Who Tried to Kill Benazir Bhutto?

Benazir Bhutto, twice-elected prime minister of Pakistan and the first woman head of a Muslim state, decided to terminate her self-exile and return to Pakistan last week. By all accounts, more than a million people (mostly poor and young) welcomed her enthusiastically in the port city of Karachi on October 18. In the midst of the celebration, the political rally was targeted by a series of suicide attacks killing around 140 people. Bhutto and her top party leaders, however, remained unhurt.

Who would have been the potential beneficiary of Bhutto’s elimination? Benazir Bhutto’s late father, who was hanged after a fraudulent trial in 1979 by a military junta, was the founder of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)—a progressive and secular political party that emerged in 1967 and played a critical role in the ouster of then military ruler Ayub Khan. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto remained head of the government from 1971 to 1977 and was removed from office in a military coup led by a religious conservative, General Zia ul-Haq. General Zia, besides his Afghan jihad affair in collaboration with the United States in the 1980s, introduced strict and controversial Islamic laws in the state, leading to a transformation of state policy and society. During his time in power, Saudi-funded seminaries mushroomed and religious political parties gained significant government support, developing links with the army and intelligence outfits. The products of this era further nurtured a hatred for the PPP, as it was continuously challenging Zia’s conservative policies.

In this context, Bhutto is seen by religious extremists as someone representing liberal and progressive forces and by default pro-Western/American. Due to U.S. entanglement in Iraq and the controversies relating to the war on terrorism, critical views about U.S. policies are popular in Pakistan and the credible reports that the U.S. played a role in bringing Musharraf and Bhutto closer have not gone well, especially with religious conservative forces in the country.

Before Bhutto’s return, Pakistani media gave extensive coverage to a strong threat given to Bhutto by Baitullah Mehsud, a militant leader of Waziristan closely associated with Taliban and foreign/Arab fighters hiding in the area. He announced that his suicide bombers were in Karachi to "welcome" Bhutto—alleging that she was returning as part of a U.S. game plan to fight the war on terrorism (The Post, October 13; Dawn, October 9). Bhutto responded to this threat by arguing that Mehsud was just a pawn in a bigger conspiracy in which the real culprits are "some retired army officers in the establishment" (Daily Times, October 18). Interestingly, Mehsud, after the attacks on October 18, denied that he had ever threatened Bhutto in the first place. His denial might have had some credibility if he had clarified his position soon after his statement appeared in the mainstream Pakistani press on October 6.

Secondly, the mode of the suicide attack, in terms of the type of device used and its strength, was similar to other attacks in Islamabad and Rawalpindi in the last few months, which are believed to be conducted by Baitullah Mehsud and his associates. In this case, however, the face of one of the possible two bombers was found intact and his features appear to be of a non-Pashtun (The News, October 20, 21). It is likely that Baitullah Mehsud used some of his comrades belonging to Punjab or Sindh provinces. It is also possible that the bomber was associated with the Red Mosque—as Bhutto had supported the military operation against the mosque, inviting the ire of those associated with the religious center.

There are also rumors in Pakistan that Musharraf’s major political ally, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, and his associates might have orchestrated the attacks, as their political future would be damaged by Bhutto’s return to Pakistani politics. Musharraf, on the other hand, benefits from Bhutto’s return as her understanding with him has provided him support at a time when he is deeply unpopular. Additionally, it is argued that though Musharraf, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao have all survived assassination attempts (by suicide bombers), his chief political allies Chaudhry Shujaat and his cousin Chaudhry Pervez Elahi have never faced any such attack or even threat. These latter two officials are known for their sympathies with local religious extremists, and Chaudhry Shujaat is on record having said that "our hearts are with Osama and brains with Musharraf" (Weekly Independent, October 11-17, 2001).

Another plausible scenario is the possibility that former ISI officials or rogue elements within the intelligence outfits, linked with Taliban and other militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Harkat ul Jihad-e-Islami and Jaish-e-Mohammad, were involved in orchestrating the attack. Some former ISI officials are known for providing such "guidance" to their former clients.

Bhutto has asked Musharraf to appoint credible police officers to pursue the investigation and also involve foreign forensic experts. The government of Pakistan, however, has so far refused to accept this demand, giving some credence to the view that the government has something to hide. It is unlikely that any credible information about the real identity of the attackers will be made available to the Pakistani public and international community. That would not be unprecedented, as Pakistanis are still waiting to hear who assassinated the country’s first prime minister, Liaquat ali Khan, in 1951.