“Assassination is the most extreme form of censorship”
George Bernard Shaw, in The Limits to Tolerance

To call the killing of Syed Saleem Shahzad a grave injustice would itself do grave injustice to all that he stood for. In a country characterized by all forms of corruption, from the mundane economic crimes of politicians to the self-serving institutions of the military (the Inter-Services Intelligence – ISI – being a state within a state) and worst of all the selfish corruption of the country’s population (the silent majority is never as quiet), Saleem, Asia Times Online’s Pakistan bureau chief, stood out as that rarest of commodities – a person who believed in what he did, and more importantly, did what he believed in.

His was the most unique form of courage – that of a lonely man surrounded by cowardly or corrupt people. It is a different breed of courage than what the likes of al-Qaeda muster, when they get impressionable young men to join a large mob that targets weak and innocent people.

Saleem’s killing raises the question – why? What was the need to kidnap, torture and kill the man? His recent articles have increasingly exposed the connections between al-Qaeda and the ISI, and more importantly those between al-Qaeda and the Pakistan navy. Specifically, he stumbled upon the casus belli for last month’s attacks on Karachi naval installations by al-Qaeda, namely the arrests of various navy personnel due to their proximity to al-Qaeda.

Massoud may offer clues

Two days before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, al-Qaeda carried out the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Lion of Panjshir and leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. The killing was widely reported as a putative gift by al-Qaeda to the Taliban that had been entrenched in a long-term warfare with Massoud and his men for control of Kabul and the northern provinces of Afghanistan. The two assassins posed as journalists, who went for an interview with the Lion. At the time, and since then, the hand of the ISI was widely suspected in the killing of Massoud.

Since then, a number of instances of such gifts made in the blood of innocents have occurred that have been followed by acts of terrorism. The killing of former Pakistani premier Benazir Bhutto in December 2007 springs to mind as the act of the Taliban to keep itself in the good books of the ISI and the Pakistan military – or a blood gift for all assistance previously rendered by these organizations that faced awkward questions if she had been elected back to power. The question uppermost in my mind is whether the shadow of Massoud lurks over the killing of Saleem as well.

Let us look at the evidence – we know that Saleem was focused on the links between al-Qaeda and the Pakistan navy. (See Al-Qaeda had warned of Pakistan strike Asia Times Online, May 27.) We also know that an offshoot of the Lashkar e-Taiba (LeT) attacked the Indian city of Mumbai in November 2008 to much “acclaim” in the Pakistani terror establishment. Saleem had interviewed Ilyas Kashmiri previously for Asia Times Online – and Kashmiri’s 313 Brigade has been identified as the operational group behind the Karachi attacks in May.

So what if the Pakistan navy and Ilyas Kashmiri were in cahoots and a journalist found out? The current head of the Pakistan military, Ashfaq Parvez Kiani, was previously the head of the ISI – the organization that is accused of sheltering Osama bin Laden in Abbotabad. Therefore, the existence of links between the two (al-Qaeda and navy) wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.

Unless, if the revelations were “inconvenient” to anyone on an operational basis. Massoud was an inconvenience to the Taliban in their ability to give shelter to al-Qaeda (which Bin Laden shrewdly realized would be needed after attacking the US); he was hence removed. Similarly, it may well be that Saleem was removed because his revelations were complicating certain operations.

What could those operations be? Firstly, it could involve an al-Qaeda operation against India. While traditionally the forces of al-Qaeda have kept away from India and subcontracted such “low” work to Pakistani terrorists, the apparent elevation of Ilyas Kashmiri within al-Qaeda may have changed that equation so that al-Qaeda would be focused on attacking India.

This theory though doesn’t quite hold water because a lesser organization like LeT had already attacked India in November 2008. The objective of terror organizations is to do something “new and improved” like the ads for soaps. Hence, it is highly unlikely that whatever Saleem was in danger of stumbling on had anything to do with India.

If you remove the obvious alternatives, whatever remains must be the logical option. That would involve Israel – in other words, elements of the Pakistan navy may have been cooperating with al-Qaeda over a possible attack on Israel. The modus operandi would be similar to the attacks on India in November 2008 – sea-based, which is actively ignored by the Pakistan navy.

However, a commando-type operation like the one on India wouldn’t be practical in the case of Israel. Secondly, there are a number of other navies between the shores of Pakistan and Israel, not the least of which would be the Americans. Thus, the plan is likely to have focused on what al-Qaeda wanted to remove from Pakistan that could be used later against Israel.

Remember, though, that the attacks on the Karachi naval installations were focused on the P3 Orion aircraft – exactly the technology that the navy would be using to monitor the movements of large craft of the type that is used to load/unload/transport large objects.

Adding up the different permutations, it is difficult to ignore the probability that the idea involves using weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that had been spirited away by al-Qaeda with the active connivance of elements in the ISI. America and other countries have been focusing on the worst-case scenario of al-Qaeda getting WMDs, but haven’t spent enough time considering that the organization may already have done so.

Pakistan has been on a bit of a bomb-building spree recently – again a suspicious activity because the stockpile of nuclear weapons meant to target India was widely considered sufficient as recently as 2008. So the building of new bombs had to have something to do with other applications – or other enemies than India. It is also more plausible to hide the creation of a rogue nuclear weapon when a hundred ones are being built as against when the stockpile is stable.

If you were the ISI person responsible for this project, a mere journalist like Saleem would be quite an inconvenience for your partners. Tragic as the killing of Saleem is, it may well have been initiated as part of a blueprint for a WMD to be used on Israel by al-Qaeda. An attack on India using such WMD is also plausible, albeit less likely due to the immediate retaliation that would cause.

On a personal note

My association with Saleem has been tangential to say the least for the past five years or so that I have been writing for Asia Times Online. We have intersected on many stories, him as the intrepid investigative reporter and me as the fat armchair columnist sitting a million miles away.

Even so, we had common fears about the evolution of Pakistan. He was the man on the ground watching his beloved country shred itself at the altar of Arab nationalism and I the person who viewed the dangers posed by Pakistan to its neighbors and all else.

As with my relationship towards former Asia Times editor Allen Quicke, there were many occasions where I disagreed with Saleem’s assessment of a situation, but there was never a situation where I doubted his integrity or his methods.

In the end, it appears that the powers that be saw him as incorruptible; a person who couldn’t be bought or swayed to believe what his brain didn’t teach him to be correct.

So they killed him.

Thus, in the worst possible fashion, the military-political-religious establishment in Pakistan has paid Saleem the biggest compliment possible.

My suggestion to the editors of Asia Times Online that they start a fund/trust for the benefit of Saleem’s wife Anita and his three children has been accepted and I have made a binding commitment for an opening donation along with David Goldman (Spengler to the readers of Asia Times Online). The mere fact that two people like David and I who don’t agree on much have agreed to do this may not mean much to readers – however, I do appeal that you find it in your hearts and your wallets to endorse Saleem’s memory.