by Owen Bennett-Jones
I was informed of a meeting that had taken place in Lahore where the bomb blasts were planned … a bomb maker was needed for the bombs. Enter Qari Saifullah Akhtar, a wanted terrorist who had tried to overthrow my second government. He had been extradited by the United Arab Emirates and was languishing in the Karachi central jail … The officials in Lahore had turned to Akhtar for help. His liaison with elements in the government was a radical who was asked to make the bombs and he himself asked for a fatwa making it legitimate to oblige. He got one.
Akhtar’s story reveals much about modern Pakistan. Born in 1959, he spent two years of his boyhood learning the Quran by heart and left home at the age of 18, moving to the radical Jamia Binoria madrassah in Karachi. In 1980, he went on jihad, fighting first the Soviets in Afghanistan and later the Indians in Kashmir. In both conflicts he came into contact with Pakistani intelligence agents, who were there trying to find out what was going on and to influence events. Helped by the high attrition rate among jihadis, he rose through the ranks and by the mid-1990s, after an intense power struggle with a rival commander, emerged as the leader of Harkatul Jihadal Islami or HUJI, once described by a liberal Pakistan weekly as ‘the biggest jihadi outfit we know nothing about’.
In 1995, Akhtar committed a crime that in many countries would have earned him a death sentence: he procured a cache of weapons to be used in a coup. Putsches in Pakistan generally take the form of the army chief moving against an elected government. This one was an attempt by disaffected Islamist officers to overthrow not only Bhutto’s government but also the army leadership.
The plot’s leader was Major General Zahirul Islam Abbasi. In 1988, as Pakistan’s military attaché in Delhi, he acquired some sensitive security documents from an Indian contact. When the Indians found out, they beat him up and expelled him. He returned to Pakistan a national hero. Seven years later, disenchanted by the secularist tendencies of both Bhutto and the army leadership, he devised a plot to storm the GHQ and impose sharia. Akhtar’s role was to supply the weapons. He travelled to the town of Dera Adam Khel near Peshawar, a well-known centre for the production and sale of cheap weapons, and bought 15 Kalashnikovs, two rocket launchers and five pistols.
He was caught red-handed moving the weapons to Rawalpindi. No doubt cajoled by his intelligence agency handlers from Afghanistan and Kashmir, Akhtar decided to give evidence against his fellow plotters. At a stroke he was transformed from a typical jihadi into a highly trusted informant; he has been playing on his supposed loyalty to the intelligence services ever since. Many of those accused of major jihadi outrages in Pakistan have at some stage been released from detention; after Akhtar had spent just five months in prison in 1995, the chief justice set him free.
It is commonplace for the Pakistani intelligence agencies to cut deals with jihadis. In Akhtar they struck gold. While most Pakistanis never escape the class into which they are born, radical Islamists enjoy considerable social mobility. He had left his Karachi seminary in 1979 with a dream of fighting jihad; by the mid-1990s he was the leader of the HUJI and had a close relationship with Mullah Omar, the Afghan Taliban leader and de facto head of state. Indeed, he was seen as one of the few people who might have been able to bridge the growing gap between the Taliban and al-Qaida. Not only that, he expanded the HUJI’s operations to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Burma, China and Chechnya.
Everything changed with the collapse of the Taliban regime after 9/11.
According to one account, Akhtar and Mullah Omar shared the same motorbike as they fled for sanctuary with Akhtar’s old intelligence contacts in Pakistan. He told his men to keep a low profile – the US was picking up jihadis and sending them to Guantánamo – and himself headed to the UAE, a hub for Islamists as well as Western businessmen.
By 2004 he had overstretched even the UAE’s relaxed hospitality. He was arrested on charges of plotting the assassination attempt on General Musharraf in December 2003 and handed over to Pakistan.
One might think that this time his luck had run out. But that would be to misapprehend the convoluted logic of what has been described as the ‘deep state’ in Pakistan. Akhtar, and others like him, were seen not as a clear and present threat, but as powerful, not very well educated men who simply needed to be pointed in the right direction. If they could be persuaded to aim their guns not at domestic targets but at the Americans in Afghanistan or at India they could still be useful.
