The terrorists who launched a commando assault on one of Kabul’s leading hotels received help from three insiders, including a police officer, according to the man who planned the attack.
Eight suicide bombers armed with rocket-propelled grenades, heavy machineguns, assault rifles, grenade launchers and suicide vests stormed the InterContinental Hotel on the night of June 28, triggering a battle that lasted more than seven hours and left 20 dead.
The attack highlighted the inability of Kabul’s security forces to thwart attacks on high-profile targets in the Afghan capital as Nato begins to hand over control of parts of the country to the Afghan government.
Closed-circuit TV footage taken from the InterContinental on the night of the attack showed the commander of the hotel’s police force asleep as the first shots were fired. After he awoke to the sound of gunfire, he could be seen fleeing the hotel with his men.
Last Sunday, militants assassinated an Afghan politician and a close aide of President Hamid Karzai’s. The attack underlined the threat insurgents pose to security in the capital. It also hinted at the role Pakistan plays in stoking insecurity in Afghanistan.
Mobile phone intercepts made during the initial stages of the InterContinental attack show the attackers were communicating directly with their commander, Badruddin Haqqani, who is based in Pakistan, where the attack was planned.
Badruddin is the deputy leader of the Haqqani network, which is considered the most sophisticated insurgent force in Afghanistan. The Haqqanis maintain close ties with Al-Qaeda and are often accused of receiving support from the Pakistani military and intelligence services.
“It’s like a PlayStation game,” said an Afghan intelligence official. “Pakistan always holds one of the controllers so they can play their games whenever they want.”
Police investigating the attack are baffled by how the InterContinental attackers were able to break into the well-guarded hotel with such a large arsenal. One insurgent was caught on camera carrying 16 RPG warheads in a quiver on his back. “How they got into the hotel with this much ammunition is still a mystery,” said an Afghan security official.
The deputy head of the Haqqani network’s Kabul cell, which is responsible for planning and co-ordinating attacks in the Afghan capital, told The Sunday Times that the attackers were aided by a police officer, an interpreter and the bodyguard of a senior government official who was staying at the hotel.
The policeman, whose job was to guard the hotel grounds, was bribed by the Haqqanis to lead the attackers into the hotel kitchen, according to the deputy, who used the name Habibullah Rahman.
At about 10.30pm, the policeman cut a hole in the perimeter wire to allow the insurgents inside the grounds. Meanwhile, the bodyguard of a senior Afghan official chatted with a group of hotel security staff. His job was to alert the attackers via text message if they were spotted, Rahman said.
Once inside the kitchen, the attackers were met by the interpreter, who worked for a group of foreign businessmen staying at the hotel, according to Rahman. His job was to guide the suicide squad to the rooms where foreigners slept.
“We told the attackers to kill foreigners. That was their main priority,” said Rahman. “They were also supposed to kill government officials at the conference.”
But video footage from the hotel, which security officials reviewed after the assault, shows the attackers in a state of confusion. At one stage, the gunmen descend a flight of stairs leading to the basement, apparently lost.
Despite months of planning, the attack was launched on the wrong day — a security conference of high-ranking Afghan officials was scheduled for the following day.
“We’re not sure what happened,” said Rahman. “We were angry that we made this mistake. We wanted to cause maximum embarrassment for the government by showing them that even their security conferences were not safe from attack.”
During the initial stages of the assault, the attackers were in direct contact with Badruddin Haqqani. Mobile phone intercepts made by Afghanistan’s intelligence agency recorded Badruddin speaking to the attackers from a call centre in the Pakistani city of Miran Shah.
“He was urging on the attackers, telling them that this was the first stage of their life in paradise,” said an Afghan security official.
Rahman said he had met Badruddin on numerous occasions in North Waziristan. “Badruddin surrounds himself with Pakistani and Arab advisers and often travels to Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, in a convoy of brand new Land Cruisers,” Rahman said.
“If the Pakistanis weren’t supporting him, then how is it possible he can travel so freely?” he asked. “The explosives we use are military grade. We couldn’t get them without Pakistan’s help.”
No arrests have been made in connection with the assault on the hotel, which lasted until New Zealand special forces soldiers and Nato attack helicopters joined the fight.
In recent weeks Afghanistan’s intelligence agency has arrested 11 men belonging to three groups who planned to assassinate Bismillah Mohammadi, the minister of the interior, according to officials.
“Our men are tired,” said a senior intelligence official. “They are at full capacity and the insurgents just keep coming and coming even when we are successful.”