The Death of Shahzad: Leave It to the ISI to Make al Qaeda Look Tame in Comparison

Shahzad with Taliban(Pictured: Syed Saleem Shahzad with Taliban fighters.)

Some initial impressions on the murder by beating — torture — and gunshot of Asia Times Online reporter Syed Saleem Shahzad. Something of a legend in his own time, his access to al Qaeda and Taliban was light years beyond that of any other journalist.

The central irony of his death is that he was even once detained by the Taliban for a week, but in the end it looks like it was Pakistan’s largest intelligence apparatus, the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence Service) that did him in. Or as Pakistani journalist Umar Cheema, who, as Ron Moreau of the Daily Beast reports, was abducted last September and beaten by individuals he believe were the ISI, said:

But if it’s not the ISI then they [the ISI] need to locate the people who did this, because they certainly can.

Moreau adds:

But the ISI has been in a defensive crouch ever since the discovery of Osama bin Laden living comfortably just down the street from the country’s military academy. Pakistani journalists on Shahzad’s difficult and dangerous beat fear that the ISI may have made an example of him in order to scare them off of criticizing the directorate.

I’m sure I speak for many who follow events in Pakistan and Afghanistan when I say this one hurts, as if he were a member of our family. At Pakistan’s Dawn, Adnan Rehmat writes:

From the tribal areas in the mountainous northwest to the coastal areas in the sandy southeast, Pakistani journalists have been hounded and killed for reporting the brutalities of a war that has claimed the lives of over 30,000 in Pakistan over the last 10 years. While over 70 have been killed, a staggering 2,000-plus have been injured, arrested or kidnapped. . . . The fact that the killers of not even one Pakistani journalist killed has been found, prosecuted and punished has meant the media has been an easy target.

But . . .

Saleem’s death is not ordinary even among the long list of journalists killed in Pakistan in recent years.

In fact, writes Abbas Nasir, also at Dawn

This wasn’t a journalist who’d merely irritated the spooks or someone like that. This was a person who’d be seen as someone who knew too much. His investigative reports on the PNS Mehran attack are not the only example.

What follows may have been among the key words that got Shahzad killed. From one of the reports that Nasir mentions:

Several weeks ago, naval intelligence traced an al-Qaida cell operating inside several navy bases in Karachi. “Islamic sentiments are common in the armed forces,” a senior navy official told Asia Times Online on the condition of anonymity as he is not authorized to speak to the media.

Though I followed Shahzad at Asia Times Online, you can find his work archived on his own website (his family and friends are no doubt in such a state of shock that they have yet to update his site with news of his death). Also, Shahzad’s new book Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11 was just released on May 20 by Pluto Press.

Such was his stature that his death has elicited reactions like these: Though Shahzad didn’t work for Dawn, his death prompted its editor to question the wisdom of continuing to put his reporters in harm’s way. Second:

Pakistani journalists have been given permission to carry weapons after the killing of [Shahzad. Interior Minister] Rehman Malik told reporters that orders had been approved to permit journalists to carry small arms with them for self-protection.

First, needless to say, Shahzad, should he have consented to carry a handgun, would have been forced to surrender it to talk to militants. Second, a handgun would have been just as much needed as defense against representatives of the ISI — one handgun against the full force of Pakistan’s intelligence apparatus? Besides, as Afzal Butt, the head of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists, said in the same article, “It’s the responsibility of the government to protect us. . . . We are reporters, not soldiers.”

Finally, Abbas Nasir again:

I am filled with despair, deep, helpless despair.