The question of who was behind Friday’s assassination attempt on Benazir Bhutto is the whodunit from hell and, instead of a pistol, the drawing room dénouement will feature Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.
Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s October 18 return from a decade of exile was bound to be a pivotal moment in Pakistani politics, and thus, also will likely to be a violent one. Frustrated with President Musharraf’s unending military dictatorship and stagnating living conditions, the people of Karachi turned out in huge numbers to greet Bhutto as their potential savior.
The attack, which struck as Bhutto’s convoy slowly made its way through the city of Karachi, did not injure Bhutto. It did, however, kill 140 people, half of whom were members of Bhutto’s security detail. So far details remain unclear, although security services claim to have identified the heads of two suicide bombers.
At the best of times Pakistan is a society with a penchant for conspiracy theories, and the circumstances of the attack can only fuel this speculation. Despite ample warning that an attack on Bhutto was likely, security was inadequate to control the massive crowds that formed to meet Bhutto. Because of these crowds Bhutto’s convoy took about ten hours to travel about ten miles, while Karachi became a giant street party — and a perfect target for terror. Oddly, streetlights along the convoy’s route were turned off, complicating security efforts to spot possible attackers. In fairness however, Pakistani infrastructure is spotty at best, and these failings may have been due to raw incompetence. The government’s response to Bhutto’s accusations is that Bhutto ignored their security advice and insisted on a massive rally — of course such rallies are central to Pakistani politics.
Bhutto has vowed to fight Pakistan’s Islamists. Reportedly, a Taliban leader in South Waziristan, Baitullah Mehsud, who has been linked to the bombing attacks that were a response to the government’s storming of the Red Mosque earlier this summer, promised to greet Bhutto with suicide bombs. Mehsud has since denied making this statement. Even if this particular band of Islamists had nothing to do with the attacks, there is a vast constellation of Pakistani Islamist groups — most with at least tangential links to al Qaeda – that would object to Bhutto taking power and many would be savvy enough not to advertise their intentions.
However, many Pakistanis, including Bhutto herself, believe that if the Islamists were involved, they did so as cat’s paws for Pakistani intelligence. Pakistani intelligence has supported various Islamist groups to further its interests in Aghanistan, Kashmir, and Pakistan. Bhutto goes further and has stated that while she does not hold Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf responsible; there are three officials, whom she will not name, linked to former President Zia ul-Haq (who overthrew and executed her father), behind the attack. Not surprisingly, there is a”>a great deal of speculation about these individuals. Topping the list is retired General Ejaz Shah, the head of the Intelligence Bureau (and consequently ultimately responsible for Bhutto’s security). Shah was reportedly the intelligence community’s liaison to the Taliban, al Qaeda, and to Omar Sheikh who is in prison for the murder of Daniel Pearl.
Also suspected are Chaudhru Pervez Ellahi and Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain. When Musharraf deposed the last elected Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, the intelligence services engineered a split of Sharif’s party, the Pakistani Muslim League (PML). The Chaudhry cousins head the faction loyal to Musharraf. Bhutto, head of the other major national party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), has been in ongoing negotiations with Musharraf about entering a power-sharing arrangement. Few in Pakistan think much of the Chaudhry faction of the PML, while the PPP (as seen in the turnout to Bhutto’s homecoming) commands a substantial following. With Bhutto providing civilian legitimacy to Musharraf’s regime, the Chaudhry brothers would be out of the equation. Another possible candidate for Bhutto’s list is Ejaz ul-Haq, currently Musharraf’s Minister for Religious Affairs and the son of Zia ul-Haq, who executed Bhutto’s father.
Although Bhutto’s charges are a fascinating window into Pakistani politics, their veracity is uncertain. It is possible that as Bhutto moves closer to Musharraf, these are rivals that will need to be removed. She had previously called on Musharraf to fire General Shah because of his Islamist links. PML chief Hussain has responded that there was in fact a conspiracy, engineered by Bhutto’s husband (nicknamed Mr. 10% for his “deal-making” activities when Bhutto was in office) in order to garner sympathy for Bhutto.
There are other, more harrowing potential motives behind the attempt on Bhutto’s life. In courting Western support for her return to Pakistan, Bhutto promised that the International Atomic Energy Agency would receive access to A. Q. Khan, father of the Pakistani nuclear program and head of an international clandestine nuclear proliferation ring, who is currently under house arrest. The full extent of Khan’s network remains unknown. It is inconceivable that Khan carried out his operations without substantial assistance from figures in Pakistan’s military and intelligence services. This is information that the intelligence services would not like to see revealed. Another player that would prefer that the IAEA not have access to A. Q. Khan would be his leading customer. Khan may be able to reveal critical details about Iran’s nuclear program that would galvanize the international community against the Iranian nuclear program. Iran has launched suicide terror attacks around the world in support of their strategic interests, and there are militant Shia organizations in Pakistan with links to Iran.
Because of the long links between Pakistani intelligence and the Islamists, none of these scenarios are mutually exclusive. The government has refused Bhutto’s request for international participation in the investigation, which will only foster conspiracy theorists. But, in all likelihood, the attack on Bhutto was linked to a Pakistani Islamist organization. However, it is a cold comfort that attributing a massive terror attack to the Islamist “usual suspects” is the least disturbing scenario.
– Aaron Mannes, editor of TheTerrorWonk, researches international security affairs at the University of Maryland’s Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics and is a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland.