The fact that al Qaeda has claimed responsibility for assassinating Benazir Bhutto really means nothing. After all, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, al Qaeda’s liason to the Taliban, can be confident that the Pakistani government is not going to deny his claim. Indeed, Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema told a news conference today, “We have intelligence intercepts indicating that al Qaeda leader Baitullah Mehsud is behind her assassination.” (The Interior Ministry also claims Bhutto was not shot!) Bhutto herself believed that Mehsud might have been behind the October bombing from which she escaped unscathed soon after her return to Pakistan. Mehsud had been quoted in the Pakistani press as having promised to “welcome” Bhutto with a suicide bombing. What received less attention was that the Waziristan tribal leader denied making any such threats to Bhutto. As Rahimullah Yusufzai reported in The News on October 18:
Though it is clear that Baitullah Mehsud hasn’t threatened Benazir Bhutto with suicide bombing, one should keep in mind that anyone intending to launch such an attack would not brag about it publicly. Benazir Bhutto has provoked the militants and Jihadis with some of her recent pro-US and anti-al-Qaeda and anti-Taliban statements and one should, therefore, not rule out the possibility of suicide bombings targeting her. But that could happen once she is in power and has the authority to order military operations against the militants. At present, she doesn’t possess the authority to cause harm to the militants and it appears that the latter would prefer to wait and see as to how she acts once she is in power.
Political pragmatism might not be what one would expect from an Islamic extremist, but tribal leaders such as Mehsud, even though they impose a harsh form of Islamic rule should be seen as territorial commanders. As such, they are not averse to deal-making. Whatever promises Bhutto might have made to her American friends, Mehsud and his allies would have had good reason to adopt a wait-and-see approach rather than follow the script that says that Bhutto, the Western-friendly, democratic Muslim woman, would, once in office, remain an implacable foe. After all, as prime minister of Pakistan she once led one of only three governments in the world that recognized the Taliban government of Afghanistan.
What is interesting about the Interior Ministry’s claim about Meshud’s involvement in Bhutto’s assassination is that although Bhutto herself lent credence to the claim by connecting Meshud with the October bombing, she also named others — names that we can be sure no Interior Ministry spokesman will ever link to her assassination: former Chief Minister Chaudhry Parvez Elahi, former ISI chief Hamid Gul, Hassan Afzal, former Deputy Chairman of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), and Intelligence Bureau chief Brig (Retd) Ijaz Shah. Given that only a matter of weeks ago, Bhutto saw these men as a threat to her life, it appears a bit premature for so many analysts to have confidently concluded that al Qaeda is the culprit.