Islamic Militant Threat Grows in Pakistani Heartland

(AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)
The Pakistani Taliban was quick to claim responsibility for Thursday's attacks in both the northwestern Kohat region and in the capital city of the Punjab province, Lahore.

Read more on Thursday's wave
of attacks across Pakistan

A senior militant commander in the Taliban stronghold of Waziristan, along the border with Afghanistan, claimed in a phone call to CBS News Sami Yousafzai just hours after those devastating attacks that 20 cells, each consisting of between five and 20 militants, had been established in the Punjab province to carry out a wave of attacks over the next two months.

While senior intelligence officials in the Pakistani capital and foreign diplomats strongly dispute the claim that the Taliban has gained the ability to plan and execute major attacks in the Punjab, the Taliban's claim is indicative of a fast-growing threat to Pakistan's most densely populated province.

"Pakistani security forces' bases and stations are more vulnerable than ever to Taliban attacks," claimed a senior Taliban commander in North Waziristan. "We are getting stronger outside the tribal areas, in settled areas," the commander claimed.

"Such attacks on the heart of the Pakistani security forces will help to release pressure on the Taliban in Waziristan," the commander told Yousafzai.

However, a senior Pakistani intelligence official told CBS News' Farhan Bokhari that it was "a huge exaggeration" to say the Taliban had the capability to strike deep in the Punjab.

"Today's attacks are essentially the work of Islamist hard-line groups in the Punjab, likely sympathetic to the TTP (Tehreek-e-Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban) but not necessarily controlled by it," the intelligence official said.

A senior Western diplomat denied Taliban involvement in the Lahore attacks in much stronger terms. "This is rubbish," the diplomat told Bokhari. "There is simply no evidence of the TTP having organized itself to have become a terrorist group that operates as far out as the Punjab."

Somewhere between the government's claim that there is no link between the Taliban and the attacks in Lahore, and the Taliban's claim that they were directly responsible for it, lies the truth.

Last weekend, 10 Islamic militants carried out a brazen attack on the supposedly-well-protected army headquarters in Rawalpindi — a sprawling city which adjoins Islamabad. After the attack, army officials confirmed that half of the attackers came from the Punjab, while the rest appeared to belong to Waziristan.

It was the latest evidence of some level of cooperation between the long-established separatist Islamic groups in the Punjab, where 60 percent of Pakistanis live, to the Taliban militants based primarily in the tribal areas.

The Taliban, "does have enough strong, joint cooperation and works closely, like one organization" with the Punjabi groups, the militant commander in Waziristan told Yousafzai on Thursday.

CBS News producer Maria Usman says there are clear indicators as to exactly which group was likely behind the various attacks on Thursday. In Lahore, groups of gunmen, some wearing suicide vests, raided government buildings. Some of the militants involved were women. That tactic is highly unlikely to have come from a plot hatched by the Taliban, who prefer suicide or remote bomb attacks and would almost never involve women.

However, two separate bomb blasts — one which preceded the Lahore attacks by just an hour and another that came later in the day — took place much closer to the Taliban's stomping grounds in the tribal areas. The car bomb in Kohat and a remotely-detonated bomb in the thriving city of Peshawar killed a total of at least 9 people, including a child. These attacks, reports Usman almost certainly bare Taliban fingerprints.

How deep the link between the Punjab militants and the Taliban truly is will remain the stuff of speculation, but officials agree, the situation in the heart of Pakistan is getting worse, and the Punjabi groups have become far more active in recent months — whether or not it's thanks to collusion with Taliban commanders.

Another Western diplomat told Bokhari that Thursday's attacks were likely to deepen concerns over the country's internal security. "The Punjab is Pakistan's nerve centre. This is not a remote place out in the wilderness like Waziristan where attacks do not necessarily have immediate relevance to conditions in this country's mainstream."

The Pakistani army is expected to begin an all-out ground offensive against the Taliban in South Waziristan in the coming days. While the U.S. has been calling for just such an operation targeting Taliban and al Qaeda leaders believed to be in the area, Thursday's attacks show the influence of Islamic militants in Pakistan spreading well beyond that isolated region.

In the words of a top Western diplomat: "The TTP could not have directly caused these attacks but that still doesn't mean conditions in Pakistan are not sliding rapidly southwards."

  • Tucker Reals

    Tucker Reals is the foreign editor, based at the CBS News London bureau.