Akhtar would enjoy another rehabilitation because of a growing row between Musharraf and the Supreme Court. In early 2007, the court, seeking a popular issue with which it could undermine Musharraf, started inquiring about the many prisoners being held without charge.
On 5 May 2007, it was told that Akhtar was not in government custody. His relatives insisted he was. Three weeks later, the government quietly released him and told the court, in the words of a National Crisis Management Cell report, that he was ‘engaged in jihadi activities somewhere in Punjab’.
Why had the Pakistani authorities held Akhtar for so long only to release him? In part in the hope of bending him to their will. But also because he knew too much about the true nature of the deep state’s relationship with radical Islamists. His lawyer, Hashmat Habib, told the Supreme Court that intelligence officials had explained to Akhtar that had he not been detained there was a strong possibility he would have ended up being interrogated by the FBI.
The publication of Reconciliation left the authorities little choice but to detain Akhtar yet again, but in June 2008, after three months of half-hearted questioning, he was released without charge. He went straight back to fighting jihad according to his own rules rather than those suggested by his intelligence handlers. Later that year, he was accused by the Pakistani press of being involved in the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad and in 2009 was named as the key contact of five American jihadis who travelled to Pakistan with the idea of attacking a nuclear power plant. But still the ISI kept faith. In August 2010, after he was reportedly injured in a drone attack, he was taken into protective custody, given treatment in Peshawar, moved to Lahore and freed. The man formally responsible for his release, the Punjab home minister, Rana Sanaullah, told reporters in Lahore that Akhtar ‘cannot be termed a terrorist’.
Akhtar’s case is by no means unique. In a conversation with Amir Mir, a Pakistani journalist who has since tried to investigate Bhutto’s murder, Bhutto claimed that Akhtar had instructed one of his HUJI underlings, Abdul Rehman Sindhi, to organise certain aspects of the Karachi attack.[*] Like Akhtar, Sindhi had been held by the authorities for militant activity but was released without explanation. In 2012, the UN named him as an al-Qaida facilitator. We can only assume that Bhutto was given the names of Akhtar and Sindhi by a sympathiser in the deep state; their role in her death has not been established. But it is clear the state wants Akhtar’s secrets to remain secret. Despairing of Pakistan’s decline into lawlessness, the intelligence agencies cling to the hope that Islam will provide some answers. More practically, they also point to their success in controlling some militant groups, including the largest of them, Lashkare Taiba, the ISI’s model of how a militant group should behave – attacking Indian forces in Kashmir, Delhi and Bombay but causing no trouble at home. Like Akhtar, the Lashkare Taiba leader Hafiz Saeed is a man often detained and often released.
Although generally feared as one of the most powerful institutions in the country, the ISI feels itself to be weak: militants have attacked its personnel with impunity. Significant amounts of Pakistani territory are now either controlled or fiercely contested by militant groups in the North-West. The army has tried military solutions but they have cost thousands of soldiers’ lives and met with only limited success. How much easier to have a word with friends from the good old days of the anti-Soviet and Kashmir struggles in an attempt to persuade them to unify their forces and to keep them under control. Even if it won’t work in the long term it does occasionally bring temporary relief – the ceasefires that were briefly established in the Swat Valley are an example.
On 27 December 2007, with ten days to go until parliamentary elections, Benazir Bhutto addressed more than 10,000 supporters in Liaquat Park, Rawalpindi. She told them democracy was returning to Pakistan. ‘Long live Bhutto!’ they roared back. ‘Benazir, Prime Minister!’ The speech over, she moved to an armour-plated Toyota Land Cruiser built to her specifications in the UAE. Its roof had an escape hatch that, much to the annoyance of her security advisers, Bhutto used for waving to her followers. As the Toyota pulled away from Liaquat Park her supporters surrounded it. ‘I should stand up,’ Bhutto said, clambering up as one of her fellow passengers pulled the mechanism that opened the hatch. She stood on the back seat, her head and shoulders sticking out above the Toyota’s roof.
