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Syem Saleem Shahzad: death of a journalist

The Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad made both friends and enemies in the course of his detailed reporting of Islamist groups and insurgencies in the country. An official report on his abduction and murder in May 2011 may leave key questions unanswered, says Nick Fielding, but read carefully and in context it brings the truth of his end closer.

The official Report of the Commission of Inquiry Concerning the Gruesome Incident of the Abduction and Murder of Syed Saleem Shahzad, prepared by the Saleem Shahzad Murder Inquiry and submitted to the government of Pakistan on 10 January 2012, makes for fascinating, if depressing reading.

Shahzad, a prominent journalist who had written widely on security issues and insurgency in Pakistan and the region, was abducted in broad daylight in the heart of Islamabad in the early evening of 29 May 2011 while on his way to a TV studio for an interview. His body was discovered in a canal two days later and quickly buried without investigation, it being thought he was a vagrant. When exhumed and examined by pathologists, he was found to have at least seventeen major wounds and contusions on his body, evidence that he had been brutally tortured before succumbing to death.

Such was the concern about the death of a well-known Pakistani investigative journalist who specialised in terrorism-related subjects - specifically al-Qaida, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and various other Islamists inhabiting the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) - that the government ordered an inquiry into the incident in a forlorn hope that it could help to identify the culprits. His death took place against a background of extreme danger for journalists. Reporters without Borders cite the fact that Pakistan, where eleven journalists were killed in 2011, was the most dangerous place in the world for journalists for the second year in a row.

The process

The commission of inquiry - made up of two senior judges, two police officers and a journalist - held twenty-three formal meetings, examined forty-one witnesses and went through more than 30,000 emails recovered from Shahzad's computer records. It was also given access to his phone records, including geographical ones that showed where calls had been made from and to. The final 146-page report is not available online, so this article will attempt to summarise its main findings.

First, the commission has not been able to identify any of the culprits, although many people continue to believe Shahzad was killed by elements from Pakistan's security services. It accepts that the background to his killing was what it calls the "War on Terror" and recommended that the government pay substantial compensation to his widow and family. Shahzad wrote to three people shortly before his death saying that in October 2010 he had been threatened by Rear Admiral Adnan Nazir, director-general (DG) of the media wing of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, and that he feared for his life.

Second, the commission also recommends that the Pakistani press be made more law-abiding and accountable by the establishment of some kind of press complaints committee; that the relationship between the intelligence agencies be made more accountable through parliamentary oversight; and that a human-rights ombudsman be created for judicial redressal of grievances against agencies.

The suggestion that Shahzad had been killed by the ISI was strengthened after it was revealed that Human Rights Watch in Pakistan heard - before the discovery of the body - that he was being detained by the ISI. His wife was also reported to have received an anonymous call on the night of his abduction saying that he was in ISI custody and would be released shortly - although she denied receiving this call when questioned by the commission.

The commission of inquiry did not get off to a good start. It issued numerous appeals inviting friends and family to provided written submissions with little result: "It may be recorded with some concern and dismay, that in response to the above notice, no credible and serious response from the concerned quarter was received. Neither Saleem's family and friends nor his journalist colleagues came forward to share any information or to provide the Commission with evidence which would shed light on the background of the incident or upon the incident itelf". Clearly few journalists in Pakistan thought it safe to make public their concerns about the activities of the security services.

As a result the commission convened an open meeting in Pakistan's supreme-court building in the capital Islamabad, inviting people to come along and speak. This produced a better result, with Shahzad's brother-in-law turning up, along with a large number of journalists, of whom thirteen eventually agreed to submit written statements. Perhaps they felt safety in numbers. Further appeals eventually resulted in more journalists coming forward with statements.

The commission also decided to ask Pakistan's intelligence agencies - the Military Intelligence (MI), the Intelligence Bureau (IB) of the police and the Inter-Services Intelligence to give evidence. The MI stated in written submissions that it had no contact with Shahzad and therefore did not think it should participate. The IB sent two officials who said the same in person. However, the ISI agreed to send four officials, all of whom were examined, some more than once.

