Bombing at Islamabad Marriott latest in string of complex terror attacks


The carnage at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad.

The bombing yesterday at the Marriott hotel in Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad is shaping up to be one of the country’s most deadly attacks. The complex attack is the latest in a series of al Qaeda attacks that have occurred in the Middle East and South Asia over the last five years.

More than 70 people have been reported killed and 257 have been reported wounded so far in what the Pakistani press has dubbed “Pakistan’s 9/11.” The death toll is expected to rise as more people are believed to have been trapped in the hotel. Dozens of Westerners have been wounded in the attack, and there are unconfirmed reports one or more Westerners have been killed.

The massive blast left a crater 25 foot deep by 20 feet wide. The blast detonated a natural gas line in the hotel, which then set several floors of the hotel ablaze. Several floors of the hotel are still on fire. The hotel is essentially destroyed, there are fears the structure will collapse due to fire and blast damage. Buildings blocks away were heavily damaged.


The blast crater in front of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad. Photo from CBS News.

The attack was well planned and executed. The strike occurred in a so-called secure zone in Islamabad. Two vehicles were involved in the attack, according to Geo TV. A small vehicle breached the outer security barrier. A large dump truck packed with more than one ton of explosives then moved through the breach and detonated at the front of the hotel.

The Taliban may have been gunning for a high-value target. It was believed President Asif Ali Zardari would be visiting the hotel, but he was reportedly nearby when the blast occurred. Reports indicate teams from the US Central Intelligence Agency as well as US Marines were in the hotel at the time of the attack. Western diplomats, tourists, and businessmen favor the five-star hotel. The attack began in the evening after Muslims broke fast for Ramadan, ensuring the restaurants were filled.

The Marriott attack is one of the largest suicide strikes inside Pakistan over the past year, and the second large-scale bombing in over a month. More than 70 Pakistanis were killed and more than 100 were wounded after two suicide bombers detonated their vests nearly simultaneously outside the gates of the Wah military installation on Aug. 21. The Wah facility hosts elements of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.

The largest attack in Pakistani history occurred in Karachi on Oct. 18, 2007. Suicide bombers killed more than 130 Pakistanis and wounded more than 500 at a rally held to celebrate the return of Benazir Bhutto, the leader of the Pakistani People’s Party. A gunman and suicide bomber killed Benazir Bhutto as she campaigned in the military garrison city of Rawalpindi just two months later.

A potent enemy

The attack on the Islamabad Marriott is the latest in series of complex strikes against hardened locations or military formations in the Middle East and South Asia over the last five years by al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their allies. These attacks require logistical and financial support, training, coordination, intelligence gathering, and access to weapons and explosives.

Al Qaeda and allied movements have conducted multiple complex attacks in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The first strike occurred in Saudi Arabia, before al Qaeda in Iraq even began its insurgency and terror campaign.

Al Qaeda has reformed Brigade 055, the infamous military arm of the terror group made up of Arab recruits, US military and intelligence sources told The Long War Journal in July. The unit is thought to be commanded by Shaikh Khalid Habib al Shami.

Brigade 055 fought alongside the Taliban against the Northern Alliance and was decimated during the US invasion of Afghanistan. Several other Arab brigades have been formed, some consisting of former members of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guards, an intelligence official told The Long War Journal. These units have helped to increase the Taliban’s sophistication in military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

A look at some of the more high-profile complex attacks throughout the Middle East and South Asia over the past five years:

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

May 12, 2003

Four vehicles, three carrying explosives and two carrying the assault teams breached the gates of three compounds housing Westerners in the capital city. The assault teams breached the gates and the car bombs were driven into the compounds. Thirty-four people, including eight Americans, were killed and more than 160 were wounded.

The US Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Dec. 6, 2004

Al Qaeda hits the front gate of the US Consulate in Jeddah. The gate is breached and an assault force stormed the compound. The terrorist took hostages. Six local staff members, a security guard, and three Saudi soldiers were killed.

Abu Ghraib Military Prison, Iraq

April 2, 2005

Al Qaeda in Iraq used car bombs in an attempt to breach the wall of a military prison in Abu Ghraib just west of Baghdad. The bombers were followed up by an infantry assault. US Marines repelled the assault, inflicting heavy casualties on the attackers.

Camp Gannon, Husaybah, Iraq

April 13, 2005

Al Qaeda in Iraq attempted to breach the walls of a US military outpost on the Syrian border. Three trucks packed with explosives attempted to punch a hole in the outer wall. Al Qaeda then launched an infantry assault. US Marines repelled the attack, inflicting heavy casualties on al Qaeda forces.