There were so many people by now that the car was almost at a standstill. Two of Bhutto’s guards climbed onto the rear bumper while others went to the front and the sides. But an assassin was waiting and saw his chance. Wearing a dark jacket and sunglasses, a Pashtun called Bilal, who also went by the alias Saeed, first made his way towards the front of the car. Then he moved to the side, where there were fewer people. He took out a black automatic and pointed it at Bhutto’s head. One of the guards clawed at the young man’s arm but was too far away to get a firm grip. Bilal fired three shots in less than a second. If you search for ‘new angle of Bhutto assassination’ on YouTube you can see what happened. As the second shot rang out Bhutto’s headscarf or dupatta moved away from her face. She then fell like a stone, through the escape hatch, into the vehicle. But the gunman wasn’t finished. He looked down at the ground, prepared himself for death, and set off his suicide bomb. Much of the press reported him as clean-shaven. In fact, he had probably never shaved at all. British scientists who later analysed what was left of his body estimated his age at 15 and a half.
Pakistan’s suicide bomb factories, located in the tribal areas, rely on child recruits for a practical reason: they are more impressionable. Recruits for suicide attacks are given immaculate white clothes, copious amounts of food, above average accommodation and hours of gently imparted one on one indoctrination. The other students are forbidden to talk to them and are instructed instead to bow with respect every time a recruit walks by. With such a regime it can take a few months to persuade an 18-year-old young man to mount a suicide attack; but a 15-year-old can be persuaded to do it in six weeks.
Liaquat Park was named after the first prime minister of Pakistan, Liaquat Ali Khan, who was assassinated there in 1951. In what many believe was a cover-up, the police shot his killer on the spot. One of the doctors who tried to revive him at Rawalpindi General Hospital was a certain Dr Khan. Fifty-six years later, Dr Khan’s son Mussadiq was one of the doctors trying to revive Benazir Bhutto at the same hospital. He was equally unsuccessful. On the announcement of her death, the vast majority of Pakistanis assumed that the people who ordered her assassination were senior state officials and that they would never be identified.
There are, broadly speaking, two views about what happened that day. Bhutto’s supporters maintain she was shot and that there were multiple attackers. The Pakistani authorities say the explosion knocked her head against the lever of the escape hatch.Bhutto’s supporters want to establish that there was a sophisticated, officially sponsored conspiracy; the state prefers the idea of a crude but unpreventable attack by Islamic militants.
Certainly, when Bhutto died, there were shots followed by an explosion. The pictures suggest that a bullet hit her and that she fell into the vehicle before the bomb went off. It wasn’t just that her headscarf moved after the second shot. Her movements weren’t consistent with someone ducking a bullet: it looks as if she was already dead, or at least seriously injured, when she fell. The doctors who tried to revive her failed to resolve the issue. They have given various accounts but their evidence is of limited use because they didn’t perform a proper autopsy. There were questions and conspiracy theories about the lack of a post-mortem, but the issue subsided in political terms when her husband, Asif Zardari, was offered one, but said it wouldn’t be necessary.
Under pressure because so many people assumed he had ordered the murder, Musharraf asked Scotland Yard to assist the investigators, though he restricted the terms of reference to the ‘cause and circumstances of Ms Bhutto’s death’, frustrating any hope that the British police would try to identify who was responsible. In 2008, Scotland Yard published an executive summary of its findings which backed the government’s view, failing even to discuss the mobile-phone images that suggested she had been shot. Few believed it. The full report has never been published; there it is explained that a senior radiologist from Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge who was shown the X-rays of Bhutto’s skull concluded that the explosion had forced her head down onto the escape hatch mechanism. In fact, although the precise cause of Bhutto’s death remains one of the most strongly contested issues in the case, it is largely irrelevant.
The important questions are: who was the child-assassin and who persuaded him to do it?
Some of the YouTube films of the Rawalpindi rally (look for ‘Shahenshah Bhutto’) point to another controversy. While Bhutto was speaking at the rally her chief bodyguard, Khalid Shahenshah, can be seen a few feet away running his fingers along his neck while raising his eyes towards her.
In July 2008, after much internet speculation about these decidedly strange movements, Shahenshah was murdered outside his home in Karachi. His conduct and his death have never been explained.
Bhutto was participating in the election campaign only because of a deal she had struck with Musharraf. It was always an awkward arrangement. Bhutto saw Musharraf as the latest incarnation of the military that had hanged her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Musharraf, for his part, saw Bhutto as a child of privilege who went on corruptly to enrich herself. After his coup in 1999, Musharraf had declared that no longer would the country’s richest families and biggest landowners be able to dominate politics. And Bhutto, he declared, would never hold power again.