Much of the evidence submitted by journalists is, in legal terms, little more than hearsay, although it contains some interesting snippets. Matiullah Jan, deputy bureau chief for Dawn News, noted: "I can recall Shahzad referring to intelligence agencies and even the Military spokesman office closely working together to identify 'trouble making journalists' and Shahzad also referring that the agencies keeping profile of the journalists marking these with different colours of flags according to the degree of defiance being shown by the marked journalist."

Other journalists said that some of the articles written by Shahzad for Asia Times Online, the magazine for which he wrote, had displeased the ISI. They mentioned in particular an article about the jihadist attack on the Mehran naval base in Karachi on 22 May 2011, a week before he died, and another article that alleged Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Baradar had been released from custody.

Shahzad’s controversial article on Mehran said that the devastating attack by a well-trained commando group of jihadists, which destroyed millions of pounds worth of aircraft and resulted in many deaths, was not launched in revenge for the death of Osama bin Laden, as widely report, but happened after talks between al-Qaida and the military authorities over the release of two officers said to be sympathetic to the jihadists, broke down. An interview with the notorious jihadist, Ilyas Kashmiri, is also thought to have caused consternation within the ISI. In what may or may not be a coincidence, Kashmiri was killed in a CIA drone-strike in South Waziristan just three days after Shahzad died.

There was also deep unhappiness about his book Inside al-Qaeda and the Taliban (published in the UK by Pluto Press in 2011) which alleged that rogue elements of the armed services were sympathetic to al-Qaeda and had assisted terrorists to mount the attack on Mumbai in November 2008. Shahzad named the officers he said were involved.

The witnesses

Some of the witnesses at the inquiry spoke bravely. Hamid Mir said: "According to some circumstantial evidence and information, I believe that Saleem Shahzad was kidnapped and then killed by some government security agency". Other journalists, such as Zafar Mehmood Sheikh, who said he was a close friend of Shahzad, were certain that he had been killed by the Americans in order to destablise the country.

Imtiaz Alam, a well-known journalist and secretary general of the South Asian Free Media Association, told the commission about the "army of pseudo-journalists that it [the ISI] keeps on its payroll and who have proved to be good for nothing."

Qamar Yousafzai, editor of the Daily Islamabad Times, said that he had sometimes worked with Shahzad in remote areas. "Once when we were together in Quetta, Saleem Shahzad asked me that I should plan for his fake kidnap, but I refused to do so." He alleged that Shahzad had never interviewed Ilyas Kashmiri, but had made it up. He said another interview by Shahzad did not take place and that the supposed interviewee was killed four days later for views that he did not hold. "I have an impression that he was working for some other country, particularly some spy agency...In my opinion, he has been abducted and murdered by militant groups of al-Qaida/Taliban because on account of his articles [there was an] increase in the drone attacks, and the militant organisations, in fact, suffered harm on that account."

Hamid Haroon, chief executive of the Dawn group of publications, is one of those who received an email from Shahzad on 17 October 2010 which mentioned the alleged death threat by the ISI’s Rear Admiral Adnan Nazir. He said the threat was due to Shahzad's article on the alleged release of Mullah Baradar. He also noted that a record of the meeting with Nazir had been sent to the Rear Admiral himself and produced a copy of the email. Haroon's own opinion was that the articles on Ilyas Kashmiri and the Mehran naval base are the ones that upset the ISI more than anything else. Kashmiri's death shortly after that of Shahzad, he said, must be connected.

Ali Hasan Dayan of Human Rights Watch in Pakistan reiterated that he had been sent a copy of the email sent by Shahzad and outlining Nazir’s threat. He said he received a call from Shahzad's wife the day he disappeared in which she said she had been told he was in ISI custody (again, she denied making the call when questioned by the commission). His own inquiries resulted in similar assurances. He concluded: "I have reasons to believe that Saleem Shahzad was abducted by the ISI. This judgment is based upon my extensive experience of documenting other such incidents committed by the ISI and other security agencies in Pakistan."

Muhammad Raashed, a journalist, told the commission that he knew Saleem very well and was aware both that he was a friend of Khalid Khwaja - a former airforce officer who had close connections to the jihadists (and who in the event was murdered by them in April 2010) - and that Khwaja was an important source. Raashed said that Saleem was "very close" to the United States embassy in Pakistan, and that he was working for them. He said the Americans used him to further their agenda in Pakistan and to put pressure on the military. He said it was possible that information from Saleem may have led to Ilyas Kashmiri's targeting and death.

