“Targeted assassination is a necessity of this modern world”. Those were the words of former MOSSAD official in a recent BBC documentary programme Panorama amid the controversy surrounding the recent killing of a Hamas leader in Dubai.
An assassination is the targeted killing of a prominent figure for political, ideological, religious, financial or military reasons. It can be a government sanctioned killing of opponents or targeted attacks on high-profile enemy elements.
In the United States, four presidents namely Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy died at the hands of assassins. There have been at least 20 known assassination attempts on U.S. presidents.
In 1914, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Serbian nationalist insurgents (The Black Hand) triggered what came to be known as the Great War (World War I).
Many countries and regions have lost their leaders through assassination plots. Pakistan is one such country where assassination plots are quite common and have been responsible for the demise of its political, religious, community, tribal leaders and army officers. One such assassination that has been in the news since recently is of its charismatic political leader Benazir Bhutto. She was assassinated on 27 December, 2007, while campaigning for parliamentary and provincial elections in Rawalpindi.
She was standing upright in an armoured vehicle with her head exposed above the open roof escape hatch, waving to the crowd when an attacker opened fire. Seconds later, a bomb was set off at the scene which eventually left some 20 people dead. Bhutto was rushed to Rawalpindi General Hospital, less than two miles from the bombing scene, where doctors then pronounced her dead Protests erupted in other cities of Pakistan as news of the assassination spread and by that night a dozen people had died, mostly in gun battles with police. Security forces were on red alert. Elsewhere trains were hijacked and set alight, banks and vehicles were burned down, property was set ablaze and government offices ransacked.
In this analysis below, I will look at the mysteries and controversies surrounding her assassination and try to reach a conclusion on the likely assailants and plotters and the findings of the UN Investigative commission.
Part 1 will look at the controversy that arises immediately after the assassination.
Part 2 will look at the likely culprits behind the assassination in the light of cover up of evidence and the certain important points in UN report. It will focus on the following questions below:
How should the assassination be investigated?
Was Baithullah Mehsud Responsible ?
Who is likely responsible for the Assassination?
On the notion that Zardari was responsible for Assassination?
Part 1: Controversy surrounding the immediate aftermath of Bhutto’s assassination: The Cause of Benazir’s Death – Head Injury or Gun Shot?
Two theories, that still exist today, remained the highlight of the immediate news after her assassination. It is important to analyze the essence of this controversy and investigate the motives of certain players behind this.
Promoters of “head Injury theory” have been Pakistani military government, Intimidated doctors (who first treated Bhutto at Rawalpindi hospital) and British investigative agency, Scotland Yard.
Promoters of “Gun shot as cause for her death” have been PPP supporters and many other independent analysts (Such as British Channel 4) who reached this conclusion by observing the different assassination TV footages from various angles.
Note: Channel 4 video analysis showed that there was no sign of blood on the sun roof lever hence proving the gun shot theory.
This controversy is absurd and was deliberately fueled and exploited by all stakeholders. In my view, it should not matter whether Benazir died because of hitting her head on the escape hatch or from gun shots. Either way, she was killed because of that fifteen year old suicide bomber who initially tried to shoot her when he fired gunshots and subsequently blew himself up as it appears in the video footage widely telecasted by news channels.
I am using this example below to explain my point:
If I am in a small, empty room with no windows and the only way out is through a door with a glass centre, most of which is broken, exposing edges sharp enough to cut human skin. But If I am careful I can go through that door without a scratch.
Now, if I see a venomous snake in that room, given my fear of snakes, all I would want to do is go through that door. But, since my fear of snakes would have captured my attention more than the broken glass on the door, I am likely to end up with some, possibly severe, cuts on my body once I go through that door.
Just how fear of snakes can cause me to almost ignore the broken glass, Bhutto’s concussion was the result of a logical response in a desperate situation. Normally any person would be careful going down the sunroof. But if I was getting shot at, the first and the only thing on my mind would be to dodge the bullets. If Bhutto did indeed die of a concussion when she hit her head on the edge of the sunroof of her vehicle then it was only because of the assassin that this happened.
The theory may have substance but the conclusion is absurd. The suicide bomber was there to kill Bhutto and, regardless of the cause of her death, the mission of the bomber was successful.
