FACE-TO-FACE WITH TERROR – PERVEZ MUSHARRAF
Face-to-face with terror. It was December 14, 2003, and I was on my way home to Army House after having landed in Islamabad a few minutes earlier. Religious extremists had struck right in my midst, and it was only by the grace of God that I was saved and no precious lives were lost.
I have confronted death and defied it several times in the past because destiny and fate have always smiled on me. I only pray that I have more than the proverbial nine lives of a cat.
I first avoided death as a teenager in 1961, when I was hanging upside down from the branch of a mango tree and it broke. When I hit the ground, my friends thought I was dead.
In 1972, when I was leading a company of commandos as a major in the mountainous Northern Areas, I should have been on a plane of Pakistan International Airlines that crashed into a glacier up in the Himalayas on a flight from Gilgit to Islamabad. At the last minute, I hadn’t boarded it, because the bodies of two of my men who had been killed by an avalanche had been found, and my commanding officer and I opted to give up our seats to make the weight available for the conveyance of the bodies. The plane has still not been found.
I should have been on President Zia ul-Haq’s C-130 airplane that crashed on August 17, 1988. I had been selected to become military secretary to the president, but as luck would have it, another brigadier was appointed to the post at the last minute. That poor man went to a fiery death instead of me. The United States ambassador, Arnold Lewis
Raphael, was also among the unfortunate passengers. The crash was never fully explained and remains a mystery in the modern history of Pakistan.
My closest call was in 1998, when, as a lieutenant general commanding the Mangla Corps, I was called to army headquarters in Rawalpindi for a conference. After finishing my official commitments, I went off with a friend, Lieutenant Colonel Aslam Cheema, to play bridge in his office, which was at a remote location. My commander of aviation, who was flying a helicopter back to Mangla started looking for me. He wanted to take me back to Mangla by the chopper to avoid the two-hour road journey. I would have readily flown with him. But he didn’t know where I was, gave up looking, and left. The helicopter crashed and he died. A simple game of bridge with a friend saved me.
On October 12, 1999, I was chief of the army staff, the highest military position in Pakistan. My plane was about to land at Karachi from Colombo, when the prime minister effectively hijacked it from the ground, blocking the runway and closing all airports in Pakistan. He ordered my plane to leave Pakistan air space. Our fuel was so low that we would have crashed had the army not taken control of Karachi Airport before it was too late. We landed with only seven minutes of fuel to spare. The nearly fatal confrontation with the prime minister brought me to power-a story that I will relate fully in this book.
I also had two brushes with death in the India-Pakistan war of 1965.
As if these real risks were not enough, in 2001, when I took off from New York to Pakistan after the United Nations Summit, the pilot alarmed me by relaying a message that air traffic control claimed there might be a bomb on the plane. We returned to New York to find, after hours of search, that the warning was a hoax.
But the events of December 2003 put me in the front line of the war on terror and are part of my reason for writing this book now, while I am still fighting. On December 14, 2003, I landed from Karachi at Chaklala Air Force Base, about 2.5 miles (four kilometers) from Army House in Rawalpindi, and six miles (ten kilometers) from Islamabad. My aide-de-camp met me with two pieces of news: Pakistan had beaten India in a polo match, and Saddam Hussein had been caught. I made my way home to Army House. I was talking to my military secretary,Major General Nadeem Taj, seated to my right, when I heard a loud, though muffled, thud behind us. As my car became airborne I immediately realized what was happening-I was staring terrorism in the face. I thought ruefully that while leaders of other countries only visit scenes of carnage later or see it on a television screen, I was personally in the midst of it. Not only that-I was the target. But unlike most leaders, I am also a soldier, chief of the army staff, and supreme commander of my country’s armed forces. I am cut out to be in the midst of battle-trained, prepared, and equipped. Fate and the confluence of events have seen to it that Pakistan and I are in the thick of the fight against terrorism. My training has made me constantly ready for the assignment.
I had just crossed a bridge very near Army House when it happened. All four wheels of my car left the road and we shot quite some distance up in the air. Though the sound of the explosion was muffled by the armor plating of the car, I knew instinctively that it was a bomb. So did my military secretary. I knew too that it was a huge bomb, because it had lifted the three-ton Mercedes clean off the road. I looked back and saw a pall of smoke, dust, and debris on the bridge that we had just sped over. When we reached Army House, about 500 yards (400 meters) away, my deputy military secretary, Lieutenant Colonel Asim Bajwa, who had been traveling in another vehicle in my motorcade, confirmed that the explosion was an assassination attempt.
I entered the house to find my wife, Sehba, and my mother sitting in the family lounge. Sehba has been with me through thick and thin-avalanches, hijacked flights, risky road journeys. She had heard the explosion because Army House is so close to the bridge. She saw me enter and started to ask what the explosion had been about. My mother’s back was to the door, and she didn’t realize that I had arrived. I put my finger to my lips and motioned to Sehba to come out of the room, lest my mother hear and become terribly upset, as any mother would. In the corridor, I told Sehba that it had been a bomb meant to kill me, but that everything was all right now. After comforting her I drove back to the bridge to get a firsthand look at the situation. The bridge had literally been ripped apart-so if the explosion had occurred a second before my car reached the spot, we would have crashed
twenty-five feet (7.5 meters) to the ground through the gap. There was still chaos at the bridge, and the people there were utterly surprised to see me.
Keeping the news from my mother was impossible, of course. She soon discovered what had happened as concerned colleagues, relatives, and friends started calling or dropping in. The story was all over television and on the front pages of newspapers the next day. I had over-shadowed both Saddam and polo, at least in Pakastan.
