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Washington Post: In Pakistan, a master bomb technician fights a new kind of war

This article was originally published in the Washington Post, on 19 July 2014.

In a country awash in bombs, Shafqat Malik races against time.

He has discovered some of the world’s biggest bombs — 8,000-pound bundles of explosives hidden in trucks — and some of the tiniest, slipped into Coke cans. He has defused bombs secreted in computers and television sets and disabled a suicide vest before its wearer could blow himself up.

Malik is one of Pakistan’s top explosives experts and head of the police bomb disposal unit in one of the country’s most conflictive provinces — Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in the country’s northwest near the Afghan border. Malik’s job offers a window into a country suffering not just from Islamic extremism but a broader breakdown in order, with bombs planted by extortionists, people feuding over money and property, and assassins targeting religious minorities.

“Let me assure you, everyone is a target,” Malik, 49, said during a recent interview, moments after one of his staffers brought in two grenades that had been thrown at a police vehicle.

Last year, 4,268 civilians in Pakistan were killed or wounded by explosive devices, according to Action on Armed Violence, a London-based group that monitors violence worldwide. Only Iraq and Syria have logged more casualties from bombings, the group said.

Police Constable Abdul Raheem, age 28, and member of the Bomb Disposal Unit in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province police department displays a timer used in some of the bombs he encounters in his work in Peshawar, Pakistan. (Max Becherer/Max Becherer/Polaris Images For The Washington Post)
The problem has grown so severe that Malik and his 440-member team even examine bodies before funerals to make sure they have not been booby-trapped by terrorists or personal enemies.

Many analysts say the increasingly pervasive culture of bombings can be traced to the 1980s, when Pakistan hosted hundreds of thousands of Islamic fighters battling the Soviet army in Afghanistan. Pakistan worked with the United States and other countries to make sure the guerrillas were trained to use land mines and plastic explosives, said Saad Muhammad, a retired Pakistani army brigadier.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Islamist extremists began shifting their fight toward Pakistan. They were aided by the remnants of al-Qaeda, which had chemists and engineers capable of making bombs, Muhammad said.

“We should have realized when we embarked on the jihad in Afghanistan, that this was a very dangerous game we were playing,” said Muhammad, who served as Pakistan’s military attache in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005. “At the time, nobody gave a thought to the endgame.”

As the violence increased in the mid-2000s, Malik was thrust onto the front lines of a new kind of war.

He had become a highly specialized ammunition and explosives expert during a two-decade career in the Pakistani army, a time of considerable tension between Pakistan and long-standing rival India. In 2006, he retired from the military and went to work as a counterterrorism investigator for the Federal Investigation Agency. It was the start of a tumultuous new chapter for him, involving some of Pakistan’s grisliest tragedies.

In late 2007, Malik was at home in Islamabad when he learned of an assassination attempt in Karachi on former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was returning from self-imposed exile. Bhutto survived, but 130 people were killed in an explosion that was initially reported as a grenade attack.

When Malik arrived on the scene the next day, he stumbled upon a piece of metal.

“I said, that is a mechanical trigger, and that had to be pulled by a suicide bomber,” Malik recalls. He later used his forensics background to help identify the suspected bomber at the hospital.

Malik also helped to investigate the attack in December 2007 that ultimately cost Bhutto her life and the 2008 bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, which killed 53 people.

In the early days, he said, suicide bombers “didn’t know what they were doing” and would just sit on a suitcase packed with explosives and hope it detonated.

But terrorists gradually became more sophisticated, transitioning from wearing bulky vests packed with explosives to sleeker belts and using remote-control triggers that made it harder for suicide bombers to abort their mission, he said.

By 2008, provincial officials were overwhelmed by the bombings, especially in the northwestern part of the country. Four bomb technicians from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were killed when their vehicle struck an improvised explosive device, or IED.

Shortly after that attack, Malik received a call from a senior provincial official.

“He said, ‘Malik, please save us. We are dying,’ ” the bomb expert recalled.

Since taking charge in January 2009, Malik has increased the number of bomb technicians in the Peshawar-based unit from about 35 to 440. He also has sought donations of robots, sniffer dogs and armored vehicles from the United States and governments in Europe.

Over five years, his squad has encountered more than 5,500 devices, Malik said. But bombs are still found in Peshawar just about every day.

Malik describes bombs as a modern-day form of mugging in Peshawar, with extortionists and robbers increasingly using them.

Ajai Sahni, executive director of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management, said the explosives represent a “weaponization of society” in Pakistan, enabled by political leaders who waited too long to crack down on their favored militant groups.

“Either you neutralize everyone doing this kind of thing or you can’t control anyone,” Sahni said.

The victims include civilians such as Jamshed Baghwan, a journalist in Peshawar. He said in an interview that two men on motorcycles threw a white bag filled with 15 pounds of explosives at his garage this month, setting off a blast thatheavily damaged his car. It was the third time this year his residence had been hit with explosives.

“I have no idea why this is happening,” said Baghwan, the Peshawar bureau chief for Pakistan’s Express News Live television station. “I am just a local journalist. I am not someone famous, and I don’t have much money.”

A dangerous living

The provincial bomb technicians earn just $230 a month, including a paltry 50 cents or so a month in hazard pay, and complain that they still lack equipment. But many say they are proud to work for Malik.

“If Mr. Malik didn’t join the bomb disposal unit, there would be no bomb disposal unit at all,” said Wasal Khan, who has defused more than 150 IEDs over the past five years.

Ijaz Khan, Peshawar police chief, said Malik has a reputation for being fearless and thorough.

In January, police responded to an explosion at a mosque that killed 11 people. They initially thought it was caused by a gas leak.

“But Malik walked in and told us, ‘This was caused by a five-kilogram explosion’ ” and suggested there might be more bombs in the mosque, Ijaz Khan said. “We then found two others, and he defused them right in front of me.”

Malik is so confident of his skills that, in 2012, he disabled the suicide vest of a teenager, saving his life, as TV news crews followed his work live. The boy had been blocked from reaching his intended target, and police were preparing to shoot him, fearing he or someone using a remote trigger might detonate the vest.

“He was lying there, begging, ‘Don’t kill me,’ ” Malik recalls. “I said, ‘Don’t worry. . . . This is my scene, and God was very kind to have given me the chance to defuse you.”

Malik has had so many threats on his life that he keeps a file of the letters in his desk drawer.

The most serious attempt against him occurred in 2010, when he was investigating an attack on a police vehicle in Peshawar, he said.

As he surveyed the crime scene, he noticed a young woman in a black burqa moving toward him. As she approached, a small explosion tore off her left shoulder, killing her.

When Malik rushed over to the woman’s body, he noticed she was wearing a vest loaded with explosives. Some had apparently gone off, he said.

Malik bent down and, his hands covered with blood, began dismantling what remained of the device. He tried to avoid looking at the woman’s intact face.

“You are imagining the fate of your life if she had succeeded,” Malik said.


Read more about AOAV’s work on manufactured explosive weapons.

Read more about AOAV’s work on IEDs.