Benazir Bhutto’s Assassination

THE MASTERMINDS 

Osama bin Laden has issued orders for the assassination of President Musharraf, Benazir Bhutto and Maulana Fazlur Rehman. According to the information, Bin Laden planned to send the explosives through a Pakistani national called Musa Tariq who was en route to Dera Ismail Khan. Citing the intelligence, the document also claims that “Osama bin Laden is personally supervising the operation and for this purpose has moved to Afghanistan.”

Abu Ahmad Al Kuwaiti, Bin Laden’s trusted courier and one of the few people who had access to him in the last days. Kuwaiti was a Pakistani whose real name was Ibrahim Saeed. A speaker of Arabic and Pashto, Saeed lived with Bin Laden for many years in the Abbottabad compound and was his only link to the outside world. It was Saeed’s phone calls that inadvertently led the US to Bin Laden’s lair, where Saeed was also killed alongside his master.

Mustafa Abu Al Yazid aka Sheikh Saeed al Masri (Abu Obaidah, Sheikh Abdul Hameed as Ameer-e-Khuruj [Leader of the Revolt], Sheikh Abdul Hameed aka Abu Obaidah al Masri) : Al Qaeda’s chief paymaster since the 1990s. The most crucial piece of evidence linking Al Masri to the assassination was recovered from Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad after the raid. The document seen by Eos contains a memo delivered to Bin Laden just two days after the assassination. The memo from Al Masri, delivered via courier, refers to the ‘special task’ and informs Bin Laden of the successful “operation in ‘Pindi”, confirming it was his men who murdered Benazir. “More good is to come in revenge for our brothers and sisters in Hafsa and Lal mosques,” reads the memo.

Benazir was not directly involved in the Red Mosque siege, though she was the only politician who had openly supported the operation against it. In this context, however, the reference to the Red Mosque is a wide-ranging pretext for all operations against the Pakistani state and its leaders.

Despite a career in militancy spanning three decades, relatively little is known about the man who would lead Al Qaeda’s revolt in Pakistan. No photograph of Abu Obaidah exists, but disparate pieces of information come together to form a clearer picture. Al Masri was originally from the Sharqia governorate in the Nile Delta in Egypt, but is thought to be a Sudanese citizen. Described as a ‘journeyman fighter’ from the first generation of jihadis, he was a veteran of the wars in 

  • Afghanistan
  • Bosnia-Herzegovina  
  • Chechnya.

Al Masri was a seasoned operator in Pakistan. According to intelligence sources:

• he was a key planner in the bombing of the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad in November 1995 which killed 17 people.

His mentor Ayman Al Zawahiri masterminded the attack. Benazir Bhutto was prime minister at the time and said the attack was “retribution for the extradition of Ramzi Yousef”, an Al Qaeda militant who had been handed over to the US.

Twelve years later, Al Masri would be back in Pakistan to kill Benazir Bhutto. Bin Laden needed an experienced and dedicated head of operations in Pakistan to lead the new strategy. He appointed an Egyptian called Sheikh Abdul Hameed as Ameer-e-Khuruj [Leader of the Revolt] to direct the war inside Pakistan. Sheikh Abdul Hameed aka Abu Obaidah al Masri, the man mentioned in Major Haroon’s confession as the planner of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. Al Masri was already the head of Al Qaeda’s external operations and responsible for

• the London bombings
• near-successful attempt to blow up 18 transatlantic airliners mid-flight.

It was now time to turn their guns on their host country. In the months that followed, Al Qaeda was to shake Pakistan to its foundations.

Abu Obaidah al Masri: died within last two months of April 2008, probably of hepatitis. – Saleem Shahzad; assassinated journalist and terrorism expert.

Sarwar Khan struggled to breathe as he opened his eyes in the suffocating darkness. Only a few hours earlier he had been at his desk in Islamabad finishing up an ordinary day’s work. Now the Ahmadi businessman was nailed inside a coffin, gasping for air. His captors had injected him with sedatives and were attempting to transport him out of the city in an ambulance, disguised as a corpse — but the dose was wearing off, giving way to Sarwar’s blood-curdling screams. As the kidnappers stopped to subdue their human freight, a taxi driver on the highway witnessed the suspicious activity and called the authorities.

