The brutal murder of Syed Saleem Shahzad, the Pakistan Bureau Chief of Asia Times Online, is unlikely to be solved satisfactorily by the investigating agencies of Pakistan.
Shahzad went missing on the evening of May 29, 2011, while going to the Islamabad studio of a private TV news channel and his car with his dead body was reportedly found at a place about 150 kms from Islamabad on May 31. His body reportedly had torture wounds, indicating he had been severely tortured in order to extract information from him.
What was that information? Who was interested in that? The widely believed suspicion in Pakistan is that the information sought to be extracted from him through torture must have had a bearing to the first part of a despatch which he had sent to Asia Times and was carried by it on May 27.
This related to the daring attack by some terrorists on PNS Mehran, the base of the Naval Air Arm of the Pakistan Navy, at Karachi on the night of May 22 during which the terrorists destroyed two US-supplied Orion maritime surveillance aircraft which were being used by the Navy to patrol the sea to prevent any Al Qaeda attack on ships bringing logistic supplies for the NATO forces in Afghanistan.
The responsibility for the attack was claimed by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) as the Pakistani Taliban is known. It said that it carried out the attack to avenge the death of Osama bin Laden during a raid by US naval commandos at his hide-out at Abbottabad on May 2, 2011.
The investigation into the attack by the local police has not yet made much progress. However, the arrests of some suspects in Karachi and Lahore, including an ex-naval commando of the Special Services Group (SSG), who was allegedly sacked 10 years ago on disciplinary grounds, have been reported.
Shahzad did not appear to have believed in the claim of the TTP. His enquiries indicated that the attack was carried out by the 313 Brigade of Ilyas Kashmiri, a former commando of the Special Services Group (SSG), which operates from North Waziristan as an affiliate of Al Qaeda.
Shahzad said in the first part of his investigative report: “Asia Times Online contacts confirm that the attackers were from Ilyas Kashmiri's 313 Brigade, the operational arm of al-Qaeda.” He alleged that “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.”
He had also indicated at the end of the first part of his despatch that the second part would cover “the recruitment and training of militants.”
He was the only Pakistani journalist to have visited the headquarters of the 313 Brigade in October 2009 at the invitation of Ilyas Kashmiri. One of the purposes of Ilyas’ invitation was to disprove rumours then circulating in Pakistan that Ilyas had been killed in an American Drone (pilotless plane) strike in South Waziristan in September,2009.
Subsequently, after the terrorist attack on the so-called German Bakery in Pune in February 2010, Shahzad was in receipt of a message purporting to be from Ilyas indirectly hinting that the 303 Brigade had a role in the Pune attack. Shahzad had written about it in Asia Times.
Shahzad was thus well-informed on the activities of the 303 Brigade and Ilyas Kashmiri. He was reportedly the only Pakistani journalist with good contacts in the 303 Brigade.
Who killed him-- the ISI as it is widely suspected in Pakistan or the 303 Brigade or the two acting in tandem? Next to the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET), the 303 Brigade has the closest contacts with the ISI. By virtue of his former association with the SSG, Ilyas is believed to have a network of contacts in the Army, the SSG and the ISI.
It is apparent that Shahzad was killed either because of what he reported in his despatch of May 27 regarding the penetration of the Navy by Al Qaeda or because of what he intended reporting about the training camps of the 303 Brigade.
Thus both the ISI and the 303 Brigade had a common motive for having him eliminated. Was their decision to eliminate him only related to his story on the Mehran attack or was there more to it? Whoever took the decision to eliminate him was in a desperate hurry. He was kidnapped within 48 hours of the first part being published. He would have most probably despatched the second part in the week beginning May 30. His captors wanted to do away with him before that.
Well-informed contacts in the Pakistani Police say that his kidnapping and murder were related not only to his investigation into the Mehran attack, but also his investigation into the local support base of OBL which facilitated his undetected stay for over five years at Abbottabad. His investigations post-May 2 were dangerously moving in that direction. His discovery of the penetration of the Navy by Al Qaeda was only the first step in his investigation. According to these police sources, he was digging deeper into OBL’s support base.
To have waited till he found out the details would have been suicidal for the ISI. The Police sources suspect that the ISI joined hands with the 303 Brigade to eliminate him before he made any progress in the matter.
The “real” truth will never be known just as the “real” truth behind the murder of Murtaza Bhutto in Karachi in 1996 and behind the murder of Benazir Bhutto at Rawalpindi in 2007 was never known.
People will be arrested and prosecuted, but they will not be the real perpetrators. The history of Pakistan is full of such instances of mysterious elimination of inconvenient people. Shahzad is the latest to join the ranks of such mysteriously eliminated people. He has paid with his life for daring to look into two incidents which the ISI wanted to be covered up--the Mehran attack and the stay of OBL at Abbottabad.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies.