In early 2011, my friend and Asia Times colleague, Saleem Shahzad was onto a great story. He was always onto a great story. Some of this had to do with the immense risks he took. He was one of Pakistan’s bravest journalists as far as his reporting on al-Qaeda and the Taliban were concerned. No one cultivated the sources that he developed, up in the high mountains of Waziristan. Saleem would go amongst the small villages, tucked away in the high reaches, and meet commanders of various militant groups that had their guns trained at the US-NATO forces in Afghanistan and the Pakistani army along the ridges. The story that had begun to interest Saleem by 2011 was the collusion between sections of the Pakistani establishment and the extremists. It was that story which would eventually kill him on May 31.
Up there in the high mountains, Saleem cultivated the mid-level militant commanders, such as Muhammed Ilyas Kashmiri and Bin Yameen. They would tell him how al-Qaeda and the Taliban first chased out the traditional tribal leaders and replaced them with these younger commanders. Who helped them in this enormous venture? The pir bhais, the spiritual friends, the term used by the extremists for their friends in the Pakistani military who gave them logistical support. It was these pir bhais who provided the linkage between the Taliban/al-Qaeda and the Pakistani military.
Saleem’s book on this reporting, Inside al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11, was released on May 24 by Pluto Press. It came out three weeks after Bin Laden had been killed. The title says it all – it is a close look inside the tentacular organization that operated in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it showed that its operations had transcended both Osama Bin Laden (by then a revered, but marginal figure in the jihadi circles) and 9/11. Other fish were being fried. The point, for the Taliban, was to return to power in Kabul and to increase its sway in Islamabad.
Saleem’s reporting explained the strategy for the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban as well as al-Qaeda. The ground-level leadership wanted to create a base for themselves in northern Pakistan and southern Afghanistan, in the Pashtu-speaking high mountains. They did not rely on one town or one district, digging roots. They moved their base if things heated up on either side of the border. What ISIS does now
between Syria and Iraq, swinging like a pendulum, is what the Taliban does in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Pakistani Taliban used these mobile bases to make forays into the cities. They would strike and then return (particularly after the bruising two battles in the Swat Valley in 2007 and 2009). The general tendency of the Afghan Taliban, on the other hand, was to expand their territory from the tribal areas of Waziristan to the districts of Bajaur and Mohmand. They built a corridor into Nangarhar and Kunur provinces, led by the indefatigable Mullah Dadullah. These developments along the Hindu Kush set the stage for the Taliban offensive in 2006, which reinstated them as major players in Afghanistan. NATO announced a troop expansion into the region. The Taliban was their welcome mat. A 19-year-old farmer, Lala Jan, told Carlotta Gall, “One side should be finished, the Taliban or the government, we don’t care which.” The situation remains much the same.
Saleem in Kunar, Afghanistan.
On May 20, 2011, the Taliban and al-Qaeda attacked the PNS Mehran, a Pakistani naval base in the coastal city of Karachi. The mastermind of the attack was Muhammed Ilyas Kashmir, a commander whom Saleem knew very well. Ehsanullah Ehsan, the spokesperson for the Pakistani Taliban, claimed that this was retaliation for the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Saleem was on the job. He found out that the Pakistani navy and the Pakistani Taliban had been in negotiations over the release of some hostages. When the negotiations fell out, the Taliban attacked. They knew the lay out of the base. It was an inside job.
Saleem strayed too close to power. He knew it. A few days before the end, he wrote to Ali Dayan Hasan (Human Rights Watch) about a meeting he had with Rear Admiral Adnan Nazir, “Dear Hasan, I am forwarding this email to you for your record only if in case something happens to me or my family in the future.” The future was not far. On May 29, he was picked up and killed. His body was found in Mandi Bahauddin, at the other end of Pakistan. He was dead. His killers have not been found. An independent judicial investigation ended up blaming everyone – “various belligerents in the war on terror,” it said.
At the time, the US chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen said – on the basis of intercepted phone conversations – that Saleem had been killed on the orders of General Ashraf Kayani (Chief of Army Staff) and Lt. General Ahmad Shuja Pasha (head of Pakistani intelligence, the ISI), the two most important men in the country. These are the two men that Seymour Hersh claims made the deal with the US for the killing of Bin Laden. I was convinced then and remain convinced now that Saleem was on the trail of that story as well. It was right about then that someone had leaked the name of the CIA station chief in Islamabad, Jonathan Bank. The story of Bin Laden’s captivity in Pakistan was in plain sight. Tensions between the Army Brass in Rawalpindi and in the Pentagon were high – this gives credence to Hersh’s claim that the Pakistani military was upset at being played by President Obama (my assessment of the Hersh story is in Frontline). The Generals denied any involvement in Saleem’s death.
The Committee for Press Freedom reported that Pakistan remains one of the most dangerous countries for a journalist. That distinction is now being fought over by a host of states (including Turkey, for which see the story on the attack on BirGün). What had Saleem done that earned him death? He had revealed the collusion between the Pakistani military and the extremists. If what he had pointed out was untrue, why did the government not deny it with evidence? Why did the government not have a debate over the issues raised by the press? Why try to silence the press with the gun?
Saleem Shahzad was a warm and wonderful man. He left behind his wife, Anita, and their three children. After his death, Saleem received many awards. But not justice. A year after his assassination, Anita said, “We have no expections of anyone.” That is a poor standard for journalists. Journalists need more protection. Our society needs more protection.