US Embassy in Pakistan issues red alert, bars staff from Marriott hotel

Fearing a possible attack, the United Kingdom also orders officials not to visit the popular spot, site of a suicide bomb attack more than a decade ago.

Rangers arrive at the Supreme Court in Islamabad, Pakistan, 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS/FAISAL MAHMOOD)
Rangers arrive at the Supreme Court in Islamabad, Pakistan, 2018.

The United States embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan issued a security red alert on Sunday evening, and barred all US government employees from visiting the city’s Marriott hotel over fear of a possible attack.

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The embassy staff also were ordered to refrain from non-essential travel. The alert is in effect for the entire country, according to the embassy.

“The US government is aware of information that unknown individuals are possibly plotting to attack Americans at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad sometime during the holidays. Effective immediately, the Embassy in Islamabad is prohibiting all American staff from visiting Islamabad’s Marriott Hotel. Furthermore, as Islamabad has been placed on a Red Alert citing security concerns while banning all public gatherings, the embassy is urging all mission personnel to refrain from non-essential, unofficial travel in Islamabad throughout the holiday season,” the embassy said in a statement. 

Meanwhile, Britain’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) also issued a travel advisory barring its officials from visiting Islamabad’s Marriott hotel citing a “possible attack.” 

During the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the Marriott Hotel Islamabad was perhaps the most protected hotel in the world. It is believed that the hotel had housed US and NATO forces and therefore had a highly trained security staff and state-of-the-art security system in place.

2008 Marriott hotel bombing

In September 2008, a truck filled with heavy explosives and chemicals exploded in the courtyard of the hotel after it rammed through the gates of the hotel. At least 54 people were killed and 266 were injured in the incident. 

Two US military officials who worked for the US Embassy in Islamabad were among those killed in the 2008 attack; also killed were the Czech Republic's ambassador to Pakistan, Ivo Zdarek, along with his Vietnamese counterpart.

Because of the possible terror attack, the federal capital administration on Friday banned all types of gatherings for two weeks and declared a state of high alert throughout the city.

Intelligence agencies also have warned about the presence of another suicide bomber in the twin cities metropolitan area of Rawalpindi-Islamabad, according to sources.

Elite strike forces clash with 'Pakistani Taliban'

The warning comes days after the Pakistan Army elite strike forces on December 20 killed at least 25 armed militia members from Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) – also known as the Pakistani Taliban, who seized the counter-terrorism interrogation center in Bannu district, in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on the border with Afghanistan.

The TTP operatives took as hostages the staff of the counter-terrorism center and demanded a safe airlift to Afghanistan along with their imprisoned members in return for the release of the prison staff.

On Friday, a policeman was killed in a suicide blast in Islamabad, that also critically injured four police officers and two civilians. The attack came after Islamabad police stopped a suspicious taxi, in which a man with long hair and a woman were riding. During the search, the man blew himself up.

Pakistan has witnessed a surge in aggressive violence in recent weeks after the banned TTP in November announced the end to its truce with the government.  

Reliable sources based in Islamabad told The Media Line that “at the request of the Afghan Taliban, the series of backdoor contacts between the Pakistani authorities and the banned outfit began in October 2021; however, in this context, some officials, including well-known Islamic clerics and tribal elders, also met several times with the leaders of the banned outfit in Kabul. In these talks, it was agreed that security forces and civilians would not be targeted, while jailed hard-core members of the Tehreek-e-Taliban would be released.”  

In September, TTP spokesperson Muhammad Khorasani claimed that “due to the non-release of prisoners, continued military operations and lack of communication from the government of Pakistan compelled us to end the cease-fire.”

Since the end of the cease-fire, there has been a spike in cross-border terror attacks. Dozens of security officials and civilians have been killed and injured so far. At the same time, the Pakistan Army and Air Force have successfully targeted the hideouts of terrorists.

Explosion in Balochistan’s Kahan area

According to a Pakistan Armed Forces news conference on Sunday, five soldiers, including a captain, were killed when an improvised explosive device detonated in Balochistan’s Kahan area. 

“Troops were conducting an intelligence-based clearance operation in the Kahan area when the IED exploded close to the leading party,” according to the military.  

Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), a banned militant outfit, claimed responsibility for the attack on the troops.

Meanwhile, numerous blasts rocked several parts of Quetta in northern Balochistan near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and other parts of Balochistan on Sunday.

Quetta local media reported that at least two people were killed and 20 were injured in these blasts.

In addition, five people, including three policemen, were injured when gunmen attacked a police vehicle in Quetta’s Satellite Town area on Sunday evening.  

BLA claimed responsibility for several attacks carried out over the last two days in areas of Balochistan province, including Kahan, Turbat, Gwadar, Hub, Khuzdar, Qalat and Quetta,

The United States declared the BLA a terrorist organization in July 2019, with the State Department calling it an “armed separatist group that targets security forces and civilians.”