The ISI witnesses to the commission were keen to suggest that they had good relations with many journalists. Brigadier Zahid Mehmood Khan, from the agency's headquarters in Islamabad, said that the reason for the meeting on 17 October 2010 at which Saleem later claimed he had been threatened was an article in Asia Times Online that falsely quoted an unnamed senior intelligence officer. He said the meeting was cordial and friendly, as later acknowledged in an email sent the following day by Shahzad. He added that Shahzad's final article before his death, called "Osama Bin Laden ready for a fight", dated 3 May 2011, also falsely quoted the director-general of the ISI saying he was aware of the US operation in Abbottabad that resulted in the death of the leader of al-Qaeda. Shahzad had issued a correction in the following issue of Asia Times Online.

Khan went on to suggest that threatening calls made to Shahzad could have come from people impersonating the ISI - it had happened before, he said - and that the Ilyas Kashmiri group had good grounds for hating him, as they suspected him of possibly leaking information to the Americans. He added that the alleged threat specified in Shahzad's email to Rear Admiral Nazir was not actually a threat at all and that, as Shahzad himself agreed, "the conversation was held in an extremely polite and friendly atmosphere and there was no mince words in the room at any stage".

Five days after the email, on 22 October 2010, Shahzad sent another email to Nazir, as follows:

"Dear Adnan Nazeer Saheb,

Please read my recent article for Middle East Political and Economic Institute, European think tank for bringing EU and Muslim world closer. The article is released by Asia Despatch. I am also an Associate of Pakistan Security Research Unit of the University of Bradford, UK.

Can we discuss further on the lobbying prospects for Pakistan's strategic interests in Europe?

Best,

Saleem"

Further emails were exchanged, all of which appear to have been cordial, including one soliciting a meeting for a "cup of tea" – i.e., a briefing. The brigadier added that he didn’t think any of Shahzad’s articles were against the national interest; rather, they exposed the workings of al-Qaida and the Taliban. He said Shahzad told him that the journalist had been approached by both the Indian and the British intelligence services.

Rear Admiral Adnan Nazir himself appeared in front of the commission where he denied ever having threatened any journalists. He agreed that Shahzad had sent him a copy of an email containing a verbatim note of what the journalist believed was a death threat, but he denied ever saying the words. The relevant section of Shahzad’s email, sent to three friends and also to the Rear Admiral, states:

"On Saturday evening I received a call from Commodore Khalid Pervaiz, Deputy Director General ISI and he lambasted me that I sold out the national interest by publishing that news (i.e. the Mullah Baradar story)"... "Although there was no mince words in the room at any stage, but I take Adnan’s following statement as MURDER threat. He said:

"Saleem I must give you a favour. We have recently arrested a terrorist and have recovered a lot of data, diaries and other material during the interrogation. He has a hit list with him. If I find your name in the list I will let you know."

Rear Admiral Nazir said in response: "I did not respond to this email. Though I found that the quotation portion of the email was wrong and false, but I did not find it expedient to respond," he said. He added that in the seven months following the meeting he had kept in touch with Shahzad and that the tone of the interaction had been "normal, decent, courteous, friendly and cordial". He said that the Mullah Baradar story had created mistrust between Pakistan and the US, but he believed that the Ilyas Kashmiri interview had been fabricated. He had no problem with the Mehran article. Other ISI witnesses, not surprisingly, backed up Nazir and Mehmood Khan.

The inquiry established that even though Shahzad’s car must have passed through three sets of toll booths with number-plate recognition systems, there was no way to check if his car had been recognised. No forensic check was done on the car to find out if there were any fingerprints or other evidence. It was never found out where the body had been dumped into the canal nor exactly how long it had been in the water. The official medical report said: "The deceased died due to multiple injuries from 1-17 which caused ruptured and damaged both lungs, liver and fractured 6th rib on left side, 9th rib on right (which) caused death. All injuries are ante-mortem in nature and sufficient to cause death in ordinary course of nature."

