The story that killed Saleem Shahzad

The Pakistani journalist had been reporting on jihadism in the Pakistani military.

June 02, 2011 11:01 pm | Updated August 18, 2016 11:28 am IST

An undated picture provided by Shahzad's family shows Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad. File Photo

An undated picture provided by Shahzad's family shows Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad. File Photo

“Journalist sabka dost hota hai (Journalists are everybody's friends),” was Saleem Shahzad's response when I asked him about the Taliban connections of a common acquaintance, “What matters is if he gets the story or not.” In his career, Shahzad had certainly been accused of “playing all sides of the fence” — the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), but his brutal death showed that he had made some very powerful enemies as well.

Many are shocked with the boldness of his abductors — that a prominent journalist could be taken from the heart of Islamabad's high security zone, somewhere between the capital's F-8 and F-6 sectors. When his body surfaced in a river canal, bearing marks of torture — broken ribs, the use of rods — it showed that those who meant to kill him, also wanted to send a message to others like him. Some have written that it was Shahzad's last article, drawing links between the “PNS Mehran” naval base attacks and jihadist elements within the Navy which was the motive for his killers. And the angry reaction from other Pakistani journalists has been, “If the all-powerful ISI isn't behind the killing, then surely it can and must find out who is.”

But drawing the world's attention to al-Qaeda's infiltration of the Pakistani military goes beyond any one article Shahzad may have written — the running theme of much of his reporting in the last few years. He is the only journalist to have interviewed terrorist commanders Ilyas Kashmiri and Baitullah Mehsud, consistently holding the view that even as they planned diabolical attacks on the Pakistani army, they had help from retired or “rogue” Army officers. Kashmiri's 313 Brigade, he believed, had been originally raised by ISI officers to fight against India, and diverted to fighting on the Afghan border when the India-Pakistan peace process forced a drawback on the ‘Kashmiri jihad.' Shahzad said these officers had continued their links with Ilyas Kashmiri.

His book

While many are now comparing Shahzad's death to other journalists who have been assaulted or killed over the last few years (at least 12 have been killed in the past year, according to Reporters without Borders), one may also see parallels with the death of a Pakistani Army officer in October 2008. Maj-General Ameer Faisal Alvi, the retired chief of the elite Special Service Group (SSG) (similar to India's National Security Guards), was travelling to his office in Islamabad's G-11 sector , when he was shot by gunmen on motorbikes. Alvi had threatened to expose two generals he said had been cutting deals with TTP chief Baitullah Mehsud, and warned of a nexus between ISI operatives, the Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP), and Punjabi Taliban group Sipah-e-Sahiba. Shahzad's writing chronicled links between the ISI, al-Qaeda, and the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). In his book ‘ Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11: Inside the Taliban and Al Qaeda ', released 10 days before his death, Shahzad showed how the 26/11 attack plan was originally planned in an ISI special cell, and then abandoned. He shows correspondence that proved a former major and LeT operative Maj. Haroon Ashiq had picked up the plan from Ilyas Kashmir, and then took charge of the logistical planning of the 26/11 attacks. Maj. Haroon is perhaps the biggest link between the two stories: the prime accused in the assassination of General Alvi, arrested and charged, but acquitted in the trial. Incidentally, Ilyas Kashmiri's name appears in the original charge sheet of General Alvi's murder as a co-conspirator.

Both men, Alvi and Shahzad, left emails to be released in case they were killed. While both clearly knew about such a threat, neither was willing to give up telling the world what they believed.

Ironically, the world wasn't ready to listen. Shahzad firmly believed that the jihad virus did not run across the Pakistani army, but had taken control of a few key officers who were in dangerously senior positions. When he spoke to Pakistani officials of al-Qaeda infiltration, he got, understandably, no audience. Even here in India, Shahzad said, few were interested in his theories about 26/11. At a lecture at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Analysis (IDSA) in New Delhi last year, he said, the audience seemed less interested in the al-Qaeda link to 26/11 as they were to fixing the Mumbai attacks on the top leadership of Pakistan's government and army. He warned that al-Qaeda's plans, and that of ISI officials working with them remained to ignite an India-Pakistan war. Their aims are met, he said, each time the peace process falters, as he warned of more such attacks sponsored by radicalised insiders in the Pakistani military and al-Qaeda, carried out by the TTP and the LeT, in India and Pakistan.

The problem of radicalised officers dates back to the vision of General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s, a devout Muslim, who believed in raising Pakistan's Army as “Allah's army.” Author Shuja Nawaz, whose brother, Army Chief Asif Nawaz, died mysteriously in 1993, details Zia's efforts in his book ‘ Crossed Swords, ' in particular, his encouragement of recruits from madrassas and the Jamaat-e-Islami, and of bringing Tableeghi Jamaat preachers to deliver sermons every week at garrisons. Interestingly, in the wake of the “PNS Mehran” base attack, and commando complicity in the planning, General Kayani passed a rule effectively banning Tableeghis from entering any cantonment area. The rule followed the discovery that several officers had been taking study leave to travel with the Tableeghis, and instead training at militant camps in Waziristan. In a sense, al-Qaeda has managed to complete the task General Zia, unknowing of its repercussions, set out to do. “Insiders,” former military officers and soldiers, have, in recent years, been charged with various terror attacks inside Pakistan, including assassination attempts on General Musharraf, the GHQ attack in Rawalpindi, the Parade Lane Mosque massacre, in which 17 children of army officers were among 36 gunned down, and the Lahore Police academy attack.

Syed Saleem Shahzad had been pointing to this trend of radicalisation, to the enemy within Pakistan's forces for years. He died not so much for writing about the trend, as perhaps for the fact that his voice was now being heard and taken seriously, especially with the publication of his book. A trend of radicalisation, like the Jhelum in which Saleem's body was found, whose flow won't be easy to stem, or to reverse.

( Suhasini Haidar is Deputy Foreign Editor, CNN-IBN. She interviewed Syed Saleem Shahzad on May 8, 2011 .)

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.