Saturday, January 5, 2008

Who killed Benazir?

B Raman

(Article carried by the "Times of India" of January 6,2008

Four things are certain regarding the assassination of Benazir Bhutto at Rawalpindi on December 27: First, she stood up through the sunroof of her armoured vehicle to greet a group of supporters who were shouting slogans praising her outside the meeting venue as she was leaving the venue. The audience at the meeting had been subjected to usual security checks, but not those outside.

Second, someone in the group opened fire in her direction thrice with a revolver. This has been recorded by an amateur video photographer.

Third, she collapsed inside the car with a head injury. This injury caused her death.

Fourth, there was an explosion, which killed many bystanders, but not the occupants of the car, who were protected by the armour plates.

There has been a heated controversy on the following questions:

What caused the head injury? Her associates say it was caused by the bullets fired. An official of the Interior Ministry claims the bullets missed her and that the injury was caused by her head striking against a lever of the sunroof.

Who caused the explosion? Was it the person who fired with a revolver after he had fired or by a second person? Whoever caused the explosion probably wanted to ensure that the man, who fired with the revolver, would not fall into the hands of the police.

When did the explosion take place? After she had collapsed inside the car or before? According to her associates, the explosion occurred after she had collapsed. According to the Interior Ministry official, it was before. The impact of the explosion pushed her down and her head hit against the lever.

The only way of resolving this controversy would have been by an autopsy, which would have determined the cause of the head injury and through a forensic examination of the scene of occurrence, which could have led to the recovery of the bullets, if they had not entered her body. Asif Zardari, her widower, has admitted that he did not agree to an autopsy because he had no confidence in the police. The authorities have admitted that no search for the bullets was carried out and that the entire scene was washed clean without a forensic examination.

Who could have been responsible for her assassination? There are allegations and speculation, but no evidence as yet. The involvement of Musharraf and other senior army and intelligence officers is unlikely. They did not like her, but they would have been able to marginalise her by rigging the elections. They did not have to get her killed. Moreover, if they had wanted to have her killed, they would not have done it at Rawalpindi, where deniability would be weak.

The involvement of pro-jihadi junior and middle level officers is a stronger possibility. The investigation into the attempts to kill Musharraf at Rawalpindi in December, 2003, brought out the involvement of some junior Army and Air Force officers, who had been allegedly won over by Al-Qaida and the Jaish-e-Mohammad. (JEM).

The strongest possibility is the involvement of Al-Qaidaand/or pro-Al-Qaida jihadi organisations with the complicity of junior and middle level army and intelligence officers. Pakistan has many jihadi terrorist organisations. It has also dozens of angry individuals who have been carrying out suicide strikes in reprisal for the commando action in the Lal Masjid of Islamabad in July last.

All of them had a strong motive for wanting to kill her because she was a woman and, according to them, the daughter of a Shia. They also viewed her as the cat’s paw of the US. Of these organisations, only the anti-Shia Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LEJ) has a demonstrated capability for a terrorist strike in Karachi and Rawalpindi and for using with deadly accuracy a hand-held weapon as well as a suicide bomber. The LEJ has some excellent sharp-shooters recruited from among ex-servicemen.

In the last 10 years, it has assassinated dozens of Shia personalities through sharp-shooters firing from moving motor-cycles. The JEM had operated in Rawalpindi, but not in Karachi. All other organisations, including the JEM, Al-Qaida and the Taliban of Baitullah Mehsud feel more comfortable with a suicide bomber than a hand-held weapon.

Before coming to Rawalpindi, Benazir had addressed a meeting at Peshawar, which has been a hotbed of jihadi terrorists. They didn’t try to kill her there. They struck her at Rawalpindi probably because they had more local support in the security establishment there and felt more comfortable operating there.

That there are sleeper cells in Rawalpindi, where the General Headquarters of the Army are located would be evident from the following: Khalid Sheikh Mohammad of Al-Qaida, who had allegedly orchestrated the 9/11 strikes in the US homeland, was arrested there in March,2003, in the house of a woman leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami with relatives in the Army.

Of the three post-9/11 attempts to kill Musharraf, one was in Karachi and two were in Rawalpindi. Last year, there were two successful suicide attacks against the ISI staff in Rawalpindi and two unsuccessful suicide strikes targeting the GHQ. The assassination of Benazir was the seventh terrorist strike in Rawalpindi since 2003 and the fifth during 2007.

After the Lal Masjid raid in July last, suicide terrorism in Pakistan increased from six in 2006 to 55 in 2007. Most of them have remained undetected. Will the Benazir case be detected with the help of the Scotland Yard? Let us keep our fingers crossed.

(The writer is additional secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt of India)