Pakistan gunman standoff: a red-faced response

Mansoor Jafar
Mansoor Jafar
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Four days after a dramatic six-hour stand-off between a lone gunmen and the security agencies in Islamabad, authorities are red-faced but heaving a sigh of relief. The incident took place only a few miles away from the parliament and official residences of the president and prime minister.

The shameful and shocking incident involved a man armed with two guns, accompanied by his unarmed wife and two children aged 5 and 7, as he stood his ground for hours. The entire security apparatus of the capital city failed to neutralize him while dozens of TV channels extensively covered the entire saga live, racking the nerves of millions of viewers.

The event exposed the inability and preparedness of Pakistani police and security agencies to take swift and effective decisions in dealing with any unusual situation. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has vowed to overhaul the security of the country which has been suffering from a civil-war-like situation following military dictator General [retired] Pervez Musharraf’s decision to join in US war on terror. Security agencies and public places have been targeted with bomb blasts by suspected Tehrik Taliban Pakistan [TTP] bombers since 2004 after the military launched an operation in tribal areas to flush out suspected al-Qaeda supporters.

The gunman appeared mentally deranged. He did not take a hostage but put himself and his family in danger of being shot. He faces prosecution for hitting a police vehicle with his car and firing occasional shots into the air. Talking to media during the standoff, he made ambiguous and incoherent demands citing the injustices meted out to the people are making their lives miserable, and demanded that the present government installed two months back should be removed and elections should be held according to the Islamic model of governance.

Full-blown coverage of the incident shook the whole nation as people did not know whether to love or fear the gunman. He was seen both as a crusader who risked the lives of his family as he stood up before the capitalist regime and as a lawbreaker who could have killed members of his family, the media and security agencies.

Some questioned the inability of security agencies to tackle an armed man in the heart of the capital city. They asked how he was allowed to get so close to the red zone with guns. TV anchors staged a scenario which suggested that a couple of armed men could reach the inside of the Pakistani parliament and the residences of president and prime minister under the present state of security in Islamabad.

Strangely, the standoff ended after a local leader of oppoition’s Pakistan Peoples Party, Zamarrud Khan, jumped on the gunman while pretending to shake hands with his children. However, he failed to suppress the gunman and fell; the gunman backed off, firing a few accidental shots. However, his bravado provided the security personnel the opportunity to move in and shoot at the gunman who initially raised his hands in the air with the two guns and then tried to flee. He was captured after being shot in the leg and chest.

It is unsure who allowed Zamarrud Khan to reach the gunman after the failure of the police chief who unsuccessfully negotiated with him many times. Commandoes, para-military forces and snipers remained outside the cordon waiting for orders to move in. Who allowed this act of bravado that could have killed him? And why he was not charged for obstructing the law enforcing agencies’ task? The gunman did not kill him: he made it clear that his agenda was not to kill anybody but to gain attention and recognition. He had numerous opportunities to shoot Zamarrud and numerous others.

High-ranking police officers squandered several chances to end the standoff, as they could have sent any popular public figure to deal with the lone gunman.

For TV channels, the drama presented a golden opportunity to attain top ratings, as they fought a bitter battle for better ratings. Multiple anchors said that the lone gunman had taken all of Islamabad hostage, and could kill policemen or others at any time.

It is time for Pakistan to learn from its past mistakes and prepare the security apparatus to avoid further embarrassment...

Mansoor Jafar

Coverage of the incident sent a wave of anger among the nation, as the majority of people believed that the non-stop live coverage made police reluctant to step in sooner and take action against the gunman. They said that if the armed impasse had not been under the view of hundreds of cameras, it would have ended within minutes, not hours.

After four hours of impasse, the police decided to prepare to bring the impasse to an end, but journalists refused to retreat a few hundred meters to allow the security agencies to cordon off the area. Some journalists clashed with the police as they tried to push them back. They later accused police of manhandling them.

Scores of people on social media argued that the media made a circus out of a crime scene and that this made it much harder for an adrenalin-filled gunman to surrender peacefully. Off camera he might have been easily persuaded to lay down his arms. In the aftermath of the stand-off, people believe the police should have been much more forceful with the media, like in the US and other western countries where media is not allowed to cross a safe distance or show blood stained bodies of the victims.

Even in situations involving hostages, shoot-out with police and mass killings, western media avoids showing close-up of dead bodies and wounded, and follows the legal sanctity of security cordons.

Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar later admitted he forbade the shooting of the gunman because he had not taken any hostages and was not posing an imminent danger to anybody. He also admitted that the Pakistan police was ill-equipped to deal with such situations since they were not in possession of lasers or stun guns to temporarily paralyze the gunman and apprehend him.

It is time for Pakistan to learn from its past mistakes and prepare the security apparatus to avoid further embarrassment, which it has already felt due to the US Navy Seals hunt for Osama, jail breaks by Taliban, attacks on its military headquarters, the targeting of military installations, and countless bomb blasts elsewhere in the country.

If the security agencies are not trained and equipped then the Pakistan government and parliament might have to run the country online by sitting in a secure environment somewhere in Europe. Ministers and government officials could do that on government expenses, but 180 million people have no choice but to stay back without power or proper security, since they would not be able to afford the luxury of “online-managing” their homes from Europe.


Mansoor Jafar is Editor of Al Arabiya Urdu based in Islamabad. He can be reached via Twitter: @mansoorjafar

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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