Pakistan’s powerful Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency has denied any role in the murder of Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad, contending that any allegations to the contrary are “baseless.”
But the killing of Shahzad, whose badly beaten body was discovered on Tuesday, symbolizes everything that is going wrong inside Pakistan, where radical jihadis pose an existential threat to a nuclear-armed state.
Shahzad, a correspondent for the Asia Times Online news service in Hong Kong, was abducted from an upscale neighborhood of Islamabad on Sunday. He was on his way to do a TV interview about an article he’d written, claiming al Qaeda had infiltrated Pakistan’s navy and carried out a shocking attack on a Karachi naval base. The gutsy journalist had also just published a book called Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban: beyond Bin Laden and 9/11, in which he alleged links between the ISI and the bloody 2008 terrorist assault on the Indian city of Mumbai.
Aware that he was at risk, he had emailed Human Rights Watch, as well as his employers and a former editor at Dawn newspaper, confiding he had received death threats on three occasions over the past five years from senior ISI officers.
“I am forwarding this email to you for your record…in case something happens to me or my family in future,” he wrote the Pakistani office of HRW in October. The killing, said Ali Dayan Hasan, a senior researcher for HRW, bore “all the hallmarks of previous killings perpetrated by Pakistani intelligence agencies.” Pakistan has become notorious for beatings and murders of journalists (70 have been killed since 2000) which are rarely, if ever, solved.
What makes this case so explosive is that it comes at a time of great tension between the United States and Pakistan over how to confront the interlocked networks of al Qaeda, Taliban and other jihadi groups that base in Pakistan. The ISI denies it knew Osama bin Laden was hiding in Abbotabad, or that it knows where al Qaeda or Afghan Taliban leaders are hiding – or that it was linked to the Mumbai attack.
Shahzad died because he tried to find out if the ISI was telling the truth..
So does anyone now believe there can be an independent investigation of how bin Laden found shelter in Abbotabad, as mandated by the Pakistani parliament? Does anyone believe that there will be a thorough investigation of how deeply militants have penetrated the Pakistani military?
Does anyone believe that there will ever be a thorough investigation of who was behind the Mumbai outrage, and whether any ISI personnel played a role, as has been alleged by David Headley, a Pakistani-American who cased Mumbai for the terrorists? This attack could have caused a war between two nuclear-armed states, India and Pakistan. Another such attack may yet cause an Indo-Pakistani war.
The ISI claims it wasn’t involved, but without a public investigation how can we know for certain? If the ISI were truly blameless, it would provide compelling evidence to the Pakistani public about the real perpetrators in these cases. Don’t hold your breath.
Pakistani officials are unlikely to make any serious investigation of Mumbai, the Karachi attack, or bin Laden’s last five years. Who would dare do it after what happened to Shahzad? What journalist will have the courage to carry on his work?
Who can believe Pakistani officials will even try to find out who killed him, even though his death represents a tragedy for their nation? The murder of Shahzad reflects the slow, agonizing destruction – by malevolent, internal forces - of the Pakistani state.