The general may have led a coup against a democratically elected government but his message resonated throughout Pakistan. The good mood didn’t last, however. As each month passed, his popularity drained away and his ambitions shrank. By 2007, eight years after his coup, he was older, wiser and politically weaker. Like many Pakistanis, he had no doubt that the corruption allegations against Bhutto and Zardari were valid. But in 2007 he also had to accept that Bhutto had a rock solid popular base and that if he wanted to remain in power he needed her support. Swallowing his pride, he agreed to an MI6 suggestion that he attend a secret meeting with Bhutto in Abu Dhabi in July 2007. The encounter kicked off a series of meetings which, as they became more serious and focused, were taken over by the CIA. The basic proposition was simple enough: if Musharraf dropped all the corruption charges against Bhutto and Zardari and allowed her to return from exile to contest elections, she would not oppose his remaining president. To the Americans it looked like a dream ticket: military muscle combined with democratic legitimacy. It could never have worked. ‘I don’t believe in trust,’ Bhutto said at the time. ‘People just have interests that sometimes coincide.’ Nevertheless, the deal was done and she returned to Pakistan, flying from Dubai to Karachi on 18 October 2007. She was greeted by a triumph on an imperial Roman scale. There comes a point when a crowd is so big it’s impossible to count it. Many reckon that more than a million Pakistanis were there to welcome her home.
For eight hours she progressed in a massive, armour-plated truck from Karachi’s International Airport to the mausoleum of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, where she was due to give a speech. She stood on a deck on the top of the truck acknowledging the cheers of the crowds lining the road. The police deployed no fewer than nine thousand men to protect her but even so Zardari wasn’t satisfied. He organised a human shield consisting of more than two thousand volunteers known as the Jaan Nisarane Benazir, those willing to die for Benazir. Many were Zardari’s former jail mates; they surrounded her vehicle and kept pace with the procession.
After several hours standing on the truck, Bhutto’s ankles were swelling and she decided to sit down for a few minutes. She made her way down some steps to a secure cubicle located behind the driver’s seat. It was then the attack began: two bombs went off in rapid succession. The first killed, among others, three policemen and opened up a path through which the second bomber was able to move. The attack left 149 people dead and 402 wounded. But it missed its mark. As rescuers worked by the light of the flames, dragging bodies from the twisted wreckage, Bhutto stepped out of the vehicle without a scratch.
As soon as the smoke had cleared people were asking whether the first bomb had been remote-controlled. The issue was significant because the police had supposedly provided the convoy with two jammers to block any radio signals intended to detonate a bomb. Activists from Bhutto’s party claimed the jammers either hadn’t been provided or had been switched off. Both the Karachi and Rawalpindi attacks were investigated by Joint Investigation Teams (JITs) that brought together various police departments. The JIT report into the Karachi attack concedes that the Turkish-made jammers were not functioning at the time of the attack. According to a Sindh Special Branch memo, they failed because their batteries had been drained over the long course of the procession. It was a moot point. Perhaps anticipating that jammers would be deployed, the bombers had anyway decided against remote detonation: it was a double suicide attack.
Pakistan lacks skilled forensic pathologists but there have been so many suicide attacks now that even the most junior policeman knows that the first thing to look for is the ‘facemask’. For some reason, related to the way the shockwave moves from the bomb-laden waistcoat, the bombers’ faces – though very little of the head behind them – often survive intact. On this occasion, the JIT report states, one facemask was found 26.6 feet away from the point of detonation and another 78 feet away. To whom did they belong?
The Pakistani police rarely know whether their political masters want an investigation to be thorough or not. As a general rule they assume the politicians are hoping for a cover-up and actively investigate only when specifically ordered to do so. That would explain why the JIT Karachi report is such a remarkably poor piece of work: 138 pages long, it contains virtually no useful facts and plenty of contradictions. Page after page of police reporting from the scene establishes only that some vehicles were destroyed and that a lot of body parts were strewn about. Some of these were gathered and sent to the morgue while others (no explanation isgiven as to why) went to a DNA specialist, who concluded that the parts he had were from different people. The finding had no discernible significance. Basic, easily discoverable facts were not gathered. The various police documents give the time gap between the first and second explosions as between 30 and 50 seconds (Inspector General of the CID); under a minute (the Federal Investigation Agency); one minute exactly (an army explosives expert); and between one and two minutes (the bomb disposal unit travelling with the convoy). Some of the documents in the JIT report – presumably those from the intelligence agencies – are unattributed. Others, such as doctors’ handwritten notes on the death of a few, apparently randomly selected victims, are irrelevant. Indeed, the whole report has only two findings of any significance.