The police action that followed that day in February 2009 led to the capture of one of the most influential Al Qaeda strategists and ideologues in the organization’s history. Major Haroon Ashiq was arrested from the outskirts of Peshawar while trying to smuggle Sarwar Khan into the tribal areas. A former Special Services Group (SSG) commando, Haroon had left the army after 2001 and joined hands with the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) before graduating to the highest ranks of Al Qaeda’s network in Pakistan.

Major Haroon, it emerged, had been a mastermind of the Mumbai attacks the previous year and also a key player in some of the most spectacular militant operations in Pakistan in living memory. These included: 
• a sustained campaign of attacks on NATO supply lines,
• the murder of a former head of the elite SSG Major General Faisal Alvi
• the kidnapping of Karachi-based filmmaker Satish Anand.

Haroon’s role in Al Qaeda was not merely operational but also strategic and visionary. He was one of the only Pakistanis to be elected a member of the organization’s Shura (council) and is credited with reviving its flagging fortunes after 2003 in a massive overhaul of the group’s organizational structure and tactics. Kidnapping for ransom was also a new tactic developed under him to help Al Qaeda out of a severe financial crunch.

Major Haroon admitted his role in all these acts but one of the most important pieces of information he gave to interrogators was about a case in which he claimed not to have been involved at all: the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. The morning after the assassination 10 years ago, as the country convulsed with grief and chaos, the government of Gen Musharraf announced that secret agencies had intercepted a phone call to Baitullah Mehsud, the Amir of the outlawed Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which indicated that the former prime minister had been assassinated by Mehsud’s men.

Major Haroon’s confession:
Haroon told his interrogators that the assassination of Benazir Bhutto was ordered by Osama bin Laden and that Baitullah Mehsud had been tasked to carry out the plan. Haroon claimed the emissary between Bin Laden and Mehsud was a militant called Abu Obaidah Al Masri who was in charge of Al Qaeda’s Pakistan operation.
Haroon said he was given this information by Ilyas Kashmiri. Kashmiri, himself a former SSG officer surged through jihadi ranks to become one of Bin Laden’s closest lieutenants and was also tipped by US counterterrorism experts to replace him as leader of Al Qaeda after the Abbottabad raid.

Kashmiri and Major Haroon were the principal architects of the Mumbai attacks and worked closely together on a number of operations. Eos has obtained a confidential FIA document containing details of Haroon’s confession in which he confirms that the October 18th assassination attempt on Benazir Bhutto was also masterminded by Abu Obaidah al Masri and carried out through Baitullah’s men. The same network succeeded in assassinating Bhutto two months later in Rawalpindi.

In the document, Haroon also comments on the ‘superb’ planning and execution of the attack from an operational point of view and says he knew she would be vulnerable based on his assessment of her public rallies. “Benazir Bhutto was daring and bold lady and he (Haroon) was confident that she would definitely give chance to the assailants and that what she did [sic],” reads the report. Major Haroon is currently incarcerated in a special security block in Adiala Jail where he is considered one of the prison’s most fearsome inmates.

These revelations did not come as a surprise to officials close to the investigation who had long suspected an Al Qaeda link in Benazir’s murder, but were unable to establish it as part of the official investigation because of lack of evidence. Investigators who eventually brought the case against eight accused in the Benazir murder readily admit they were unable to prosecute the masterminds of the assassination, only nab the low-level operatives.

