Al Qaeda and Taliban Gain a Stranglehold on Islamabad

The theories swirling around the assassination of former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto on Dec. 27 are narrowed down by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence and counter-terror sources to al Qaeda or an affiliate, as the most likely prime mover – and also the crime’s foremost beneficiary.

The method of operation and its precise planning point to al Qaeda as having sent the assailant, who first opened fire then detonated his bomb vest.

This theory is not accepted by some of Bhutto’s aides, including her husband Asif Ali Zardari, who prefer to point the finger at the Musharraf government, army and intelligence. Zadari claimed that his dead wife willed the chairmanship of their Pakistan People’s Party to their 19-year old son, with himself as the ad hoc regent.

Neither are some influential circles in Washington convinced. They question the government’s assertion that she died of a fractured skull from the bomb blast – not an assassin’s bullet.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources report that, a few hours after the murder, American Predator drones, which are used for such operations by the CIA, went into action against al Qaeda and Taliban affiliates in Pakistan’s tribal region of Waziristan.

They bombed various Jaish-i-Mohammed, Lashkar-i-Toiba, Lashkar-i-Jhangvi havens, focusing on the North Waziristan town of Mir Ali, believed to be the center of their declared ideologue, the enigmatic Sheikh Essa.

Dozens were killed and many injured in the attack.


Al Qaeda’s ideologue for the new era


In 2007, Sheikh Essa, an Egyptian like al Qaeda’s No. 2, Ayman Zawahiri, rose to prominence as the international jihadist movement’s pre-eminent modern ideologue (a contemporary successor to Azzam Abdullah, who was Osama bin Laden‘s mentor and whose murder in 1987 paved the way for bin Laden’s coronation as head of the movement.)

Sheikh Essa’s central theme is that al Qaeda and Taliban must not restrict their main thrust against the West to Afghanistan and the Pakistan border areas, but carry it over to Pakistan’s heartland and seize control of the country and its nuclear arsenal.

Bhutto’s murder was to be their opening shot, followed by all of Pakistan’s leading politicians.

It is possible that Adm. William Fallon, commander of the US war on terror, decided the post-assassination turmoil in Pakistan was his chance to knock over a row of terrorist targets that were scheduled for elimination but vetoed by President Pervez Musharraf. The US commander correctly banked on the Predator attacks not raising waves in the aftermath of the Bhutto murder. He also sensed the urgency of taking action to offset al Qaeda’s most resounding feat since 9/11 – as debkafile reported on Dec. 29. By a single murder, al Qaeda had managed to dramatically reorient the US war on terror from Afghanistan and its borders to the national power centers of Pakistan.

Rawalpandi, where the opposition leader was slain, is no ordinary town but a military garrison, whose gates, buildings and streets are closely guarded against unauthorized outsiders. Dense security cordons surround its central and outlaying districts and undercover agents people its streets.

There is no way a suicide bomber can enter Rawalpindi casually and unobserved. Yet al Qaeda seems able to come and go at will.


Rawalpindi – more a trap than a garrison


At least three of the bids to assassinate Musharraf since 2003 were staged in Rawalpindi – and not just by a pair of killers, as in Bhutto’s case, but large contingents equipped to attack armored convoys with several roadside bombs and anti-tank missiles.

The fact is that al Qaeda and its affiliates do not need to spirit outsiders into the garrison town for terrorist attacks; their adherents and agents are already present in the Pakistani security and intelligence services responsible for guarding the town.

President Musharraf no longer drives out of his palace in Rawalpindi; he takes off by air. Even that route is hazardous. Last July, 36 sub-machine gun rounds missed his helicopter as it took off from Chaklala airbase to visit the flood-hit Baluchistan and Sindh provinces. The sub-machine gun was installed on a Rawalpindi rooftop not far from the airbase by Pakistani army officers in al Qaeda’s service.

Because Rawalpindi is recognized these days as more a trap than a garrison, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources report that Musharraf and leaders, like the late Benazir Bhutto and her rival opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, no longer put their trust in the official security services and police, but have hired private security outfits under their personal command.

Information about these private armies is kept strictly confidential.

After the Bhutto murder, no information was forthcoming about the head of her private detail, why it failed to keep her safe, how many guards were killed in the blast, or whether they were Pakistani or foreign. Her bodyguards remained as anonymous after the event as they were in her lifetime.