The first concerns the devices called ‘strikers’ that most suicide bombers in Pakistan rely on to detonate their explosives. Although its lot number was illegible, the striker sleeve found at the epicentre of the Karachi blast was marked MUV-2. The suicide attack in Karachi was the 28th to occur in Pakistan in 2007. MUV-2 striker sleeves had been used on 11 of those occasions, including bombings in Quetta, Rawalpindi, Peshawar and other smaller cities in North-West Pakistan. The targets in these 11 cases were all consistent with the Taliban having been responsible and included the police, politicians who had opposed jihadis and the Frontier Corps, which had done much of the fighting against the Taliban.
The second interesting entry was a summary of the interrogation of the man Bhutto had named, Qari Saifullah Akhtar. But the document had been doctored. After describing his childhood and his long jihadi career, the story came to an abrupt end in August 2007. It resumed in January 2008, after Bhutto’s murder had been carried out. It was a clumsy effort: the edited page is in one font, the rest of the document in another.
The JIT may have provided few answers, but it did inadvertently hint at the reason some in the deep state were so anxious about Bhutto. The report includes newspaper articles providing possible motivations for an attack on Bhutto. One quotes her as saying that if the US identified the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden on Pakistan soil she would consider co-operating with Washington in having him detained. That in itself might have provided enough motive for an attack. But there was something else. As part of her effort to win American support, Bhutto said that she would be willing to hand over the Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan for questioning by the IAEA. At the time, Khan had accepted personal responsibility for the export of nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya, although his live TV confession of his activities was always considered suspect by the IAEA and the US, both of which believed that no single individual could have exported planeloads of nuclear material without the army’s knowledge. To this date, the military, despite insistent requests, has refused to allow foreigners to talk to Khan. Bhutto’s offer to the IAEA was seen as a real threat to Pakistan’s nuclear status.
Despite their apparent lack of interest in the failed assassination attempt, the Karachi police did eventually arrest someone. In June 2010, they raided the home of Azmatullah Mehsud, seized a pistol and accused him and his brother Abdul Wahab Mehsud (who remained at large) of involvement in the attack. As so often, the motivation of the police was unclear. It seemed Azmatullah had been arrested not so much as a result of the Bhutto case but because the police thought he was going to attack one of their own officers. The senior superintendent of the Karachi CID, Umar Shahid, told a local paper: ‘We have recorded his telephonic conversation with his brother, who directed him to attack me.’
The police have leaked a few snippets of information about Azmatullah to the press. They have said he raised funds for the Taliban and provided hideouts and medical treatment to injured militants. They also said he had links to Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, and the very violent anti-Shia group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Azmatullah was released the next month. But if some elements of the state wanted him free, others did not. A day later, a Sindh police anti-extremism cell re-arrested him. ‘Due to a shortage of evidence, the courts released several suspects on bail but he has been detained for further investigation,’ a police official said. His current whereabouts are not known.
The JIT report on the assassination, at under forty pages including all annexes, is slightly more conscientious than the Karachi document, though hardly what you would expect of the definitive police record on such a major crime. It did at least try to identify some culprits. The report relied on two types of evidence: confessions of arrested suspects and phone intercepts. The first breakthrough came a month after Bhutto’s death, when police in the city of Dera Ismail Khan arrested a 15-year-old boy, Aitzaz Shah, suspected of planning an attack on a Shia procession there. Shah had run away from the Jamia Binoria madrassah, where he had been placed for free religious education, and made his way to Waziristan, on the border with Afghanistan, with the idea of joining the Taliban. In his confession, he said that he had been taught how to drive and persuaded to carry out a suicide attack, and was told by his trainers in October 2007 that his target would be Benazir Bhutto. He said he had met Baitullah Mehsud four times. His confession led to other arrests and helped the police put together a picture of how Bilal alias Saeed came to be in a position to kill Bhutto.
