On November 13, 2007, I had a one-to-one meeting with former prime minister Benazir Bhutto at the Lahore residence of Senator Latif Khosa. She said she had no doubt about the people who had masterminded the attack on her on October 18, the day she had returned to Pakistan from exile. Benazir told me, "I have come to know after investigations by my own sources that the October 18 bombing was masterminded by some highly-placed officials in the Pakistani security and intelligence establishments who had hired an Al Qaeda-linked militant—Maulvi Abdul Rehman Otho alias Abdul Rehman Sindhi—to execute the attack." She said three local militants were hired to carry out the attack under the supervision of Abdul Rehman Sindhi, an Al Qaeda-linked Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) militant from the Dadu district of Sindh.
Before Benazir arrived in Pakistan, Sindhi had been mysteriously released from prison, where he had been incarcerated for his role in the May '04 bombing of the US Cultural Centre in Karachi. She said she subsequently wrote a letter naming her would-be assassins. When I asked her who the recipient of the letter was and whether she had named Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf as well, she had smiled and said, "Mind one thing, all those in the establishment who stand to lose power and influence in the post-election set-up are after me, including the General. I can't give you further details at this stage. However, you can name Musharraf as my assassin if I am killed."
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Twenty-four hours after Benazir was assassinated, Asia Times Online, a Hong Kong-based web newspaper, reported that Al Qaeda had claimed responsibility for her killing, further adding that the death squad consisted of Punjabi associates of the underground anti-Shi'ite militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, operating under Al Qaeda orders. "We terminated the most precious American asset who had vowed to defeat the mujahideen." These were the words of one Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, a top Al Qaeda commander for the Afghanistan operations as well as an Al Qaeda spokesperson. "This is our first major victory against those (Benazir and Musharraf) who have been siding with infidels (the West) in the fight against Al Qaeda..." Interestingly enough, Sindhi—the person whom Benazir had named in our conversation—is an LeJ member.
But few here believe LeJ could have managed to carry out the attack without assistance from sections in the establishment. Analysts believe Al Qaeda has become a convenient smokescreen to explain motivated attacks on political rivals. The question people are asking is: What motive could the establishment have in killing Benazir?
Top political sources told Outlook that hours before Benazir was assassinated, she was on the verge of exposing an ISI operation to rig the January 8 general election. They say she had been collecting incontrovertible proof about a rigging cell allegedly established at an ISI safe house in Islamabad. The cell was tasked with changing the election results in favour of the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-e-Azam (PML-Q) on the day of the polling. Sources say a close confidant of Benazir had sent an e-mail message on December 25 to her address—firstname.lastname@example.org—informing her that Brigadier Riazullah Khan Chib was working in tandem with Intelligence Bureau director Brigadier General (retd) Ejaz Hussain Shah to manipulate election results. The PML-Q (a party of Musharraf loyalists) was in power before the National Assembly was dissolved, and was the instrument through which Musharraf had ruled Pakistan over the last five years.
The e-mail message to Benazir said the so-called Election Monitoring Cell was to ensure that ballot papers in over 100 constituencies of Punjab and Sindh were stamped in favour of the PML-Q. These ballot papers were to be stamped at the ghost polling stations established in the provincial headquarters of the ISI and the IB, and were to be counted before the presiding officers were to announce the results. "All this is being done because of the fact that Musharraf simply can't afford a hostile parliament as a result of the 2008 polls," the e-mail message said.
Benazir replied to the e-mail message from her Blackberry the same day. She wrote, "I was told that the ISI and the MI have been asked not to meddle. But I will doublecheck." On December 27 at 1.12 pm, a few hours before she was assassinated, Benazir sent a mail to the confidant asking, "I need the address of the safe house (in Islamabad) as well as the phone numbers of the concerned. Pl try and obtain ASAP. Mbb, Sent from my BlackBerry(r) wireless device."
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The confidant wrote back at 3:06, "I have re-checked the information with the same source which earlier said the ISI and the MI have been asked not to meddle. The source claims that Brigadier Riazullah Khan Chib retired from the ISI a few months ago but was re-employed, since he belongs to the arm of the artillery and considered close to Musharraf who too comes from the same wing of the army. The source says Chib's cover job is somewhere else but he is actually supervising a special election cell which is working in tandem with the chief of the Intelligence Bureau. I have further been told that Brigadiers Ejaz Shah and Riaz Chib are close friends because of their having served (in) Punjab as the provincial heads of the ISI and the Punjab regional director of the Anti-Narcotics Force (ANF) respectively in the past. Both are considered to be loyalists of the Chaudhries..." It was the powerful Chaudhry brothers of Punjab province (Shujaat Hussain and Pervez Elahi) who spawned the PML-Q after engineering a split in the PML (Nawaz).
The confidant's message further stated: "The rigging cell/safe house in question is located on Shahra-e-Dastoor, close to the Pakistan House Bus Stop in Sector G-5 of Islamabad. It is a double-storey building, without inscribing any address, as is the case with most of safe houses. The cell consists of some retired and serving intelligence officials, which will show its magic on the election-day. Let me further inform you that Musharraf had granted Sitara-e-Imtiaz Military to Brig (Retd) Riaz Chib on December 17, 2007, for his meritorious services in operational field. Before his retirement, Chib was in charge of the ISI-led Joint Intelligence Bureau (JIB) which used to deal with the internal security matters, Azad Kashmir and Gilgit and Baltistan."
Weeks before her return on October 18, Benazir had been accusing Ejaz Shah of plotting to kill her. She told me in our meeting that she was in London when she was told about the conspiracy to assassinate her. She then added, "Having come to know of the plot, I instantly wrote a letter to General Musharraf, naming those in the establishment possibly conspiring to kill me, seeking appropriate action. However, it did not occur to me then that I was actually committing a blunder and signing my own death warrant by not naming Musharraf himself as my possible assassin. It later dawned upon me that Musharraf could have possibly exploited the letter to his advantage and ordered my assassination." Following the October 18 attack, it was disclosed that Shah was one of the three persons whom Benazir had named in her letter to Musharraf.
However, a week before my conversation with Benazir, a high-level meeting reportedly presided over by Musharraf in Islamabad had already dismissed her accusations as "childish". Those who participated in the meeting were informed that the suicide attack on Benazir bore the hallmarks of Al Qaeda, arguing that she has incurred the wrath of militants because of her support for the military operation against the Red Mosque fanatics in Islamabad in July and for declaring that she would allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to question the father of the Pakistani nuclear programme Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan about his proliferation activities.
Days before her return to Pakistan, Benazir told The Guardian that she felt the real danger to her came from fundamentalist elements in the Pakistan military and intelligence establishment opposed to her return. She scoffed at the assassination threats of Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud, saying, "I am not worried about Baitullah Mehsud. I am worried about the threat within the present government. People like Baitullah are mere pawns."
Asked in an interview on NBC a day later whether it was not risky to name a close friend of Musharraf (Shah) as being someone who's plotting against her, Benazir said: "Well, at that time I did not know whether there would be an assassination attempt that I would survive. And I wanted to leave on record the (name of) suspects. I also didn't know that he (Shah) was a friend of General Musharraf. But I asked myself that even if I knew that he was a friend and I thought of him as a suspect, would I have not written? No, I would have written."
But this isn't to say that investigations into the assassination of Benazir will reveal the names of those who masterminded it. Like all infamous assassination cases, the mastermind will remain a shadowy figure on whose role people will only speculate about in whispers.