By Saim Saeed
Orhan Pamuk’s novel, Snow, depicts a particularly absurd scene involving two intelligence officials supposedly tracking an Islamist party member in secret. Exhausted and out of breath, they call out directly to the party member and ask him to slow down, as they are having difficulty keeping up. This laughable image captures the state of Pakistani intelligence much more accurately than the portrait of a shadowy, ruthless organization that usually accompanies coverage of the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s spy agency.
The ISI has been subjected to renewed scrutiny ever since U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, a garrison town in Pakistan—leading to speculation that elements within the Pakistani security establishment must have known about the al-Qaida leader’s presence. More recently, attention has focused on the murder of Syed Saleem Shahzad, an investigative journalist who wrote critically of the ISI. Shahzad’s articles for Asia Times Online and Adnkronos International explored alleged ties between militants and various wings of the military, including the ISI.
Shahzad disappeared from a heavily militarized section of central Islamabad on May 29, two days after publishing an article that implied the Pakistani Navy had been unable to control an influx of al-Qaida moles, and had suffered a major attack from militants as a result. The journalist’s body, gruesomely beaten, was found on May 31, more than 100 miles from where his car had been abandoned. Suspiciously, the ISI miraculously “found” Shahzad’s cell phone records, even though they had originally been wiped out—and only after important people had started raising a fuss and looking toward the agency for answers.
Reporters around the world immediately linked Shahzad’s murder to the ISI, as did Human Rights Watch, which established that Shahzad had been detained by the ISI just before his death. On July 7, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated that he assumed there was Pakistani state involvement in Shahzad’s death. "It was sanctioned by the government," Mullen said at a press conference at the Pentagon. "I have not seen anything to disabuse the report that the government knew about this."
The ISI has denied any involvement. Tellingly, at a news conference, Pakistan’s information minister called Mullen’s remarks “irresponsible”—not false or unfounded, just irresponsible. The minister, Firdous Ashiq Awan, went on to issue a thinly veiled threat. “This statement will create problems and difficulties for the bilateral relations between Pakistan and America,” she said. “It will definitely deal a blow to our common efforts with regard to the war on terror.”
But even before Mullen’s statement, many signs pointed to ISI’s role in the journalist’s death. Eight months ago, Shahzad was called into the “Media Wing” of the ISI office in Islamabad, where he was explicitly told to discontinue his reporting on the links between the spy agency and militant groups. When he refused, he received multiple death threats and phone calls pressuring him to stop.
The month leading up to Shahzad’s death was very tough on Pakistan’s military establishment. Recognized as the most organized and disciplined institution in the country, the military has historically enjoyed widespread approval and respect from the Pakistani citizenry. As swiftly as the helicopters carrying bin Laden’s body, all this positive regard departed on a warm summer night in early May. Bin Laden’s body was still warm on May 22, when one of the most secure military bases in Pakistan was breached by half a dozen militants, who proceeded to clash with the military for 17 hours. During this time, the militants destroyed several multi-million dollar Orion aircraft—a generous gift from the U.S.—and killed 17 naval personnel.
The cherry on top? Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Noman Bashir arrived belatedly at the scene in a black BMW 7-Series and announced that the attack was “not a security lapse.”
According to Shahzad’s article, the attack was spurred by failed negotiations between the Navy and the Taliban involving the release of Taliban prisoners, and was an act of retaliation by the terrorist group. Shahzad’s position as a constant thorn in the side of the military establishment, as well as the humiliation the military endured from the killing of bin Laden and the militant attack, are entirely plausible reasons for which the ISI was unwilling to stand for any more dissidence.
In evaluating the likelihood of the ISI’s involvement in Shahzad’s murder, one must consider that Islamabad—and central Islamabad (the Blue Area) in particular—is in a state of near-lockdown. At least six checkpoints cap both ends of the road on which Shahzad was kidnapped; only government or military officials would have been able to pass with ease. In addition, state-sanctioned violence against the press is not unprecedented in Pakistan. The ISI is suspected to have kidnapped and harassed numerous journalists, including Umar Cheema, who was abducted and tortured by the ISI.
Shahzad’s tortured body reminds everyone of Pakistani authorities’ ruthlessness in dealing with dissidents. But it is just as much a sign of incompetence. The absence of a deathblow suggests that Shahzad died while being tortured, rather than purposefully killed. It’s possible that his tormentors were not aware of his fragile state and beat him to death inadvertently.
Either way, there is something deeply troubling about an “intelligence agency” that creates and implements its own violent agenda without checks or balances. By defining the destruction of India as the be-all-and-end-all of Pakistan’s “grand strategy” (if it can be called that), the ISI has its own narrow definition of “national interest” which it imposes on the rest of the country. Even then, the ISI only half-completes its objectives, and in a bumbling fashion at that. The agency now faces exactly the sort of ire—from no less than the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff himself—it sought to avoid. A bungled murder, half-wiped cell phone records, and awkward, defensive, thinly veiled attempts at intimidation—this is Pakistan’s so-called elite intelligence agency.
Saim Saeed, a former World Policy Institute intern, is currently interning on the business desk at The Express Tribune, a newspaper in Karachi.
[Photo courtesy of Petty Officer 1st Class William John Kipp Jr, U.S. Department of Defense]