Originally from South Waziristan, Bilal’s father was a labourer in Karachi, who later said his son had left home and not been in touch for a year. One of Bilal’s accomplices, Ikram Ullah, who was near him at the time of the attack, walked away from the crime scene unscathed and his whereabouts have never been established. There were three others in Rawalpindi that day. Husnain Gul was a madrassah student who in 2005 had received small-arms training at a camp in North-West Pakistan. The JIT report says that when he was arrested he had a hand grenade and clothes belonging to Bilal. In his confession, Gul described how a friend of his had been killed when Musharraf ordered an assault on the Red Mosque in Islamabad in July 2007. The attack on the jihadis who had seized the mosque was a turning point in modern Pakistani history, persuading many Islamists that the Pakistani state was not their friend but an enemy that must be attacked. Gul decided to avenge his friend’s death and persuaded his cousin, Muhammad Rafaqat, to join him.
In 2007, the pair travelled to Waziristan in the hope of finding a militant outfit to work for. They told the police it was there that they were instructed to join the group trying to kill Bhutto. Gul had actually tried to assassinate her once before at an earlier election rally in Peshawar but was thwarted by the tight security. Together with Rafaqat he then travelled to Rawalpindi. Gul carried out a recce of Liaquat Park, then went to the bus station to meet the two designated suicide bombers, Bilal and Ikram Ullah. They had travelled with a third person, Nasrullah alias Ahmed. The morning Bhutto was due to give her speech, Rafaqat and Nasrullah took another look at Liaquat Park while Gul gave Bilal and Ikram Ullah suicide jackets, pistols, ammunition and hand grenades. The plan was simple. Bilal would stand by the exit gate and try to kill Bhutto. If he failed, Ikram Ullah would try to kill her instead.
The confessions repeatedly referred to two others as having played a leading role in the plot, one of whom, Nadir Khan, otherwise known as Qari Ismail, had been given money by Baitullah Mehsud to cover the costs. His arrest would have provided the police with a vital link to the Taliban leader. But the JIT report contains a memo which states that on 15 January 2008, just 19 days after the assassination, Nasrullah and Nadir Khan had been in a car approaching a checkpoint in the Mohmand tribal agency in North-West Pakistan. For some reason not stated in the memo the two men are said to have run away from the car. Security personnel killed both of them.
For Pakistanis it is a familiar story. The euphemism ‘encounter’ is used to refer to the phenomenon of crime suspects’ being killed as they try to flee checkpoints: the understanding is that the authorities, when they want someone dead, stage a clash in which the victims are said to have been shot while trying to escape.
Although the deaths of Nasrullah and Nadir Khan left the trail conveniently cold, the confessions of their colleagues gave a hint as to how the plot had been organised. The suspects repeatedly mentioned a particular madrassah, the Darul Uloom Haqqania, located at Akora Khattak on the road from Islamabad to Peshawar. Gul first met Nasrullah there; Nadir lived there; and it was at the madrassah that the team of assassins was briefed. The accounts even included details such as in which rooms key planning meetings had taken place.
The Darul Uloom Haqqania is run by the 75-year-old former Pakistani senator, Sami ul Haq: a man generally referred to either as Father of the Taliban or as Mullah Sandwich. In 1990, when an Islamabad brothel owner, Madam Tahira, had her business broken up by the authorities, she took revenge by naming some of her clients. One of her more memorable claims was that the pious Senator Haq, who has repeatedly demanded the introduction of sharia law, particularly enjoyed the company of two women at once, one below and the other above. Ever afterwards, the senator couldn’t make a speech in parliament without his liberal detractors heckling with cries of ‘Sandwich!’
The maulana would doubtless rather be known for his role in founding the Taliban, much of whose leadership was educated at the Darul Uloom Haqqania, the only educational establishment to have awarded Mullah Omar an honorary degree. Whenever the Taliban suffered setbacks in its military campaign to take over Afghanistan in the late 1990s, it only had to ask Sami ul Haq for help and he would close the madrassah and tell his students to go and fight instead. On the one occasion I visited, an Afghan Taliban official (they were still in power at the time) was there too and Sami ul Haq explained that he was a former student turned Taliban minister who had returned for a refresher course.