“By the time the investigation came to us the evidence was destroyed, links broken,” says a senior member of the FIA-led JIT that worked on Benazir’s murder case speaking on condition of anonymity. “But the conspiracy began even before she set foot in Pakistan. The intelligence chatter was loud and shattering. It was the Arabs in the northwest…the Mirali/ Miranshah group who were entrenched there. The TTP was working for them.” The investigator is convinced that there was a strong Al Qaeda link. “I believe Beitullah did [it] at the behest of the Arabs.”
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In August 2009, the Benazir murder investigation was transferred from the Punjab Police to the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) on the wishes of President Asif Ali Zardari. The Punjab Police inquiry under Additional IG CTD Chaudhry Abdul Majeed had been severely criticized for its incompetence by the UN Inquiry Commission among others. The new probe under DIG Khalid Qureshi of the FIA was able to piece together a much more detailed picture of what happened at the lower level of the plot.
According to investigators, there were at least five tiers in the planning hierarchy of the assassination. At the top of the pyramid were the masterminds, then came the planners, followed by the facilitators, then the handlers and lastly, the bombers themselves. In all, at least nine people are thought to have been involved. Another three people are accused of having knowledge of the plot. The perpetrators at each stage did not know the conspirators higher up and were only in touch with the cell directly above them. “You have to understand these people are the best in the world,” says an FIA official who worked on the investigation. “Many of them have been trained in clandestine operations and know the protocols. There are natural ‘cut-outs’ built into the plan.”
According to the official charge sheet, a key part of the attack was planned in Madrassa Darul Uloom Haqqania in Akora Khattak by former students of the seminary:
• Nadir alias Qari Ismail,
• Nasrullah alias Ahmed
• Abdullah alias Saddam.
It is alleged that these facilitators were being run by a senior planner:
• Ibad-ur-Rehman alias Farooq Chattan
who also provided the suicide jackets. The Haqqania trio collected the suicide bombers
• Bilal
• Ikramullah
from South Waziristan and brought them back to Akora Khattak.

Nasrullah then took the boys to Rawalpindi where they linked up with the handlers, locally based cousins
• Hasnain Gul
• Muhammad Rafaqat

who were later arrested. Copies of the sworn confessions of Hasnain and Rafaqat obtained by Eos reveal details of how the two 15-year-old bombers were transported to Liaquat Bagh and how the handlers conducted the reconnaissance of the venue earlier the same day. Forensic analysis of call data records of the accused, corroborated through mobile tower geofencing, confirm Hasnain and Rafaqat’s accounts of their movements on 27th December, the two bombers present in Liaquat Bagh on 27th December. Bilal alias Saeed and Ikramullah. These names are corroborated by the confessions of the handlers Hasnain and Rafaqat. In the end, investigators maintain that only one individual detonated his explosives and that this was Bilal alias Saeed. The other would-be suicide bomber, Ikramullah, escaped from the scene and has been declared a proclaimed offender.
DNA reports, however, appear to contradict the claim that there was only one assailant. Personal effects of the bomber recovered from the house of handler Hasnain Gul including a shawl, cap and pair of joggers, were tested against the remains of three individuals found at the crime scene. The DNA profiles of two individuals found on the shawl and in the joggers, match the remains of two individuals from the crime scene. In effect, this means that another individual who came into contact with the shawl and joggers found from Hasnain’s house, perished in the blast. Eos has obtained exclusive access to DNA reports that prove the existence of this possible third attacker.

The report was prepared by the FBI’s DNA laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, at the request of the FIA-led Joint Investigation Team (JIT). Its findings were originally included in an initial version of the challan submitted to the court, but this was later dropped without explanation. This version of the charge sheet states: “Comparison report of FBI Lab has corroborated Hasnain Gul’s confessional statement by confirming that 02 terrorists who left shawl and pair of joggers and cap in Hasnain Gul’s residence were killed in the blast on crime scene in Liaquat Bagh on 27-12-2007.”

Sources close to the investigation say the report lost evidentiary value because representatives from the FBI refused to come to Pakistan to testify before the court, rendering the report inadmissible under Pakistani law of evidence.

Another reason it became untenable was because Pakistani investigators could not establish a ‘chain of custody’ relating to the human remains which were first collected by officials of another agency, who were later untraceable by the FIA. “It is possible that the identity of Bilal and Saeed, has been collapsed into one individual,” said one journalist who has followed the case closely.

