Pakistan:Who is Behind the Abduction and Killing of Saleem Shahzad?

By Abdus-Sattar Ghazali 

In Pakistan, where the disappearance and torture of people is not uncommon, Saleem Shahzad, a prominent journalist, was tortured and killed after being abducted from the capital city of Islamabad Sunday, May 29 by unidentified men. His tortured body was found in a canal two days later.

Who was behind his abduction and killing?  Since his disappearance, it has been speculated that Shahzad was picked up by intelligence agencies for his article suggesting that the attack on the naval airbase, PNS Mehran, was in retaliation to the Navy’s crackdown on al-Qaeda operatives and sympathizers within the service, and its refusal to release some of these elements who had been arrested. The first of his two-part article appeared May 27 on Asia Times Online. Shahzad was the Pakistan Bureau Chief for Asia Times Online.

In his last article, titled Al-Qaeda Had Warned of Pakistan Strike, Saleem Shahzad said: “Al-Qaeda carried out the brazen attack on PNS Mehran naval air station in Karachi on May 22 after talks failed between the navy and al-Qaeda over the release of naval officials arrested on suspicion of al-Qaeda links.” This was the first part of a two-part report which said:

“At least 10 people were killed and two United States-made P3-C Orion surveillance and anti-submarine aircraft worth US$36 million each were destroyed before some of the attackers escaped through a cordon of thousands of armed forces. Asia Times Online contacts confirm that the attackers were from Ilyas Kashmiri’s 313 Brigade, the operational arm of al-Qaeda. Three attacks on navy buses, in which at least nine people were killed last month, were warning shots for navy officials to accept al-Qaeda’s demands over the detained suspects. The May 2 killing in Pakistan of Osama bin Laden spurred al-Qaeda groups into developing a consensus for the attack in Karachi, in part as revenge for the death of their leader and also to deal a blow to Pakistan’s surveillance capacity against the Indian navy. The deeper underlying motive, though, was a reaction to massive internal crackdowns on al-Qaeda affiliates within the navy.”
Shahzad’s book, Inside Al-Qaeda & The Taliban, Beyond Bin Laden & 9/11, was launched earlier last month. It also throws light on the Mumbai terror attack which, according to the author, was conceived by Ilyas Kashmiri as a ”massive operation” aimed at bringing India and Pakistan to war; thereby ensuring a halt to proposed operations against al-Qaeda. A plan of the ISI — which had been put in cold storage — was then hijacked by Kashmiri to put India and Pakistan on collision course, Shazad wrote in his book that now remains his last signature on the narrative regarding terrorism in the region.

Human Rights Watch

According to Human Rights Watch, in recent months, Shahzad, 40, had told colleagues that he had been warned by intelligence agents to stop writing about sensitive matters, and that he feared for his life.

In October, Shahzad told Ali Dayan Hasan, South Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch, that on October 17, he had been summoned to the headquarters of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to discuss the contents of an article published the day before which alleged that Pakistan had quietly released Afghan Taliban commander Mullah Baradar, Mullah Omar’s deputy, to take part in talks through the Pakistan army. Hasan said during this meeting that he received what he saw as a veiled threat from a top official. Shahzad forwarded to Hasan a set of notes from the meeting, adding that he was doing so “in case something happens to me or my family in the future.”

Hasan said Tuesday: “He told me he was under surveillance, that he would get calls, and that people would stop him and threaten him a couple of times. But as it is with people who live their lives with these kinds of threats, you factor it in. He factored it in and carried on with his business.” Hasan said he had “confirmation from credible sources that he probably was being held by the ISI.”

On Wednesday, Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) denied that it was behind Shahzad’s murder. However, the official news agency APP, quoted an unnamed ISI official as saying: “The reported meeting between the journalist and ISI officials of the Information Management Wing was held on 17th October 2010 to discuss a story he had done for Asia Online on 15th October, and the meeting had nothing sinister about it. It is part of the Wing’s mandate to remain in touch with the journalist community. The main objective behind all such interactions is provision of accurate information on matters of national security. ISI also makes it a point to notify institutions and individuals alike of any threat warning received about them.”