Baghdad, Iraq

June 24, 2005

More than 100 al Qaeda fighters launched an attack on an Iraqi police station in Baghdad. Like the attacks in Abu Ghraib and Husaybah, the attackers used suicide car and truck bombs and followed up with an infantry assault. The Iraqi Police held their ground and defeated the attack.

The Palestine Hotel, Baghdad, Iraq

Oct. 25, 2005

Al Qaeda launched several car and truck bombs in an attempt to breach the wall of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad. One truck penetrated the perimeter but the driver detonated after it stalled on the road.

Amman, Jordan

Nov. 10, 2005

Three suicide bombing teams penetrated security and struck nearly simultaneously at the Grand Hyatt, the Radisson SAS and the Days Inn in Amman. The attacks occurred during weddings and other events. Fifty-six civilians were killed and 97 were wounded.

Abqaiq Oil Refinery Facility, Saudi Arabia

Feb. 25, 2006

Al Qaeda operatives in two cars made to look like ARAMCO vehicles got past the first ring of security but were destroyed after being detected and attacked by facility security guards.

Masila oil field, Hadhramout province, Yemen

Sept. 15, 2006

Two teams of car bombers dressed in military-styled uniforms attempted to destroy two oil installations at the Masila oil field. Security guards repelled the attacks; one came close to destroying a natural gas line and control room.

Tarmiyah, Iraq

Feb. 20, 2007

Three al Qaeda suicide car and truck bombs attempt to breach the perimeter of a combat outpost in Tarmiyah. The bombs were followed up by a conventional assault on the compound. The ground assault was repelled but one of the car bombs exploded near the inner wall. This caused a fuel explosion and the collapse of a tower, killing two US soldiers.

South Waziristan, Pakistan

Aug. 31, 2007

Taliban fighters under the command of Baitullah Mehsud captured a Pakistani regular Army company without firing a shot. The Taliban fighters surrounded the convoy as it moved through the tribal agency, and the Army commander surrendered. The soldiers were exchanged for Taliban prisoners.

South Waziristan, Pakistan

January 2008

A large Taliban force estimated at 400 fighters overran a fort manned by the Frontier Corps in the town of Sararogha. The fort was taken after the Taliban breached an outer wall with a truck bomb. Sixteen Frontier Corps paramilitaries were killed and 24 were captured. A large force of Taliban fighters took control of the Saklatoi Fort the next day without firing a shot and conducted several complex attacks on the Lahda Fort but failed to take it.

Spera district, Khost province, Afghanistan

July 1, 2008

A large Taliban, al Qaeda, and Haqqani Network force launched a complex military attack against a combat outpost in eastern Afghanistan. The Taliban coordinated indirect fire to maneuver its infantry. US and Afghan forces defeated the attack, killing 33 Taliban fighters.

Wanat, Nuristan, Afghanistan

July 13, 2008

A joint Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and al Qaeda force launched a complex military attack against a newly built combat outpost in eastern Afghanistan. The enemy force came close to overrunning the outpost. Nine US soldiers were killed in the assault.

US Embassy, Sana’a, Yemen

Sept. 17, 2008

The Yemeni Islamic Brigades, an al Qaeda affiliate, launched a complex attack against the US Embassy in Sana’a. A car bomb detonated outside the main gate, and then assault teams opened fire on the Yemeni security forces outside the gates. Six terrorists, six Yemeni security guards, and four civilians were killed in the fighting.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • don juice says:

    i wonder how the pakistani people gonna respond to this

  • Raj Kumar says:

    The Pakistani People through their government will respond exactly like they have responded to every other attack by the Paki Taliban and that is too sign more peace deals with the Pakistani Taliban.
    I personally think that this was a warning to the President & Prime Minister of Pakistan to lay off the Taliban. Some accounts seem to indicate that the primary target was the PM secretariat and that the hotel was the secondary target when they couldn’t get to the Primary.
    Pakistan is not Iraq, their will be no uprising here. The Iraqi’s for most part are foremost xenophobhic and nationalist first and islamic second. After all they were ruled by what passes for a ‘secular’ government in their part of the world for most of their histroy.
    Pakistan is entirely different story, Pakisatni’s have spent the past 60 years chasing after Islam and are now paying the price for it.

  • Rhyno327/lrsd says:

    They will most likely blame it on thier gov’s ties to the US. This is a no-win situation for the US. Do nothing, and the attacks in A-stan increase, possibly a strike against the West hatched in thier P-stani “safe havens”. Now, if the US acts unilaterally, and uses its airpower to destroy the camps, compounds, madrosses, and use Spec. Ops to raid inside the tribal areas, we will STILL catch hell. I would rather be pro-active than sit and let these places operate with impunity. P-stan does not even govern these areas, the T-BAN/AQ do. If it were a court room, the P-stani’s case would be weak…if not laughable. How much territory did they cede to these cretins? So, to me, I see it as a free fire zone. Knocking those camps off would probably bring a measure of stability to A-stan. We would be hitting them where they live, and ya can’t be in 2 places at one time.

