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Writing in the time of information monopoly.

LAHORE: Let's begin with what we know.

The Zaver Pearl Continental hotel in Gwadar was attacked on the afternoon of Saturday, May 11. The responsibility for the attack was claimed by Baloch Liberation Army's Majeed Brigade. Its spokesperson Jeeyand Baloch, claiming responsibility, also released the pictures of four attackers, identifying them as Hammal Fateh Baloch alias Habib, Asad Baloch alias Mehrab, Munseeb Baloch alias Kareem and Kochkol Baloch alias Commando.

Meanwhile, the update by Inter-Services Public Relations at 1602 hours on Sunday said that "all three terrorists had been killed." So, there is one BLA terrorist who remains unaccounted for.

The four (or three) attackers reached the hotel unhindered. There's no suggestion that they got checked at any point while approaching the hotel. Some reports indicate they were wearing Frontier Corps uniforms. If that is correct, it's not surprising that they managed to approach the hotel rather easily. Checkpoints have no way of determining genuine security personnel from attackers impersonating as soldiers -- unless, there were a protocol to check special ID cards. Except at entry points of sensitive areas/buildings, that is not done.

However, the pictures of dead terrorists circulated by Inter-Services Public Relations show them wearing shalwar-qameez. That is clearly at odds with reports that they were wearing FC uniform.

The first resistance came their way when they entered the hotel. The guard who challenged them was shot dead. Later, the attackers also killed two more guards. The picture released by Majeed Brigade social media wing shows four men with AK-47 rifles; at least two AKs are also fitted with 40mm under-barrel grenade launchers, most likely GP-25. Since Chinese Type-56 variant of AK-47 cannot be fitted with a UBGL, the rifles are not the Chinese variant.

Reports about guests in the hotel are contradictory. Initial query with ISPR apropos of foreigners elicited the response that they had been evacuated. Later reports suggested that there were no foreigners in the hotel and the local staff present had been evacuated. A tweet from the Chinese embassy in Islamabad, while condemning the terrorists attack and appreciating the "heroic action of Pakistani army and law enforcement agencies" remained quiet about the presence or absence of any Chinese nationals in the hotel at the time of the attack.

The operation was conducted by elements from Naval SSG, and army, FC and police quick reaction forces. In all, five people were killed and six injured. The hotel, we are told, has been badly damaged, especially its fourth floor. The attackers had booby-trapped entrances to the fourth floor and also fired rockets, most likely the 40mm UBGLs. Whether they possessed hand grenades is not mentioned but it is unlikely that they would not be carrying some. That they had booby-trapped the fourth floor shows they had time and good knowledge of explosives and field engineering.

We are told the security forces made special entry points to get to the fourth floor, quite obviously after detecting that the entry points were rigged. That they couldn't defuse the IEDs is most likely because the attackers were covering entry points with fire. It seems that the attackers managed to remain holed in for nearly 24 hours after entering the hotel.

This is what we know. But, as should be clear, there's much that we don't know even about that which we presumably know or, to put it more accurately, have been told about. Told about is important here. There were no reporters on the ground when the operation was being conducted and for at least two more days all roads leading to Batil Hill where the hotel is situated were blocked and no civilian was allowed in or out.

This would not be a major problem per se, if it were confined to the operation phase where it is important to not allow real-time information to be broadcast. But information relay has become a problem for sometime now because of two developments: one, the ISPR has, for all practical purposes, appropriated all official channels of information and, two, it then chooses to give selective information and discourages, increasingly, critical questions.

For instance, there's no information on how the attackers managed to get to the hotel. Gwadar is a sensitive location not just because of the presence of foreigners, but also because of subversive and terrorist activity in the area. Within a span of a month, this is the third high-profile terrorist attack in Balochistan after the April 12 attack in Hazarganji and April 19 attack on a bus in Ormara. This is counting out attacks in Balochistan in March this year.

ISPR press release does not tell us what kind of security perimeter there was or is. In technical terms, the hotel, given the presence of foreigners, is a vulnerable area (VA). Attacks on hotels have several precedents within Pakistan and across the world. They create a spectacle, just what the attackers are looking for. Hotels, for all the basic security and screening of luggage, remain soft targets.

Sources say the road leading to the hammerhead where the hotel is situated is lightly monitored with at most two checkpoints. Even so, unless the attackers were wearing FC uniform, approaching the hotel from the north, coming south, could not have been smooth -- unless, they hid their weapons and ammo while approaching the target.

The hypothesis that they might have approached the hotel in a boat seems fetched, given Coast Guard monitoring and Naval patrols.

There are a number of questions and they remain unanswered. That is primarily the problem here. Information and access monopoly by one organisation means events can't be investigated, reported and analysed properly. For instance, the information that a Taliban posse attacked security personnel busy erecting the fence is bare bones. It tells us an attack happened, X number of personnel were martyred and Y number (generally higher) of terrorists were killed.

There is no information on how the attackers could approach the target, what are the security protocols for those working on the fence and those guarding them. What is the estimated level of threat to personnel involved in erecting the fence. If it's high, how do we monitor approaches to where the work is being done; do we utilise drones for real-time reconnaissance of the area where some activity is taking place... et cetera.

The point is that the information that's coming to the media is basic. But while it is necessary, it is far from sufficient.

There is a reason for this. Details answer questions but also generate more questions. To put a variation on what Michael Walzer wrote about social criticism, question is one of the elementary forms of self-assertion and the response to [the] question is one of the elementary forms of mutual recognition. That we can have a discussion and analyze; that people can question and seek information and those responsible for answering and providing information are supposed to do that because that is how things work -- or, should work.

Plus, we should have more than one source of information because monopolies tend to, yes, monopolise and that phenomenon has been found to be undesirable.

Unfortunately, information monopoly is a byproduct of monopolising the very idea of national security -- i.e., deciding what is in the interest of national security and what's not. Once again, there's no debate on what constitutes national interest because we are told that such debates create spaces where '5th-generation' war is fought and peoples' minds are subverted.

In other words, if we were to start asking too many questions, it would lead to loosening of the ranks and given the 5th generation war, we must keep our ranks tight and closed.

This is not the time to criticise.

The result: platitudes, trite, uncritical reports.

Consequence: we have begun to believe in our own poppycock.
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Publication:Friday Times of Pakistan (Lahore, Pakistan)
Date:May 11, 2019
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