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One death, three theories

Nothing is simple in Pak’s jihadi jungle. The country is home to dozens of Islamic terrorist groups, many who work at cross purposes, writes Pramit P Chaudhuri.

india Updated: Jan 03, 2008 05:00 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Hindustan Times

Taliban chieftain Baitullah Mehsud acting at the behest of al-Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al Zawahiri. That is Islamabad’s tale when it comes to responsibility for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. However, the cast of characters surrounding her death includes two suspected killers and two suspected masterminds. The first two are Mehsud and the shadowy terrorist group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. The latter two are al-Qaeda and hardliners in the Pakistani military. To complicate matters, al-Qaeda could have had either Mehsud or Jhangvi carry out its orders. The military hardliners would have worked through only Jhangvi, never with Mehsud. That leaves a three-way mix and match.

The first theory is al-Qaeda masterminding, Mehsud serving as hitman. This is being pushed the hardest by Pakistan’s Interior Ministry. Mehsud was reported to have said his Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan coalition would kill her if she returned home. He was blamed for the first suicide bomb attack against her in Karachi. Finally, Islamabad claims it has a tape of Mehsud chatting with a cleric, praising his men’s involvement in Bhutto’s death. The case for an al-Qaeda role is stronger. Al-Qaeda’s Egyptian spokesman Mustafa Abu al Yazid rang up an Italian news agency to claim credit. He said Zawahiri had issued the death warrant against Bhutto. The terror network has never hidden its dislike of Bhutto for being a women leader of an Islamic nation and being perceived as pro-Western. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) intercepts of al-Qaeda recruiters in the US have them refer to her as “khanazir Bhutto” — Bhutto, the pig.

Most counter-terrorism experts have no doubts al-Qaeda would have wanted Bhutto dead. She had prefaced her return to Pakistan by promising to give the US more room to act against jihadi elements in Pakistan. Islamic terror expert Daveed Gartenstein-Ross says, “My sources in the US intelligence believe al-Qaeda as the perpetrator is a good assumption.” Rohan Gunaratne, author of Inside Al-Qaeda, has no doubts the terror network is behind the killing. Mehsud’s defence depends a lot on his own word. He had earlier told journalists he had not promised to kill Bhutto. Mehsud has since issued a statement that the Pashtun tribal code does not allow him to murder a female. While he had no love for Bhutto, Mehsud’s record before her death was one of attacks aimed at Pervez Musharraf and his allies. “It’s Mehsud’s word against Islamabad’s,” says former Pakistan analyst for R&AW, B. Raman.

Al-Qaeda’s role seems iron cast. But some note that the Bhutto murder differs form the terror group’s traditional modus operandi. Al-Qaeda rarely claims credit so quickly and always uses a website rather than a telephone. Raman has pointed out that while al-Qaeda uses local intermediaries when it carries out attacks in Pakistan, it never mentions the intermediary group by name. Also, the network never specifies the ethnicity of Muslims, presumably because ideologically it believes Islamic identity overrides all else. The supposed al-Qaeda statement violated both norms by saying the assassin was Punjabi and a Jhangvi member. “Blaming Baitullah is awfully convenient. This was the guy whose troops kidnapped 200-plus Pakistani soldiers,” says Teresita Schaffer of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. “The army obviously has some scores to settle. He might have done it. On the other hand, he might not.”

Theory Two accepts al-Qaeda hatched the plot, but has Jhangvi carry it out on the ground. Al-Qaeda has many instruments at its disposal in Pakistan. Al Yazid’s phone call makes no mention of Mehsud, but does refer to Jhangvi. Raman says al-Qaeda uses its Pakistani jihadi allies for operations in the subcontinent and Jhangvi is an increasing favourite. “Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is becoming the Trojan horse of al-Qaeda in Pakistan,” he says. “It has both the capability and ruthlessness for such a killing.”

Jhangvi is violently anti-Shia and anti-Iranian. Masood Azhar, head of the Jaish-e-Mohammad, left Jhangvi because he found its anti-Shiaism unsettling. Jhangvi is known globally only for the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Raman says the group is also a fervent supporter of A.Q. Khan, revering him up as father of the ‘Islamic bomb’. Jhangvi is a group that saw Bhutto, whose mother is an Iranian Shia, as a closet heretic. “They were displeased at her promise to let the International Atomic Energy Agency have access to A.Q. Khan,” says Raman.

Jonathan Winer of Counterterrorism Blog notes that Jhangvi — which numbers as few as 100 — specialises in high-profile assassinations. “They have murdered priests, diplomats, religious leaders and people while they are actually engaged in worship,” he recently wrote. They claimed responsibility for an attempt on the Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, in 1999. Also, before July 2007, Jhangvi was the only Pakistani terrorist group with a confirmed record of attacks in the Islamabad-Rawalpindi area. But Jhangvi borders on contract killing, requiring only that the client and the target fulfil certain ideological parameters. Some analysts have not ruled out a mastermind closer to home: Pakistan’s generals.

Which leads to the third theory in which military hardliners are the masterminds, Jhangvi the killers. Jhangvi has a strong historical link with the Pakistan military with a particular affiliation with Zia-ul-Haq. Zia set up Sipah-e- Sahaba Pakistan, the political wing of Jhangvi, to cow Pakistan’s Shia population during the height of the Khomeini revolution in Iran. The Pakistan military still have a soft spot for Jhangvi despite their supposed proscription. Musharraf cleared Sipah-e-Sahaba leaders of criminal charges so they could contest the 2002 elections.

Zia loyalists in the Pakistan military and the Punjabi establishment were the political group most opposed to Bhutto’s return. And Jhangvi would have been their first choice for doing the dirty on Bhutto. Musharraf’s decision to allow Bhutto to return was opposed not only by army hardliners but also by his own party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Qaid-e-Azam). One of the latter’s leaders, Shujaat Hussain, nurses a particular grudge against the Bhuttos — he reportedly blames Al Zulfikar, a short-lived terrorist outfit led by Bhutto’s late brother, for his father’s death.

Bhutto and her Pakistan People’s Party had consistently blamed Ijaz Shah of the Intelligence Bureau for the threats she received. Shah was in charge of her security. But he also used to be the military’s minder of Osama bin Laden’s in the 1990s and sheltered the killer of Daniel Pearl for a week in 2002. “Shah is a Zia loyalist,” says Raman. Under this scenario, the attacks on Bhutto were really about a Pakistani clique trying to ensure she didn’t come with spitting distance of the prime ministership.

Nothing is simple in Pakistan’s jihadi jungle. The country is home to dozens of Islamic terrorist groups, many who work at cross purposes. For example, it is unsurprising that Mehsud should be fighting the Pakistan military regime even while other fellow Taliban leaders may be fighting on the military’s behalf in Afghanistan. It is perfectly feasible al-Qaeda issued Bhutto’s death warrant, Jhangvi accepted the contract and then used its old links in the military, who had their own reasons to want Bhutto dead, to put the assassination together. These officers could have ensured the security cordon around her was paper thin — Shah was the perfect man for the job.

The theory that looks most questionable is the one that includes Mehsud. Militant leaders are not shy about successful attacks — that’s how they gain status and followers. What is accepted by all is the terror groups, and the system that allows them to multiply, are part and parcel of a culture of blood of which Bhutto is merely the latest victim.