Friday, June 3, 2011

Killing criticism

For the last few years the media has been the only effective opposition in Pakistan. The individuals that sit on the opposition benches in Parliament are corrupted and carry convoluted agendas raising their voices to wrest power rather than advance the democratic process.

The torture and death of the Asia Times Bureau Chief Syed Saleem Shahzad has cast what may be a mortal blow to the cachexia that is now Pakistan. Mainly for the murmurings that the ISI may be involved and an expose of the navy’s radicalisation. An unprecedented press release has been issued by the ISI which even threatens legal action against the media circus implicating it, but there is much that is troubling here and too much that stubbornly sticks.

Shahzad was an intrepid journalist and had written a searing first-part to a tell-all article and a book “Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban; beyond bin Laden and 9/11”. In October 2010 he wrote in Asia Times Online that Pakistan had freed an Afghan Taliban commander. According to an email sent to Human Rights Watch, Shahzad was summoned to an ISI office and told to retract the story or release his sources. When he refused a veiled threat emerged: the ISI had arrested a terrorist who carried a hit-list; the ISI would let him know whether or not his name was on it.

The Taliban and Al-Qaeda are certainly a bunch of gun-toting wild-eyed fanatics and zero ethics are expected from them. And if everything pointed perfectly in their direction it would rest controversy and the broken Pakistani system could somehow hobble along. But circumstantial evidence implicates the state, whose love for us is romanticized to be that of a mother. In his May 27th article “Al-Qaeda had warned of Pakistan airstrike” Shahzad writes about the PNS Mehran attack. Many parts of the article reveal his incredible courage for he seems to court the killers: “Asia Times Online contacts confirm that the attackers were from Ilyas Kashmiri's 313 Brigade, the operational arm of al-Qaeda. Three attacks on navy buses in which at least nine people were killed last month were warning shots for navy officials to accept al-Qaeda's demands over the detained suspects.”

The article goes on to more whiplash: “The May 2 killing in Pakistan of Osama bin Laden spurred al-Qaeda groups into developing a consensus for the attack in Karachi, in part as revenge for the death of their leader and also to deal a blow to Pakistan's surveillance capacity against the Indian navy. The deeper underlying motive, though, was a reaction to massive internal crackdowns on al-Qaeda affiliates within the navy. Several weeks ago, naval intelligence traced an al-Qaeda cell operating inside several navy bases in Karachi, the country's largest city and key port.”

More explosively a senior navy official spoke to Shahzad on condition of anonymity: “It was clear the militants were receiving good inside information as they always knew where the suspects were being detained, indicating sizeable al-Qaeda infiltration within the navy's ranks….Everybody present agreed, and it was decided to open a line of communication with al-Qaeda…..The detainees were allowed to speak to their families and were well treated, but officials were desperate to interrogate them fully to get an idea of the strength of al-Qaeda's penetration. The militants were told that once interrogation was completed, the men would be discharged from the service and freed. Al-Qaeda rejected these terms and expressed its displeasure with the attacks on the navy buses in April.

These incidents pointed to more than the one al-Qaeda cell intelligence had tracked in the navy……insiders at PNS Mehran provided maps, pictures of different exit and entry routes taken in daylight and at night, the location of hangers and details of likely reaction from external security forces. As a result, the militants were able to enter the heavily guarded facility where one group targeted the aircraft, a second group took on the first strike force and a third finally escaped with the others providing covering fire. Those who stayed behind were killed.”

Shahzad paid with his life for the drastic revelation that we don’t just have Taliban sympathizers in the armed forces, our navy appears to be laced with Al-Qaeda itself.

Pakistan ranks 151 out of 178 countries in the press freedom index and 15 journalists have been killed since early 2010.

In the most dangerous place in the world the first reflex is to hibernate in face of all the threats that journalists, bloggers and writers get. Regardless of city/state of residence the Internet is able to remotely generate chills down many spines. And the treasure trove of threats and vulgarity that come via the cyber-monster can recreate those goose-bumps for a bit.

It takes a vile minority to infiltrate and destroy Pakistan. But we need a resounding chorus of protest that does not just condemn this barbarity but outs the extremists from every walk of life. Many have been martyred for the motherland, dying fearlessly in the way of the truth: Governor Salman Taseer, Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, journalist Wali Khan Babar’s names come to mind and almost invariably the murderers have not been brought to justice.

Saleem Shahzad’s criticism got him killed. Yet could his murderers kill millions of Pakistanis that protest extremism? The stakes just keep getting higher. There must be protest and action from every street corner in Pakistan against extremism. For the next victim is not a young and healthy Saleem Shahzad. It’s another young though frail and almost comatose Pakistan.

Mahjabeen Islam is an addictionist, family physician and columnist. She can be reached at