The dead leader only referred in general terms to the dangers to her life, never to measures for her protection. When asked specific questions by interviewers, she was wont to smile mysteriously.


Bush indirectly blamed for inadequate security


The interior ministry in Islamabad insisted that she struck her head against the lever of an open sun roof, through which she was waving to the crowd when the bomb blast threw her down. But Pakistan officials never explained how one of the most closely guarded leaders in the world, attended by a small private army, was allowed to parade in an armored car fitted with a flimsy plastic sun roof, two months after surviving a dual suicide bombing attack on her homecoming rally.

As to the government’s failure to arm the Bhutto part with jammers, this question should be addressed to the extremely wealthy Bhutto family and her husband and budget controller, Asif Ali Zardari, who could well afford to buy a device privately for her bodyguards.

The first reaction in the West to the Pakistani leader’s assassination was by and large a tendency to hold her up as a tragic martyr to a noble drive for democracy. This tendency was especially pronounced in Washington and among American presidential contestants.

It was implied that the Bush administration was derelict and its reliance on Musharraf to protect her had made it easy for her assassins.

On Dec. 31, Robert D. Novak wrote in the Washington Post:

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto followed months of urgent pleas to the State Department… for better protection. The US reaction was that she was worried over nothing, expressing assurance that Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf would not let anything happen to her… Neither her shooting… nor the attempt on her life of Oct. 18 bore the trademarks of al Qaeda. After the carnage, government trucks used streams of water to clean up the blood and, in the process, destroyed forensic evidence.

The next day, the same newspaper reported: “In interviews, doctors who were at Bhutto’s side at Rawalpindi General Hospital said they were under extreme pressure not to share details about the nature of the injuries that the opposition leader suffered…’The government took all the medical records right after Ms. Bhutto’s time of death was read out,’ said a visibly shaken doctor.”


She flirted with dangerous extremists


DEBKA-Net-Weekly remarks there is nothing unusual about the official concealment of the circumstances of a top official’s untimely death anywhere.

Just two examples: To this day, the medical records and doctors’ testimony have never been released of the 1986 assassination of Swedish prime minister Olof Palme and the Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin murdered in 1995.

And even inquiry after inquiry, the John Kennedy assassination conundrum has never been satisfactorily put to rest.

In Western Europe and the Persian Gulf, especially in the Pakistani expatriate communities, reactions were mixed.

According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources, most of the people who knew her well were not altogether surprised at the way she died, in view of her reckless nature and predilection to flirt with dangerous extremist elements in the Muslim world, while disparaging them roundly in public.

Her close advisers were often hard put to offer a rationale for her actions, whether on political, business or emotional grounds. Her polished English rhetoric and attractive smile were the front for a manipulative character driven by baffling motivations. Much of her charm and charismatic influence over people was due to her style which combined flights of fancy with hard-rock calculations based on two feet planted firmly on the ground.

They point to a historical irony. In the 1970s and 1980s, before Bhutto’s two stints as Pakistan prime minister, when the United States appeared to accept the rule of the Taliban and the mujaheddin in Afghanistan, she was one of the first politicians to establish very extensive ties with Taliban insiders and the founding elements of al Qaeda. These ties covered many fields, including the financial. A close friend of hers once commented: “Bhutto was no stranger to them, and they were no strangers to her.”


Bhutto and al Qaeda were not strangers


In an interview she gave Al Jazeera’s David Frost on Nov. 2, she suddenly came out with the allegation that Osama bin Laden’s son, Hamze bin Laden, had conspired to murder her. She went on to say in a completely matter-of-fact tone that bin Laden had himself been murdered by Omar Sheikh.

She quoted from a book Musharraf wrote in 2006, in which he stated that Omar Sheikh, one of the primary financers of the 9/11 attacks, may have worked for British intelligence during the 1990s. He is now in a Pakistan prison.

The Sunday Times referred to Omar Sheikh’s connections as “high in Pakistan’s military and intelligence elite” as well as bin Laden’s circles.

Amazingly, the interviewer did not pick up on the Pakistani leader’s two sensational remarks. His omission was not necessarily a sloppy professional omission; Bhutto’s love of hyperbole, the more shocking the better, was well-known. Frost may have decided to treat her remarks as such.

But in the process, she gave away her intimate and detailed knowledge of the inside workings of the arcane organization which finally murdered her, even to the gossip going around the tight inner circles at the top of al Qaeda.

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