That evening Sehba and I were to attend a wedding at the Serena Hotel in Islamabad. We did not hesitate. Both of us went. Our decision caused no little consternation among the guests, as they thought that I had good reason to remain in the safety of my house only a few hours after terrorists had tried to assassinate me. I am sure that my escape, and my not breaking my schedule, must have caused disappointment and dismay among the terrorists. Sticking to the schedule may have caused some concern among my security personnel, but they are trained to take such things in stride. It certainly did cause some inconvenience to motorists, as the traffic along the route was blocked.
Before the assassination attempt, I would flow with the normal traffic, stopping at every red light. Now things started changing. The police started blocking all traffic in either direction along the route that I was to take. There were new escort vehicles on either side of my car. And, of course, my exact schedule would not be known to anyone except those closest to me.
People had barely stopped chattering about this assassination attempt when-on December 25, 2003, a holiday-there was yet another one. After addressing a conference at Islamabad’s Convention Center, I left for Army House at about one fifteen PM. My chief security officer, Colonel Ilyas, and my aide-de-camp, Major Tanveer, were in the lead car of my newly expanded motorcade. Next came the escort car. I was in the third car with my military secretary.
We crossed the fateful bridge, which was still under repair after the bomb blast, and reached a gasoline pump on the right. In front of the pump there was an opening in the median of the two-way road for U-turns. The oncoming traffic had been blocked. There was a police-man standing at the opening. I noticed that though all the oncoming
traffic was facing straight toward us, a Suzuki van was standing obliquely, as if to drive into the opening to get to my side of the road. Reflexively, I turned and looked over my right shoulder at the van, as one does when one sees something odd. Then I looked straight ahead. It all took a split second. Hardly had I turned my head back when there was a deafening bang and my car was up in the air again.
All hell broke loose. There was smoke; there was debris; there were body parts and pieces of cars. Vehicles had been blown to smithereens, human beings ripped to pieces. It turned dark, and we couldn’t see any-thing. It was the middle of the afternoon, but it seemed like dusk.
Jan Mohammad, my admirable driver, reflexively put his foot on the brake. I took out my Glock pistol, which is always with me, and shouted to Jan Mohammad in Urdu, “Dabaa, dabaa”-“drive, drive.” He floored the accelerator but had gone only about 100 yards (90 meters) when we came to another gasoline pump. Again there was a horrendous bang. in all hell broke loose. The first explosion had come from our right rear; this one came straight on from the immediate right front. Something big and very heavy hit the windshield. I don’t know what it was, but it made a big dent in the bulletproof glass-which, however, did not break. It came from such an angle that any broken glass would have gotten either my driver or me.
Once again my car took off. Again there were human parts, car parts, debris, smoke, and dust-and a lot of noise. in it went dark-very dark. It seemed as if midnight had come at noon.
My car’s tires had blown. We were on the rims now, but such cars are designed to go on their rims for thirty-five miles or so (fifty or sixty kilometers). in Jan Mohammad hit the brakes, and again I shouted, “Dabaa, dabaa. Hit the accelerator. Let’s get out of here.” The car lurched forward on its rims, making a lot of noise, like a rattletrap, and got us to Army House.
Sehba, of course, had heard the horrific explosions and had run out to the porch. When she saw the first car roll in on its rims-spewing smoke, filled with holes, and plastered with human flesh-she started screaming. She screamed and screamed. I had never seen her do that before. She is always calm in the face of danger and during horrific events, then she has a delayed reaction the next day, when tears come. But now she was screaming uncontrollably, hysterically. She wouldn’t look at me. She started running toward the gate. I asked her, “What are you doing? Where are you going?” But she just went on screaming. I couldn’t understand what she was saying, except, ‘at is going on?
at is happening?” It was understandable hysteria, and it helped her to get the shock out of her system. It also diverted my mind and the minds of others with me from our own shock. I got hold of her and took her inside the house. I sat with her and told her, “Look at me, I am all right, everything is all right.” When she finally calmed down I went out again.
I looked at the cars and saw that the lead car was the most badly dam-aged, especially its right rear door. It too had sunk down to its rims. Tanveer’s hair was standing straight up, I suppose because the blasts had created static. Any normal car would have been blown to bits, destroyed beyond recognition. As it was, human flesh and blood were all over the cars. They were a gruesome sight.
The squad car that had been behind me was also very badly damaged. All in all, I was told, fourteen people had been killed. Three of our people had been injured. The poor policeman standing at the gap between the two roads had come in front of the first suicide van and been blown to bits. A police van had stopped the second suicide bomber from hitting my car by ramming into his vehicle. The van had blown up, killing all five policemen in it, including an inspector. It was heartrending. The first suicide bomber had hit the nine-inch-high (22.5-centimeter) divider between the roads and rolled back, probably because he had made a cold start with a heavy, bomb-laden vehicle. If the police hadn’t blocked the oncoming traffic, God alone knows how many more would have been killed or mutilated.
We later discovered that there was supposed to be a third suicide bomber to attack me frontally where the road had no median divider. For some reason he didn’t materialize. At the time I thought that either he had lost his nerve after seeing what had happened to his two co-terrorists, or he thought that they must have gotten me, and ran away to save himself and come back to kill another day. If he had not abandoned the job he would almost certainly have succeeded in killing me, for by then my car was in very bad shape and was “naked,” without protection. Such are the ways of the Almighty.
The investigation into my would-be assassins led us to some of al Qaeda’s top people in Pakistan. The full story of that investigation needs to be told, because it represents one of our greatest victories in the war on terror. I will relate it in full in these pages. But first, you need to know how I came to be the man the assassins were targeting. The story of my life coincides almost from the beginning with the story of my country-so the chapters that follow are a biography not only of a man, but of Pakistan as well