Who killed Saleem Shahzad?

A respected Pakistani journalist was murdered last week for what he exposed - but who did it, and why?

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A protester demands the truth
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Ghaffar Hussain
On 2 June 2011 16:39

On the 31st of May 2011, Pakistani investigative journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad, was found dead with his body being recovered from a canal and showing signs of torture.  He had gone missing two days earlier en route to a TV studio for an interview in Islamabad. But why was he targeted? What had he done? And crucially who could have killed him?

In order to answer the above questions we must cast our minds back to May 22, 2011. On this day, militants in Pakistan launched an audacious and highly successful attack on a Pakistani army naval base in Karachi (PNS Mehran). In the raid, 10 security officials were killed, 16 were injured and over 70 million pounds worth of military equipment was destroyed.

The raid lasted 15 hours and, according to unofficial reports, there were only ten militants involved with four being killed and six getting away through a cordon of thousands of armed forces. The Pakistani Taliban immediately took responsibility and claimed that it was a revenge attack for the killing of Osama bin Laden.

But something seemed slightly odd about this attack. Surely the military was already on a high state of alert following the raid in Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden. Surely it can’t be that easy to penetrate a key military installation in Pakistan. How did just a few militants cause so much damage and then escape?

These were questions that many commentators and journalists began to ask, including Shahzad. But Shahzad was no ordinary Pakistani journalist. Here was a man who had covered global security issues for most of his journalistic career, had been kidnapped and held hostage by the Taliban for a few days, interviewed senior al-Qaeda officials like Illyas Kasmiri and written many pieces on the Taliban and militancy in South Asia.

He had also just completed a book called ‘Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11’, which claimed to introduce a new generation of al-Qaeda leaders to the world and tell a version of the ‘war on terror’ which had never been told. Though this book was released on the May 20 to rave reviews, it was this article that Shahzad wrote for the Asia Times that really rocked the boat.

In the piece, Shahzad asserts that the attack on the naval base in Karachi was not actually linked to the death of bin Laden, rather it was linked to the failure of talks between the navy and al-Qaeda over the release of naval officials arrested on suspicion of al-Qaeda links.

He goes on to say that several weeks ago, naval intelligence traced an al-Qaeda cell operating in several navy bases in Karachi. Some members of this cell were arrested and were detained for interrogation. At this stage the navy received direct threats from militants who demanded that the detainees be released immediately. The detainees were subsequently moved to a safer location but the threats still persisted, suggesting the militants feared interrogation would lead to the arrest of more al-Qaeda loyalists in the navy.

Finally, the militants made it clear that if the detainees were not released immediately then naval installations would be attacked. The negotiations with the militants carried on for a while and then eventually broke down since naval intelligence officers insisted on interrogating the detainees.

He concludes his piece by saying that the attack on the naval base itself must have relied on inside information such as maps detailing entry and exit routes, the location of hangers and likely reactions of the security forces.

Essentially, it was an inside job to a large extent. Al-Qaeda sympathisers and supporters, in the view of Shahzad, have infiltrated the military at almost every level. In fact, even previous attacks on a military installation in Rawalpindi in 2009 and attempts to assassinate General Musharaf before that point to inside co-operation. This is a fact that the military establishment is fully aware of but doesn’t want to share with the outside world.

So who killed Shahzad and why? To answer these questions one must delve into the murky underworld of the Pakistani military and its relationships with militants groups in the region. One must be prepared to face certain very uncomfortable realities about Pakistan, and, more importantly, be prepared to contemplate some very difficult questions about the future of the region.  

Ghaffar Hussain is head of the outreach and training unit at Britain's first counter extremism think-tank, the Quilliam Foundation

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