The ISI official further said that “the reported e-mail of Mr. Saleem Shahzad to Mr Ali Hasan Dayan, of HRW which is being made the basis of baseless allegations leveled against ISI, has no veiled or unveiled threats in it.” The official pointed out that in the words of Mr. Syed Saleem Shahzad himself, “the conversation was held in an extremely polite and friendly atmosphere and there was no mince word in the room at any stage”.

The mysterious murder of Shahzad is a reminder of the many hazards faced by journalists working in Pakistan. Shahzad was the third reporter slain in Pakistan this year. In January, Wali Khan Babar, a respected reporter for Geo News, was gunned down in Karachi. In April, reporter Abdullah Bhittani cheated death after being shot three times in Rawalpindi, while a radio station in the northwest town of Charsadda was bombed. Bhittani has recovered, but with 10 slain journalists last year, the Newseum in Washington, D.C. called Pakistan “the deadliest country in the world for journalists.” Reporters Without Borders ranked it 151 out of 178 countries when it comes to freedom of the press.

Cheema Episode

Last fall, Umar Cheema, an investigative reporter for the News, a leading English daily, was abducted, held for six hours and beaten before being dumped on a road outside Islamabad. He accused the ISI of being behind his ordeal, theorizing that the agency was retaliating for several articles he had written that angered the military. Intelligence officials denied the charge.

Cheema was fortunate that he was released after six hours of torture and hadn’t gone missing like thousands of innocent people of Pakistan. He was fortunate that he was not killed like the kidnapped Baluchi lawyer Zaman Marri, whose bullet-riddled body was found on September 6. Zaman Marri was kidnapped on July 19 by a group of armed men from the Baluchistan capital, Quetta, when he was returning home from his office.

The exact number of missing persons and victims of forced disappearance are difficult to independently verify, notably due to difficulties in access and security considerations in many parts of the country. However, different estimates by nationalist groups, religious organizations and different human rights organizations, claim that as many as 8,000 cases of missing persons from different parts of the country have been reported since the start of the “war on terror”. In Balochistan province alone, over 4,000 persons are reportedly missing and disappearances continue to be perpetrated, notably by paramilitary forces.

According to the Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC) since the outset of the military operation against militants, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, formally known as North West Frontier Province (NWFP), has been the scene of heightened disappearances, including those conducted in connivance with foreign forces. Around 1,000 persons belonging to religious groups are missing or dead. In Sindh province, over 100 Sindhi nationalists are thought to have been arrested and remain missing but are believed to be being held in military torture cells. In Punjab, most missing persons reportedly belong to religious militant groups.

The phenomenon of disappearances and missing persons is multi-faceted, but is accompanied by a lack of effective, credible actions by the authorities and impunity across the board. “The country is beset by grave and widespread human rights violations by various State-agencies and institutions, notably by the notorious Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and the military. Thousands of persons are missing as a result of forced disappearances committed all across the country, in particular, in conflict-affected areas, such as Balochistan province,” the ALRC said in a press release in August 2010.

Going back to the abduction and torture of Syed Saleem Shahzad, this is an assault on freedom of expression and freedom of speech. This is an attempt to silence the few courageous voices in the print and electronic media of Pakistan which remains fettered on the vital national issues such as the endemic role of army in the government and the killing of innocent civilians in the name of the “war on terror” by the army and US drone attacks.

In recent weeks, Pakistan’s news outlets have produced scathing coverage of the army prompted by its being caught unawares by the May 2 US raid that allegedly killed bin Laden in Abbottabad. The Mehran naval base attack also proved deeply embarrassing for the military.

In a hard hitting article published in Dawn last month, Shahid Saeed emphasized: “We must not put a shroud on the failures of the military anymore. We have embarrassed our country a lot already. Today is the time for reform, redress and for us to start a new beginning. The military must face the music for its actions and failures.”

Syed Saleem Shahzad’s murder is perhaps a warning to independent newspersons and writers not to meddle with the all powerful mercenary army that controls the levers of power in Islamabad.


About the author:Author and journalist. Author of Islamic Pakistan: Illusions & Reality; Islam in the Post-Cold War Era; Islam & Modernism; Islam & Muslims in the Post-9/11 America. Currently working as free lance journalist. Executive Editor of American Muslim Perspective:

Originally published at on June 2,2011. Shared with permission.



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