Balochistan, one of Pakistan’s largest provinces, extends across 44% of the country.

Mir Zia Ullah Lango, Balochistan’s interior minister, told The Media Line that, “the terrorists have reorganized in Afghanistan and now they are infiltrating Pakistan.”

“We are fully prepared to tackle the terrorism activities and ruthless action will be taken against the terrorists.”

“We are fully prepared to tackle the terrorism activities and ruthless action will be taken against the terrorists.”

Mir Zia Ullah Lango

Lango claimed that law enforcement agencies have traced the hideouts of the terrorists and “they will be eliminated soon.”

Pakistan Strategic Forum (PSF) is an Islamabad-based think tank that manages the domains of weapons intelligence, threat matrix, national security policy, conflict analytics, OSINT, aerospace, diplomacy, warfare and combat tactics.

The Media Line spoke with Waleed Parwez, director general of PSF’s Open Source Intelligence and Strategic Communications Directorate (DG O&S).

Parwez told The Media Line that the group “monitors chatter from the TTP’s internal messaging systems, and recent conversations between their top- and middle-tier leadership shows that they are now bold enough to attack even the major cities of Pakistan with suicide bombings. These talks and internal directives have been ongoing for the past six weeks, evidence of the fact that the CIA has passed intelligence to the American embassy of incoming attacks in Islamabad.” 

Parwez said that “these terrorists are directly supported, financially and logistically, by a nexus of Indian intelligence and some breakaway fringe elements inside the Afghan Taliban.”

He told The Media Line that  the strategy “was adopted to keep terrorist activities on a low flame as part of the guerrilla tactic of ‘bleeding by 1,000 cuts,’ but now there are signs that the insurgency has maybe even slipped out of their hands, become so high-intensity that Pakistan is forced to pursue wide-ranging and direct military action against the TTP and other anti-Pakistan terrorists on Afghan soil.”

Parwez also noted that “the tried-and-tested mantra of the Afghan Taliban viewing the TTP’s resurgence as something that happened entirely of their own accord without the Kabul’s indirect support, and blaming chain-of-command deficiencies when Taliban border units attack Pakistani forces are fast getting to be a worn out and old excuse and patience is running out. The looming threat will not, and cannot, be ignored by the state of Pakistan.”

Since the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August 2021, the TTP has so far carried out more than 400 attacks against Pakistani security personnel and civilians resulting in numerous deaths and injuries across the country, according to Parwez.

Irina Tsukerman, a New York-based national security expert and a south Asian expert, told The Media Line that, “one of the reasons for the reports of terrorists targeting Islamabad’s Marriott Hotel is that the US officials always urged Pakistan to bring extremists to the Court of Justice, but unfortunately Pakistan seemed unwilling to bring extremists to justice by previous attempts on lives of American citizens, such as the acquittal of terrorists responsible for the murder of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.” 

She further told The Media Line that, “the US government views Pakistan as a hotbed of radical activities and gathered intelligence points to the fact that the extreme sentiment among these groups is not being systematically curtailed and rolled back by the Pakistani government; the militant groups know very well about the American stance on terrorism, so targeting US interests by extremists is a known fact.” 

Tsukerman also told The Media Line that, “the border skirmishes and attacks are likely to get only worse as the Taliban both lose control over the internal security situation in Afghanistan and seeks to channel some of its own internal difference to an outside actor such as Pakistan, while the government in Pakistan is seeking to manage regional security issues without sacrificing its long-standing strategy and ties to some of these very groups lest they turn on them and cause even more problems.”  

She noted that “if Pakistan does not regain control of internal security scenarios, it may eventually become too volatile for US diplomatic bodies to function and the US will have to significantly curtail its presence or withdraw altogether.”

Adeeb Ul Zaman Safvi, a Karachi-based defense and security analyst, told The Media Line that, “the most inhospitable and porous Pak-Afghan border lost all kinds of checks in human trafficking in the garb of humanitarian help to people escaping war zones.”

“It is a bitter reality that, since the regime changed in Pakistan, the country has seen a gradual increase in militancy, and this is because the present coalition government remains incompetent to engage the Taliban government in Afghanistan,” he said, adding that “the seriousness of the current regime can be determined that since taking charge in April 2022, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Bilawal Zardari has not visited Kabul yet, which must be done at the earliest.”

Jazib Mumtaz, a Karachi-based senior research economist and analyst at the Policy Research Unit – Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce & Industry, told The Media Line that “the recent rise in incidents of terrorism has sent shock waves across the region. The hostage situation in Bannu and the suicide attack in Islamabad are just the tips of the iceberg.”

Mumtaz further told The Media Line that “political instability already playing havoc with the country, a rise in terror would further damage the economy as foreign investors would hesitate to invest.”

Mumtaz added that “the US embassy has already announced a travel advisory for its staff and citizens in the country which may create an adverse impression on the already dwindling economy. The state apparatus should react immediately to tackle the situation.”