My friend Syed Saleem Shahzad is dead, kidnapped, tortured, killed and his body dumped in wilderness. To say that it was a heinous act would be to state the obvious. But sometimes, as in this case and many more, stating the obvious is important. But there is more, and that more is even more troubling.
From the time Saleem went missing on May 29 – he had spoken with me just a day before – almost everyone thought he was picked up by an agency, euphemism for the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate. Saleem’s disappearance came on the heels of a story he did for his online newspaper Asia Times Online in which he detailed the causes for attacks on Pakistan Navy in recent weeks which culminated in the spectacular and extremely coordinated attack on PNS Mehran.
Did that story get Saleem killed and at the hands of the ISI? Consider.
Saleem’s story, now known to half the world, claimed the attack was mounted by 313 Brigade, the operational arm of Al-Qaeda headed by Ilyas Kashmiri. The attack was a reprisal for PN’s internal crackdown on groups within the service that were considered affiliated with the AQ network. According to Saleem, AQ had sent threats to the PN to release the detainees or face the consequences. The PN of course ignored these threats and interrogations led to more suspects being netted. However, the PN was forced to open a channel with AQ when it realised that despite moving the detainees to several places, the AQ seemed to know the exact movements, implying there were people within the navy providing intelligence to AQ.
But negotiations broke down because AQ was asking for the release and reinstatement of these detainees. That led to three attacks on navy buses – warning shots – followed by the Mehran attack. This, Saleem reported, was the underlying motive, though a paragraph above in the story he also said that “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.”
His story did not, however, detail why Ilyas Kashmiri’s group would try and deprive Pakistan of its capability against India, given that Kashmiri, before linking up with AQ, was fighting Indian security forces in Indian-occupied Kashmir. Perhaps Saleem would have given more details in the follow-up; but whoever wanted to silence him didn’t let him do that. This question is important because all accounts, including Saleem’s, are clear about what the target of that attack was: P-3C Orions. Everything else was secondary to that mission.
Now assume the ISI decided to pick him up. What would they possibly want from him? If the idea was to kill him, a bullet was enough to do the job. Suppose they first wanted to get information out of him about his sources. They have the wherewithal to monitor calls and movements with precision. If they wanted to get to those in the PN that were providing him info, technically they did not need to pick him up for that.
But there is another theory: they didn’t want to kill him but wanted to put the fear of God in him. And while doing that, got sloppy and ended up killing Saleem mistakenly. If this theory is correct, then going by Saleem’s second autopsy report, which shows that he was kicked and repeatedly struck with a rod or rods, resulting in broken ribs that punctured his lung, the ISI is even sloppier than the Punjab police. Also, this kind of torture shows hatred and vengeance, not a cool, calculated method to either extract information or use pain selectively to break someone.
It also makes no sense for the ISI to pick him up, torture him thus and then call up Saleem’s wife to tell him that he would be back come evening – especially if they knew that the ‘treatment’ had resulted in his death. In fact, any inquiry on the basis of autopsy should be able to figure out whether or not the call correlates to Saleem’s time of injury and time of death.
There is another equally important aspect. Unless the military and the ISI live in a cocoon, they know that anything that goes wrong inside and outside Pakistan would be laid at their doors. I have no doubt that they understand this; nor does it make them happy, but that’s another story. Given that, and given that both the military and the ISI are suffering from a PR disaster following the Abbottabad raid, what could the ISI possibly gain by kidnapping Saleem and then killing him, wittingly or unwittingly?
I knew Saleem fairly well; we spoke and met fairly regularly. I can vouch for the fact that he harboured no suicidal tendency. If someone were to pick him up, he would have preferred to live and fight another day. He was a sharp reporter and a very intelligent person. Nor did he face peril for the first time; his fieldwork was always dangerous and he played at the deep end. On the basis of his many conversations with me, I can safely say that he would not have created a situation for himself which could lead someone to kill him – unless his killers had decided that that was what they wanted to do.
And why could it not be the other side – AQ? One reason given is that AQ would have simply killed him. This argument is not familiar with how the TTP and its affiliate groups have often badly tortured people before shooting or beheading them. But could there be another possibility? Someone knowing that this would be laid at the door of the ISI, given how popular the agency is, and made it look like so?
But then there is Saleem’s email to Human Rights Watch, to Mr Hameed Haroon and Asia Times Online in which he talked about his meeting with ISI officials; there are also accounts of Saleem telling some friends that he was getting threats from the ISI. His account of that October 17 meeting to me was narrated rather light-heartedly. If he got other threats, he never shared them with me.
This email is important and the statement by an unnamed ISI official to APP, which no one believes, is woefully short of what is required. The official’s disapproval of attempts to malign the country’s security agency is ridiculous. It is not the ISI’s job to determine what is in the best interest of the country. However, what it does deserve is a fair hearing on this case.
The starting point is clear: Saleem’s email. The ISI must know that it is being blamed for Saleem’s killing. The onus of responsibility is on the Agency to help the investigations. The DG-ISI, Lt-Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, himself should get involved and present his officers before an inquiry commission that should have at least three highly respected journalists in it. This is not an issue that can be brushed under the carpet.
And while we are at it, what is this Media Management Wing of the ISI? What right does this wing have to invite journalists for ‘tea’ or ask anyone to file a story or file a retraction? The inquiry commission should also look into the mandate of this wing and put it out to pasture.
The writer is Contributing Editor, The Friday Times.