition groups, to realize that the time to distinguish between [so-called]good and bad religious militants or Taliban was over, and a consensus was needed to confront all such groups as enemies of the state."

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