Like Akhtar, Sami ul Haq has long had a cosy relationship with the Pakistani state. Of the 12 people so far named by the authorities as part of the plot to kill Bhutto, he now accepts that four had been his students. All this strongly suggests Taliban involvement. But the state believed it had harder evidence too. Shortly after Bhutto’s death, the government put online what it claimed was a phone conversation, secretly recorded hours after the assassination, between an unidentified mullah and Baitullah Mehsud. This is the transcript of the tape.
Mullah: Asalaam Aleikum.
Baitullah Mehsud: Waaleikum Asalaam.
M: Chief, how are you?
BM: I am fine.
M: Congratulations, I just got back during the night.
BM: Congratulations to you, were they our men?
M: Yes they were ours.
BM: Who were they?
M: There was Saeed; there was Bilal from Badar and Ikramullah.
BM: The three of them did it?
M: Ikramullah and Bilal did it.
BM: Then congratulations.
M: Where are you? I want to meet you.
BM: I am at Makeen [a town in the south Waziristan tribal area], come over, I am at Anwar Shah’s house.
M: OK, I’ll come.
BM: Don’t inform their house for the time being.
BM: It was a tremendous effort. They were really brave boys who killed her.
M: Mashallah. When I come I will give you all the details.
BM: I will wait for you. Congratulations, once again congratulations.
M: Congratulations to you.
BM: Anything I can do for you?
M: Thank you very much.
BM: Asalaam Aleikum.
M: Waaleikum Asalaam.
People who had met and spoken with Baitullah Mehsud confirmed that the voice on the tape was his. The fact that Bhutto’s name is not mentioned has led some to believe it’s a fake, but if the Pakistan intelligence agencies were trying to frame Baitullah Mehsud they would surely have made sure his name was mentioned on the tape.
There is one further reason for suspecting Taliban involvement in the murder. In February 2008 the Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan was kidnapped in the Khyber tribal agency. The Taliban militants holding him had one demand: the release of Aitzaz Shah, Husnain Gul and Muhammad Rafaqat.
The outpouring of sympathy that followed Bhutto’s murder propelled Zardari to power. Privately, many of Bhutto’s friends were unhappy that the man who they believed had corrupted Bhutto had secured the presidency. But they had one consolation: guided by his Sindhi honour code, which sets a high value on revenge, and with the full power of the state at his disposal, Zardari would be able to bring her killers to justice. The assassinations of Liaquat Ali Khan and President Zia ul Haq had never been solved. This time it would be different. But it wasn’t. Zardari failed to make any significant progress in the investigation. Privately, he said that the murder was part of history, another chapter in the Bhutto family story: Benazir had played her sacrificial role and there was no point in looking back. Publicly, he argued that any Pakistani investigation would lack credibility so the UN should do it instead. Yet the UN’s limited terms of reference (they were to carry out a fact-finding not a criminal inquiry) and history of political caution suggested it would be unlikely to solve the case. Furthermore, the UN was blocked. In its published report it described as mystifying ‘the efforts of certain Pakistani government authorities to obstruct access to military and intelligence sources’.
The first sign that the state would not be making any effort to establish the facts came within two hours of the assassination, when fire engines were called in to wash down the crime scene. The deputy inspector general of the Rawalpindi police, Saud Aziz, who ordered the clean-up, has claimed police officers at the bomb scene told him the atmosphere had became so hysterical that her supporters were daubing themselves in Bhutto’s blood. Fearing a total breakdown of law and order, he called in high-pressure hoses. Anyone familiar with Pakistan’s political realities will find this account unconvincing. No mid-ranking or even senior police offer would take such a decision on his own initiative. It came as no surprise that two anonymous sources told the UN inquiry that Saud Aziz received a call from a senior army officer ordering him to wash down the crime scene. The car in which Bhutto died was also cleaned even though the police had secured it.