However, the Pakistani military has advocated the head injury hypothesis in order to achieve two objectives.
a) To impede the investigation of Benazir’s assassination
b) To blunt criticism that she was not adequately protected
Let’s analyse these two points
Benazir’s death from “head injury” was important for the then Mushrraf government of Pakistan because it helped them to promote the notion that president Musharraf provided the best security measures but eventually it was Bhutto who hit her head on the sunroof. Thus this was crucial to shun criticism that despite those security measures, a 15 year old suicide bomber managed to get so close and fired shots from a mere three meters range.
The second aim of this theory was to divert attention of the Pakistani public and the media who were demanding a criminal probe against the forces behind the assassination. The government, by exploiting the head injury theory, tried its best to bury the important questions surrounding the assassination such as bullets used in the shooting which, if recovered, would have indicated the type of weapon used or would have given some clues surrounding the genuine identity of the assassin.
Hence in order to cover up this major security lapse and conceal important facts surrounding the assassination, the Pakistani military government took shelter under the umbrella of this “head injury theory”.
The gunshot theory was initially supported by doctors who first treated Bhutto after she was brought in the Rawalpindi hospital. Later these doctors contradicted their earlier claims and supported the theory of head injury as the cause of death (Read the Final Medical report here)
According to the newspaper Washington post, “Pakistani authorities have pressured the medical personnel who tried to save Benazir Bhutto’s life to remain silent about what happened in her final hour and have removed records of her treatment from the facility. “The government took all the medical records right after Ms. Bhutto’s time of death was read out,” said a visibly shaken doctor who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. Sweating and putting his head in his hands, he said: ‘Look, we have been told by the government to stop talking. And a lot of us feel this is a disgrace.’”
When Bhutto was in hospital, an ISI officer, Rawalpindi Detachment Commander Colonel Jehangir Akhtar was also present. According to the UN report, at this point ISI Deputy Director General, Major General Nusrat Naeem contacted Professor Mussadiq (senior physician who treated Bhutto) from Colonel Jehangir’s cell phone to confirm the news about Bhutto’s death. At this point, the ISI wanted to ensure that the doctors would eventually support the head injury theory and would not reveal any other information to the media. The next day Pakistani government formally proposed the head injury theory in a press conference. However, this failed to convince the public. This was primarily because of certain assassination video footages that were aired at the time across all Pakistani TV channels showing the possibility of Bhutto’s death being caused by bullet wounds. This prompted the Pakistani government to backtrack its head injury theory statement and instead the government spokesperson, Javed Iqbal Cheema, announced that the ministry would wait for forensic investigations before making a conclusion on Bhutto’s cause of death. At the same time Asif Zardari, Bhutto’s widower demanded the UN investigation into the assassination and openly claimed a conspiracy by the Pakistani establishment to assassinate her spouse.
Calls for international and independent investigation led the Pakistani army government to involve the British investigative agency, the Scotland Yard. Musharraf now promised to provide intelligence on high profile Al Qaeda operatives, especially the head of Al Qaeda’s European operations, Rashid Rauf, to the British government. Britain had higher stakes in the ‘War on terror’ and for the sake of prioritising its national interests and protecting British streets from terrorists, it agreed to send the Scotland Yard team and draft a report predominantly in Muharraf government’s favour. The 3-page “long report” by the Scotland Yard was void from any criticism against the Military government and reached a conclusion that the cause of Bhutto’s death was the impact from her head injury. It should be noted that Muharraf in his press conference after the assassination announced that the Scotland Yard would investigate the core of assassination but in reality the only job given to Scotland Yard by him was to investigate the actual cause of Benazi’s death (Head injury or Gun Shots). It was drastically different from the recent UN 70 page report. (Read here the Scotland Yard Report).
Throughout this time, Bhutto’s PPP maintained an active, but not effective, stance that the cause of the assassination was gunshot wounds. As I have argued before, it makes no sense to maintain this since, regardless of the direct cause of Benazir’s death, it was the terrorist who brought about the events that led to her death. Instead of clarifying this to the public The PPP remained firm on the gun shot theory. They were motivated by attempts to define Bhutto’s legacy: perhaps Bhutto would be considered a martyr if she died by gunshot, but not if she died by hitting her head following a bomb blast. One other motive was the general election. Throughout history, assassination, successful or not, has proven to be a license to get votes. The PPP was sure to get sympathy from the public and they were not going to allow the head injury theory to kill their prospects for winning the elections. After considering these motives, it is obvious why the PPP did not insist on carrying out an independent post mortem examination.