The verdict

Needless to say, the commission could not come to any conclusions about the perpetrators of the murder or even the motive. No one saw Shahzad being abducted. No-one could say where the terrible injuries were inflicted on him. Allegations were made, variously, against the ISI, the Americans or Indians, al-Qaida or the Tehreek-e-Taliban. Whilst the commission stopped short of accusing it of the murder, it did say it was "convinced that there are sufficient reasons to believe that the agencies, including the ISI, have been using coercive and intimidating tactics in dealing with those journalists who antagonise the Agency’s interest". It noted that four other journalists - Umer Cheema, Musa Khankhel, Hayatullah Dawar and Wali Khan Babar - had either been badly beaten or killed by elements of the intelligence services.

What conclusions can be drawn? First, it is clear that the killer or killers of Syed Saleem Shahzad took great care to make sure little trace was left of their activities. They could not be found on CCTV cameras, they dumped the body in running water, they disabled his phone. None of this fits with the idea of the murderers being Islamists. They like to boast about their killings and usually leave a note pinned to their victims’ bodies claiming responsibility. Nor is it likely that they would attempt an abduction in the middle of the capital. The likelihood of the Americans killing Shahzad is too fanciful to be given any credence.

Second, the only thing that makes sense is that someone connected with the intelligence agencies planned and carried out this killing. Shahzad, like many Pakistani journalists, ran with the foxes and hunted with the hounds. He was friends with everyone - al-Qaida, Tehreek-e-Taliban, former intelligence officers, serving ISI officers, the Americans, the Indians, in fact, anyone who could give him a good story. I cannot comment on whether or not he took money for writing particular kinds of stories, or if he regularly made up quotes and interviews (there is good evidence to suggest he did), but it is possible that his writings crossed certain red lines for the ISI - in particular, anything that revealed a nexus between the jihadists and the ISI. Shahzad wrote along such lines on several occasions and had clearly been warned about his behaviour. Everything was kept cordial, but underneath there was serious concern. And in Pakistan, where foreign intelligence agents are thought to lurk under every bush and rock, this is not good for one’s health.

A case now passing through Pakistan’s supreme court may cast some further light onto this case, specifically on the way the intelligence services deal with awkward cases. The apex court has ordered the ISI and MI to explain how four detainees died whilst in their custody. The background is as follows: In 2007 and 2008 the ISI arrested eleven men suspected of taking part in attacks on its Hamza camp, the GHQ in Rawalpindi, and Kamra airbase. They were all acquitted due to lack of evidence, but on the day of their release they were re-arrested.

In May 2010 their detention was declared illegal. When they were released again, they were taken by the ISI to secret bases in FATA. Their families filed petitions in the supreme court declaring them missing persons. This resulted in the men being located and shown to their families during 2011. However, they continued to be detained under draconian regulations known as the "Action (in Aid of Civil Power) Regulation 2011 for FATA".

Four of the eleven subsequently died due to "natural causes". According to official sources, one died on 13 August due to acute renal failure; two died in December of anaemia; and another died in January 2012 of cardio-pulmonary failure. Their relatives say they were tortured and poisoned. In all these cases the bodies were left by the roadside after the Lady Reading hospital in Peshawar refused to accept them. Four others are in a critical condition, while three more are now in an investigation centre in Parachinar in FATA. All, it is suggested, have been badly treated and once they became ill, left to die.

The intelligence agencies appear to have decided to deal with such "troublemakers" in their own way. The ISI has been ordered to bring the remaining prisoners in front of the court by 11 February 2012. However their cases are looked at, there are echoes here of the way that Syed Saleem Shahzad met his end. The Report of the Commission of Inquiry Concerning the Gruesome Incident of the Abduction and Murder of Syed Saleem Shahzad may not offer definitive answers, but read carefully and in context it does take us closer to the truth about the journalist's death.

About the author

Nick Fielding is a journalist and author. He was a senior reporter at The Sunday Times and previously worked for The Mail on Sunday and The Independent. He writes the blog Circling the Lion’s Den. With Yosri Fouda he wrote Masterminds of Terror, Mainstream, 2003.


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