EDITORIAL: The knot of uncertainty tightens

Who knows?

“Benazir Bhutto was so fearful for her life that she tried to hire British and American security experts to protect her,” The Sunday Telegraph reveals. Her entourage even approached Blackwater. They might have been able to protect her life but they would have destroyed her image. She was even directly receiving confidential U.S. intelligence about militant threats to her life. The intelligence was clearly inadequate.

Whenever a dramatic and unexpected event occurs, some journalists try and find out what happened, how it happened, and why it happened. Many more pick up the phone and hunt down some well-respected “expert” who’s only too happy to pump some certainty into a mighty void. Bruce Riedel, a former defense and intelligence official and currently senior fellow at the Brookings Institute is just such a person. The day Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, Riedel was quick to assert that this “was almost certainly the work of al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda’s Pakistani allies.” How did he know? He didn’t, but how many news editors would find fault in quoting the opinion of a Brookings sage? Three days later, many of the fast-talking experts are now starting to sound a bit foolish — Riedel’s own certainty quickly backed off into a “hunch” — so the only expertise still worth noting is that which underlines the uncertainty rather than makes the pretense of knowledge. Only now are the papers finding column space for a more considered and circumspect analysis. From an assassination which supposedly had “al Qaeda” written all over it, the signature is now acknowledged as being quite hard to decipher. As the Los Angeles Times notes:

Several analysts said the use of a handgun in addition to explosives is a departure for militant groups in Pakistan. “This is not by any means a signature killing by Al Qaeda,” security analyst Nasim Zehra said. “A targeted shooting, even in combination with a familiar suicide bombing, makes it look more like a political killing than one by some militant group.”

While facts remain hard to come by, a number of possibly useful observations can be made. Western politicians want to characterize Bhutto’s death in symbolic terms — this was an attack on democracy, an attack on the freedom and power of Muslim women, or some such pernicious act. But to see that as the effect is not to discern the intent. Much more likely this was first and foremost a successful attempt to prevent Bhutto becoming prime minister. This was indeed a political assassination and suspicion should fall first on those whose power is threatened rather than on those whose ambitions are expanding.

The jihadist signature was that the attackers gave up their lives, but it now seems unclear that that was the intent of the gunman. The fact that he wore dark glasses at least suggests that he might have entertained the hope that he was going to make a getaway. What his handlers hadn’t told him was that as soon as he completed his mission, a jihadist foot soldier — unknown to the gunman — was going to make sure that the assassin would never tell his tale.

As for what we can now say about the Bhutto family, the perpetuation of the dynasty and of the Benazir legend are upper most in their minds. The mystery surrounding her death provides yet more grist to their political mill.

Will we ever know the identity of the gunman in shades? Was he driven by dreams of an Islamic state or did he perhaps see himself as a latter day Carlos the Jackal?

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3 thoughts on “EDITORIAL: The knot of uncertainty tightens

  1. Russ Wellen

    Thanks. So sick of hearing that guy Riedel quoted.

    Isn’t the latest that low-ranking army officers pulled this off? Maybe thought they could curry favor with high-ranking officers, perhaps even Musharraf.

    From a UPI story (don’t know how trustworthy): “One former CIA official told a Middle East Times source that, ‘It’s worrying when half of your lower or mid-level Pak intelligence analysts have bin Laden screen-savers on their computers.'”


  2. Anthony J. Van Patten

    Mr. Woodward

    I think you have violated your own implied restrictions: “What his handlers hadn’t told him was that as soon as he completed his mission, a jihadist foot soldier — unknown to the gunman — was going to make sure that the assassin would never tell his tale.”

    Leaving aside the fact that there is no evidence that the shooter did not know he was to be blown up, or that the bomber was unknown to him, there is absolutely no evidence that the bomber, even if a military man, was not the agent of a group whose allegiance was not primarily Islamist rather than Pakistani military. There are many good reasons to dispatch a team of a bomber and a shooter, even if well known to each other, and mutually understanding of their respective rolls.

    Wearing dark glasses is a habit of many faux-macho policemen in this country. There is no reason that those with similar human peculiarities would not be attracted to such goofy activities in Pakistan, regardless of political affiliation.

    A hitherto apparently reliable source from ATOL, a Mr. Shahzad, reported that a source told him that the killer, from their group, whether bomber or shooter, was a radical Islamist. I see no reason not to tend to believe him.

    I consider your site to be one of the most, and perhaps the most, responsible sites on these matters. As such I think it is incumbent on you not to contribute to the speculatve hysteria.

    Respectully and gratefully,

    Anthony J. Van Patten

  3. Paul Woodward

    It’s never my intention to contribute to speculative hysteria. The point of my speculation here was merely to point out that alternative narratives are both possible and plausible. Syed Saleem Shahzad prides himself on the quality of his Taliban and al Qaeda sources and it doesn’t surprise me that he’s reporting that “Bhutto’s assassination was without doubt al-Qaeda’s most successful operation in the region.” But the fact that some jihadists want to claim this as a success is to be expected and in and of itself doesn’t prove anything.

    The fact that someone blew themselves up at the time that Benazir Bhutto was assassinated provides strong evidence that this plot involved jihadists. The actions of Pakistani government officials — destroying forensic evidence, silencing doctors, concocting bogus stories about the cause of her death — all provide ample reason why Musharraf’s government, his intelligence services, and the Pakistani military can all be viewed with suspicion.

    This is a murky story and we may never know who was actually responsible. Even so, there is an important contest here between competing priorities. Should Americans be looking at Pakistan as a central front in the war on terrorism, or, should we be more concerned about the administration’s role in undermining democracy? The assumption for the last seven years is that democracy had to take second place behind security. The result has been neither.

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