Part 2: I would like to explain this section by answering some important questions that will help us in understanding this assassination plot.
The assassination, while tragic, was not one that was well planned; the assassin had left clues but to no avail thanks to subsequent developments such as hosing down of crime scene by Rawalpindi Police.
Some important questions to consider are:
How should the assassination be investigated?
In order to find the likely assailants, the investigation should focus on who ordered the hit on 18th October 2007. The October 18th failed assassination attempt and the 27th December shooting were the work of the same group. This group was after Benazir ever since she returned to Pakistan. It should be noted that between October 18th 2007 and the day of her assassination, Benazir attended only one large public rally in Larkana on the 23rd December 2007. It’s quite possible that her assassin went to chase her in Larkana and didn’t execute the plot due to PPP’s own high security arrangements and the volunteers of “Jaan Nisar Benazir”.
Note: The Jaan Nisar Benazir volunteer’s main task was to form a human chain around Bhutto in order to stop suicide bombers from reaching her. These volunteers were arranged by Zulfiqar Mirza and Asif Zardari. The Punjab government however denied Benazir the approval to include them in Rawalpindi on the day of assassination.
Secondly the ostensible security lapses which led to Bhutto’s death should not be overlooked. It is possible that the security collapse was purposely planned to aid in the assassination. The security failure is also extensively highlighted by the UN report which also revealed the evidence of poor security arrangement, lack of emergency plans and ‘hosing down’ of crime scene by the Rawalpindi police. The other important issue that is not much discussed before is the issue of remote control bomb jamming devices. Several sources claim that throughout Bhutto’s stay in Pakistan since October 18, she was anxious about these jamming devices. According to the British Journalist Christina Lamb, Bhutto got up early on the morning of 27th December and requested from the Iraqi president Jalal Talabni through her friend Peter Galbraith, some of the devices that he was using. According to PPP’s own sources and the UN report, the jamming devices provided by the military government of Pakistan were defunct.
The third issue is concerning the vehicle in which she was travelling when she was assassinated. The vehicle, a Land Cruiser, was taken to the police lines and was not properly preserved. According to the UN report, ISI operatives were also present at the scene and further findings of the report revealed that “An investigating police officer on the orders of the CPO, removed Ms Bhutto’s shoes and took them to the City Police Station. Sometime thereafter, the shoes were ordered back into the car. This was clearly interfering with the integrity of the evidence”.
The most essential point here is the missing of crucial evidence such as the Dupatta (Bhutto’s white head scarf), from the vehicle during its presence at Police Lines.
The fourth issue is of Post – Mortem. Why this was not carried out and the reason why the military government and law enforcement agencies were adamant into carrying the post-mortem out at Chaklala airbase instead of Rawalpindi Hospital?
Lastly the interrogation of the following possible suspects should be carried: General Hamid Gul, Chaudry Pervez Elahi and Brigadier Ejaz Shah, basically those that were mentioned in Benazir’s October 16th letter. Bhutto had claimed on numerous occasions that these were the individuals who she feared for her life. Although it is common in Pakistan for politicians to make such claims either for popularity or public sympathy but the fact that Bhutto was killed at least proves that she did in fact fear for her life. It is hence reasonable to investigate the three people she singled out. Unfortunately no such investigation has so far taken place.
Was Baithullah Mehsud Responsible ?
This narrative of Pakistani government failed to convince many people (including the UN and PPP). There are some issues with the claim that Baitullah assassinated Bhutto. The claim is based on a single telephone call that was intercepted by the ISI in which Mehsud congratulated his people for carrying out this act. Refer here for the exact transcript of Mehsud’s conversation.
The following are the issues with this Baithullah theory.
Throughout the conversation the interlocutors did not mention Benazir so may be this conversation if genuine relates to some other attack. If this intercept is real then there is also a possibility that it is a previous conversation between Baithullah and associates about some other bombing. It should be noted that a wave of suicide bombings was started in 2007 and Baithullah claimed responsibility for most of them.
Does the ISI have the voice prints in order to verify the authenticity of the voice recording?
