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Security Gaps Found at Pakistani Campus Hit by Attack

  • Ayesha Tanzeem

A deadly attack at a Pakistan university last week that killed 21 people was preceded by serious security lapses from an administration that ignored concerns raised by its own staff and local police, according to sources both in and outside the university.

Seven buildings around the Bacha Khan University campus have security posts on their roofs, but most were not staffed during the January 20 morning attack.

One security official on the campus, in this northwestern city, said guards sometimes leave their rooftop posts and move downstairs during cold weather.

However, a fact-finding committee formed by the in Khyber Pakhtunkwa provincial government learned that some guards were not on duty during the attack, according to an official privy to the committee's investigation.

FILE - Security guards stand alert around schools and colleges following an attack on Bacha Khan University, in Peshawar, Pakistan, Jan. 21, 2016.

FILE - Security guards stand alert around schools and colleges following an attack on Bacha Khan University, in Peshawar, Pakistan, Jan. 21, 2016.

The vice chancellor of the university, Fazal Rahim Marwat, denied that any security guards were missing and said most of them were at work in a different campus location when the attack began.

The vice chancellor also said the conservative local culture in Charsadda made rooftop security assignments difficult to fill.

"If a guard stands [on the rooftop], the neighbors complain that their privacy is violated," Marwat said.

‘Serious negligence’

An unprotected spot at the rear of the campus, considered vulnerable to intruders, was where militants entered after cutting barbed wire and scaling a wall. The guard assigned to the nearest post had not yet arrived at work; he was shot and wounded by the attackers in the university's parking lot.

The university's director of crisis management, Ikram Ullah, said that lapse amounted to "serious negligence ... on the university's part."

"Once they're inside the hostel [student housing] and they've caught you unprepared, then what can you do? Nothing," he said.

While no one knew of a direct threat to Bacha Khan University, several employees spoke about requests to beef up security.

Provost Farhad Ali said he had asked twice in early January for heightened security to protect students' living quarters, "but I did not receive any answer."

"The Crisis Management Cell made recommendations which are on the record. The university has still not carried out the recommendations," said Arsala Khan, a former administrative officer and a member of the cell.

FILE - Pakistani civil society activists condemn the attack on Bacha Khan University, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Jan. 21, 2016.

FILE - Pakistani civil society activists condemn the attack on Bacha Khan University, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Jan. 21, 2016.

The recommendations, made last March, included making sure the weapons carried by guards were functional. Several employees, who did not want to be named for fear of losing their jobs, expressed concerns about the quality of weapons and the number of bullets each guard carried.

Security recommendations

Other recommendations included having around-the-clock monitoring of cameras and hiring female security guards to search female students or visitors. Until the attack, cameras installed on campus were monitored only during business hours.

However, at the time the campus was stormed by gunmen — just after 9 a.m. January 20 — the cameras were on and being monitored, and someone did push the alarm button.

A female guard has yet to be hired as part of the university's security contingent.

Former security chief Muhammad Khushhal Khan, who served in this post until a few weeks before the attack, also wrote several letters to the administration expressing his concerns and requesting additional resources. He did not have much success.

In one letter to local police sent in late December 2015, he requested additional manpower in and around the university, calling the areas surrounding the campus "unsafe" and acknowledging that their own guards were "not well trained" to deal with a serious attack.

Several security officials questioned whether it was possible to find a well-trained person to work for just $3 a day, the approximate daily wage for most university security guards.

In addition to concerns expressed by university staff, local police said they advised the university to tighten security on multiple occasions. They said they sent at least three written notices over the past 15 months, chiding the university for not complying with its security obligations.

The university administration blamed a lack of resources for these failures, but some employees wonder if a more serious approach toward security could have saved lives.

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