  • Thanos says:

    great compilation Bill, I’ll bookmark this one.

  • Caleb says:

    Look, here’s the deal. I am the fartherest thing from an expert in military strategy, or diplomatic strategy either, but enough is enough. It is time for the American military to administer a truly serious strike, or series of strikes on AlQ and the Taliban inside Pakistan. It is time for the American government to show the Pakistani government that we will not tolerate this kind of terrorism against us and our interests, no matter on whose territory it occurs. It is time for the Pakistani government to wake up from their appeasement strategy with the terrorists. It is time for the American government to demonstrate that even during an election campaign we can, and will, take the steps necessary to protect our national interests. It is time that a whole series of co-ordinated strikes on the terrorist bases and safe houses to occur. If that occurs solely with air strikes, or with Spec. Ops. actions mixed in, is not important to me, only that it is time to make it happen. But at my age, there is no chance that I will have to be in harms way either, so I hesitate to opine on this subject. I just think that the Islamic Jihad against America and Israel will continue to escalate until we make them pay a price that is truly significant, and that means that we will see more of our citizens killed and maimed then if we bite the bullet and do what we must do now, and may God bless whatever actions we take and the warriors involved therein.
    Semper fi

  • Cajun says:

    Just watching the Pakistan government in action under normal conditions is example of confusion. A decapitation strike may shatter the chain of control on nuclear weapons. In confusion there is opportunity. Are the bad guys setting the conditions to acquire a Pak nuclear device? Why try to build one when the parts are in your neighborhood.

  • Buff52 says:

    The Marriott Hotel chain needs to move the hotel to a more appropriate site with sufficient “set back” and/or distance from the street. Trucks should be banned from the site.

  • Private Finch says:

    Pakistan has allowed the border to be turned into a ‘free fire zone’ and now they are paying the price for foolish apeasement with the T-ban. Now the T-ban have moved into this zone P-stan have given them. Pakistan in now having the worst of both worlds – an out of control T-ban infested border and the US going after combatants given sanctuary in P-stan. Pakistan has spent too much time being focused on India and forgotten the growing Islamic problem.

  • Neo says:

    We’ll have to see if this bombing has any effect on the Pakistani governments offensive in Bajaur. This hits very close to home. One might expect it both stiffens the resolve and underlines the seriousness of the situation for Pakistan’s leadership.

  • Hi Bill,
    I am little dissappointed with this report. Only a day before as per MNA of PPP who was having dinner inside the hotel, a white van brought some marines who carried some heavy steel boxes to 4th and 5ht floor of the hotel.The marines carried the boxes themselves and didnot allow the Xray scanners to scan them.The MNA informed the hotel security who have already blocked the entrance for this ooperation.Now the brother of this MNA who is a journalist checked in to find out more.
    1.Now the dumper truck was not allowed to enter the hotel and the crater was formed outside.
    2.But fire catches ONLY on 4th and 5th floor only due to gas leak as per report.This is very suspicious.
    3,.From the pictures i find that the hotel was burning from 4th floor up.
    to me it looks like an insider operation by some high profile operative who wanted to get hold of those steel boxes.
    One CIA and Danish intelligence operative are still missing and their bodies are not found.To me it looks like some body kidnapped these guys and took away the boxes if they are of high value.
    suddenly there were blogs blaming Indian RAW for the operation
    A very mysterious operation by whoever done it.

  • David M says:

    The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 09/22/2008 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

  • GM Earnest says:

    The Pakistani landscape has changed. One Pak leader said “this is Pakistan’s 9/11.” Thus, the political door is open and the time to strike is now.

  • My2cents says:

    “The massive blast left a crater 25 foot deep by 20 feet wide”
    I am not an expert, but this does not sound right. Shouldn’t the crater be several times wider than it’s depth?

  • My2cents says:

    The article linked on the sidebar gave the correct dimensions of the crater “24 feet deep and 59×63 feet in diameter”. That makes sense.

  • almoral says:

    Captain Johann
    It don’t know which pictures you’re looking at, but the pictures in the article show flames coming out the windows on the 2nd floor.
    The flames DO reach the 5th floor but, given that flames travel up rather than down, it is more likely the fire started near the ground and moved up.

  • mel says:

    The response should be coming soon, look out!


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