The ISI managed to intercept this phone call and produced the evidence within 24 hrs of the assassination. This same agency fails to intercept telephone calls and produce evidence on numerous other bombing incidents some of which are the bomb blast in Lahore, Marriot Hotel Bombing and the attack on the Sri Lankan Cricket team.
Baithullah has always denied carrying out the assassination. None of his close aides have ever claimed responsibility of the assassination even after Baithullah’s death?
Who is likely responsible for the Assassination?
Before investigating the main plotter, it is important to identify the accomplices who facilitated this assassination. Considering the Pervez Musharraf washing of crime scene, shifting of Benazir’s body to Chaklala airbase, interference of Military Government with medical reports, disappearance of Bhutto’s dupatta, and the government’s inadequate security plans including defuct jamming devices, it is reasonable to conclude that the Musharraf government acted as a facilitator in the assassination. The security blunders, both during and after the assassination, are too blatant to be considered just a failure on the part of the government. They were in stark contrast to what happened during the investigation of the two assassination attempts on Musharraf in the same city, when the area had been sealed off for weeks.
In order to find out the main assassin one can follow the rule that I have described above that is to find out who is responsible for October 18th bombings. According to various journalists, Pakistan investigators and Benazir herself, Qari Safiullah Akhtar was responsible for the October 18th bombings. The best source of intelligence on this comes from Benazir who named Qari in her posthumous book, ’Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West’. As I said before that any vital intelligence that came from Benazir should not be overlooked because her assassination proves that her life was in danger and those plots were not conspired by Benazir herself to gain public sympathy. Benazir was a sociable & popular politician in Pakistan and it is expected that she must have got few of her reliable sources inside Pakistani security agencies who provided her with valuable intelligence on Qari Safullah.
Note: Qari was in jail during the time Bhuttoo was in exile. However he was set free on 21st May 2007, 5 months before October 18th blasts. In 2008, Qari was again arrested by law enforcement agencies in connection with October 18 bombings but was later freed.
It should be noted that Qari safiullah Akhtar is an important Al Qaeda member who, like Illyas Kashmiri (a former Pakistan army officer), operates independently and is used by the ISI for assassination and bombing purposes within Pakistan (Ilyas Kashmiri is used for the Kashmiri territory).
Apart from Qari and elements inside the Musharraf government, there were others in the Pakistani establishment who wanted Bhutto dead. Some possible suspects are Brigadier Ejaz Shah (recently allowed to leave for Australia under the Musharraf government to escape a possible criminal investigation) and Terrorist Hamid Gul.
Note: The Pakistani Establishment is a group of powerful individuals within Pakistan Army and security agencies such as ISI, MI & IB. It also includes politicians and media persons who promote their agenda such as journalist Syed Talat hussain, Moeed Peerzada, Mushahid Hussain, Maleeha Lodhi, Pir Pagara, Chaudry Brothers and Marvi Memon.
On the notion that Zardari was responsible for Assassination?
Zardari’s involvement in Bhutto’s assassination is promoted by the Pakistani Establishment and a substantial section of Pakistani Media on the basis of the following two conclusions:
1. Zardari refused to carry out the post mortem of Bhutto and therefore he is the culprit.
2. Zardari is protecting Rehman Malik and Baber Awan so this makes him complicit in Bhutto’s death.
Before discussing the above, it is important to remember that Zardari is an unpopular politician, with numerous allegations of corruption and power abuse. So much so that he is popularly referred to as Mr 10%. With this reputation, Zardari is an easy target.
It is, however, wrong to assume that Zardari is responsible for not allowing the post-mortem. Although he did not consent to carrying out the post – mortem but one has to look at the situation Zardari was put under by the Pakistani military government. Bhutto’s body was shifted to the Chaklala airbase by the military without Zardari’s consent. What is strange is that the military insisted on carrying out the medical examination on the airbase instead of the Rawalpindi hospital.