Also suspicious is the failure to make progress with the trials of the low-level operatives who have been arrested. It took a year even to charge Aitzaz Shah. Every time the court meets there is a new reason for postponement. Excuses have ranged from the unavailability of judges to the possible future availability of new evidence. The intelligence agencies have been just as inactive. While the ISI is Pakistan’s best-known spy agency, there are many others, including the 100,000-strong Intelligence Bureau or IB. In early 2008, the IB, which had a new leadership appointed by Zardari, asked the Interior Ministry to pass on any material it had about the assassination. The IB thought they were pushing on an open door: after all, the new minister of the interior, Rehman Malik, had been Bhutto’s closest confidant during the years of exile. But Malik decreed that the files should not be handed over.
Malik’s behaviour has been mysterious in other respects too. When Bhutto left the Liaquat Park rally, Malik’s bullet-proof black Mercedes was the designated back-up car in the event that Bhutto needed to be evacuated. Despite having overall responsibility for her security (something he has subsequently tried to deny), Malik reacted to the explosion by ordering his driver to leave the area and head for Islamabad. Once he got there (a 25-minute drive) he started a series of TV interviews in which he gave contradictory accounts of how he had reacted to the attack and why. His version changed from ‘I was about four feet away and I turned around and Mohtarma’s [Bhutto’s] car was trying to get out and we led that car and got away and went to the hospital and I was present in the hospital’ to ‘when the bomb blast happened there was a distance of no more than eight feet between my car and Mohtarma’s car. So I said let’s head towards Islamabad – in the meantime we called the hospital.’ His decision to flee the scene has never been explained.
Before her murder, Bhutto had written a number of emails naming people whom she believed wanted to kill her. Seemingly anticipating the story that would be constructed after her death, she said she wanted to make it clear that if she were killed the blame should be ascribed not to the Taliban or al-Qaida but to her enemies in the Pakistani establishment. And in a letter to Musharraf she accused three men: a senior opposition politician, a former head of the ISI known for his Islamist views, and the IB chief at the time of the assassination, Ejaz Shah, who had jihadi links. Omar Sheikh, the man accused of murdering the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, is said to have fled to Shah’s house when he was on the run; for a ‘missing week’ Shah let Sheikh stay hidden away. Eventually, though, the case took on such a high profile that Shah was forced to arrange Sheikh’s surrender. There have been claims in the Pakistani press that Shah also had a connection with Akhtar. Neither of the police investigations dared ask questions of Shah or the others Bhutto named. All have publicly denied her accusations.
And yet despite all this conspicuous inactivity, in February 2011, more than three years after the murder, the government announced it had a new suspect. General Musharraf would be charged with her murder. So what new evidence had been uncovered? None at all. Citing ‘motive’ and ‘circumstantial evidence’ the charge sheet stated: ‘It is prima facie established that Musharraf is equally responsible with criminal “mens rea” for facilitation and abetment of assassinating Benazir Bhutto through his government’s unjustified failure in providing her with the requisite security protection her status deserved as twice prime minister.’
Although the charges made international headlines, few in Pakistan paid any attention. While it has long been accepted that Musharraf failed to give Bhutto adequate protection, the timing of the charges told its own story. They came just as he was trying to revive his political career by returning from a self-imposed exile in the UK to start a new political party in Pakistan. And it worked: he cancelled his plans.
In the weeks before her assassination, Bhutto had every reason to believe she would be killed. The failed attempt in Karachi made it clear that the jihadi leadership was willing and able to deploy its most powerful weapon – suicide bombers – against her. I and a couple of other journalists met her a few hours after that attack: the conversation was maudlin and filled with the thought that she couldn’t go on being so lucky. She fully understood her situation but accepted it. Partly she seemed to consider it a matter of fate, but perhaps she was also trying to atone for her sins. Her Swiss bank accounts were filled with millions of dollars of ill-gotten gains made during her two governments.
As for Zardari, he has said that the Taliban murdered his wife but that he is not sure who commissioned them. It’s a reasonable conclusion. But his attitude leaves many questions unanswered. Why did he allow the investigation to be blocked? Why has he not pressed his interior minister to clear up the obvious inconsistencies in his account? Why has he not objected to Akhtar’s release? And why hasn’t he moved against Sami ul Haq’s madrassah, where the murder was planned? That there are no answers to these questions doesn’t necessarily implicate Zardari any more than the clear evidence that the investigation was deliberately frustrated does. He may well fear suffering the same fate as his wife. But it does mean that there isn’t the slightest reason to believe that the people who tasked the Taliban with Bhutto’s murder will ever face justice.