Evidence for the existence of a third bomber comes from two other sources. The phone call between Baitullah Mehsud and one Maulvi Sahib, intercepted by the security agency, contains a reference to three bombers. The conversation makes a clear distinction between Bilal and Saeed. Elsewhere, in a document prepared by the Interior Ministry, Saeed is referred to as Abdullah alias Saeed ‘the long-necked one’.

The document claims that Abdullah alias Saeed, along with Bilal, Ikramullah and Nasrullah was also part of a failed plan to kill Benazir Bhutto in Arbab Niaz stadium in Peshawar on the 26th of December, a day before the assassination.
The assailants were not able to get close enough to Ms. Bhutto’s vehicle because of tight security and decided to move overnight to Rawalpindi where they were picked up by local handlers Hasnain Gul and Rafaqat. The account relating to an attempt in Peshawar the previous day is corroborated by Hasnain Gul’s confession who says he was told by Nasrullah that they had tried to launch but failed in Peshawar. However, there is no mention of Abdullah alias Saeed in any of the confessions in which the handlers admit to receiving only two bombers. The ‘long-necked one’ appears to vanish from the face of the earth. Some speculate that a third, hitherto unknown, terrorist cell could have been used to transport the third bomber to Liaquat Bagh.

  • The other men standing trial are Aitzaz Shah, Sher Zaman and Rasheed Ahmed Turabi, all three accused of having knowledge of the conspiracy. Aitzaz Shah, then a 15-year-old boy, was arrested from Dera Ismail Khan in January 2008. Police say he admitted to knowing about the plot to kill Benazir Bhutto and was prepared as a suicide bomber to target her if the first plan failed. He also identified the voice of Baitullah Mehsud on the phone call intercepted by the security services in which he (Mehsud) is told of the successful operation by one Maulvi sahib. Though not made part of the challan, intelligence sources believe that Maulvi sahib is a man called Azizullah, also a prominent upper-tier planner. Another individual, Maulvi Naseeb, a former teacher at Madrassa Haqqania, was also involved in ‘preparing’ the boys ‘for jannah’ in Akora Khattak. His role has also not been established in the challan. Both Azizullah and Naseeb have been reported killed.
  • Nasrullah and Qari Ismail were killed at a check post in Mohmand agency, on the 15th of January, 2008, as they tried to flee from police. They were transporting a 15-year-old suicide bomber who blew himself up in the car. Qari was killed instantly and Nasrullah died a few days later in hospital. Investigators say he (Nasrullah) was a key figure in the conspiracy with Al Qaeda links who knew the identities of people higher up in the chain. Analysis of call data records from Nasrullah’s phone show he was constantly in touch with a number that was used in the ransom negotiations of Karachi-based businessmen Satish Anand and Aqeel Haji. Major Haroon Ashiq and his close comrade Ilyas Kashmiri were involved in these kidnappings.
  • Ibad-ur-Rehman alias Farooq Chattan, the alleged chief planner, was killed in a drone strike in Khyber agency on 15th May, 2010. Officials says his case is particularly confounding as he always remained a step ahead of police despite solid intelligence about his location. It is also pointed out that he was killed in the first-ever drone strike in Khyber Agency.
  • Abdullah alias Saddam was killed while handling an explosive device on 31st May, 2008 at Mamad Gatt, Mohmand Agency and he was buried in his native village Lakaro in Mohmand Agency.
  • Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a drone strike on 5th August, 2009 in South Waziristan during a conjugal visit with his second wife.

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Former Interior Minister Rehman Malik: informant in Miranshah, “There were reports that six people had been sent down from FATA to carry out the attack. That corresponds to the information we were subsequently able to gather about the bombers and their handlers.”

Who killed Benazir Bhutto?

Eos explores the evidence unearthed during the investigation into the former premier’s assassination.

The writer is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He is also a producer of BBC’s podcast series The Assassination presented by Owen Bennett-Jones. He tweets @ZiadZafar

Courtesy of : Dawn, EOS, December 24th, 2017

 

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