The Rawalpindi Police on orders from ISI put the entire blame on Zadari for refusing to carry out the post – mortem. Paragraph 147 of the UN report states “It is odd that Ms Bhutto’s remains were moved to the Pakistan Air Force base (Chaklala Airbase) in Rawalpindi before Mr Zardari’s arrival from Dubai. According to sources, the body was taken from the hospital around 2300 hours, on 27 December. The note signed by Mr Zardari accepting his wife’s remains is timed 0110 hours on 28 December. If the police were genuinely waiting for Mr Zardari’s permission before requesting a post- mortem examination, they should have left Ms Bhutto’s remains at the hospital. Instead they moved her remains to Chaklala Airbase, thereby rendering such an examination more difficult. When questioned about this, senior Punjab officials stated that the plan was to carry out the examination at the base which also had medical facilities. However, the fact that Ms Bhutto’s coffin was not taken to the medical facilities, but placed in a room at the base makes this assertion doubtful”.
The findings of the UN commission vindicated Zardari from the post – mortem mess. Zardari would have allowed the post mortem had the Pakistan army not had transferred Bhutto’s body to the Chaklala airbase without his permission. The reason Zardari refused to carry out the post – mortem at the airbase was because he suspected that the authorities were likely to manipulate the report in order to prove that Bhutto died from head injury and hence due to her own fault.
Also according to the UN report, Rehman Malik and Baber Awan were in a Mercedes travelling behind Bhutto on the day of her assassination. Other people inside the car were Farhatullah Baber and General Tauqir Zia. The UN report, in paragraph 234, heavily criticised the departure of these individuals (including Malik and Awan) after the blast. On the basis of this departure and on the recent interview of the driver of the vehicle to Dunya news, the Pakistani media is promoting the hypothesis that since Malik and Baber fled the scene, they were involved in the assassination.
To connect these two individuals with the assassination on the basis of just this departure is vague and insufficient. To be fair, Malik and Baber showed have stayed around after the blast, but it has been proven by both medical and witnesses accounts that Bhutto died almost instantly after the blast. Hence if Malik and Baber had stayed, they would have been no help to Bhutto. Even if Malik and Baber were involved in the assassination, they are probably smart enough to not just flee the scene of crime.
Unfortunately the Pakistani media has largely focused on this unreasonable theory. The obsession with this theory is evident from the account below:
Recently, the driver of the Mercedes in which Rehman Malik and Baber Awan fled after the bomb blast scene gave an interview to journalist Naseem Zehra for Dunya News. The driver has said that on 27th December, minutes before the assassination, Rehman Malik said that “Aaj koi mojza hoga agar Hum bach gayee tuu” English Translation: “Only a miracle can save us today”.
The Pakistani talk show (popular political soap operas in Pakistan) hosts Dr Shahid Masood, Kashif Abbasi and Ansar Abbasi have falsely interpreted this statement of the driver in a recent programme on the TV channel ARY as:
“Aaj koi mojza hoga agar Benazir bach gayee tuu”
English Translation:“Only a miracle can save Benazir Bhutto today”
The difference between the two statements is obvious. The misinterpreted statement is deliberately used by the media to portray Rehman Malik as a quintessential bad guy in a Bollywood movie.
To summarise the above, Benazir was assassinated by Qari Safiullah Akhtar on the orders of Pakistani establishment. The Musharraf government acted as a facilitator in the assassination by playing an important role by the handling of crime scene, tampering of evidence, security lapses and finally by declaring Baithullah Mehsud as responsible. The role of the Pakistani media in this crisis remains biased and protective of the Pakistani establishment. The media, who plays a significant role in forming public opinion, has engaged in falsely accusing Zardari and other PPP members for the assassination. They have even criticised the UN investigation and calling it a conspiracy against the Pakistani Army. Sympathizers of the Pakistani establishment (Such as Rashid Qureshi and Shaheen Shabai) are also spreading rumours that the UN investigation cost Pakistan $1.5 million a page (70 page in total). The fact is that the total cost of the report is $5million and it is stated in the same report that the commission would be funded by the member states (Page 69). According to Abdullah Hussain Haroon, Pakistan’s Permanent Representative to the UN, the investigation will cost Pakistan around $1.1 million (Rs 100 million) and the remaining is being funded by the US, UK, UAE and the Turkish governments.
The gross exaggeration of the cost in the name of journalism is necessary for the Pakistani media and Establishment because it helps them to mislead the public against Zardari government, further adding to the ills of poor economy and high crime. It should be noted that the never mentioned cost of Aafia Siddiqui’s lawsuit was $2 million. The media is serving the country well by exaggerating and criticizing the cost of investigating the death of a democratic leader and rarely ever mentioning the cost of protecting a terrorist.
By Anas Abbas