The kidnapping and killing of Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad has opened up a new vista of the alleged nexus between al Qaeda and the Pakistan Navy. The 40-year old Shahzad, the Pakistan Bureau Chief for Asia Times Online, a Hong Kong-based news portal, went missing on 29 May 2011 and was found dead two days later at Sarai Alamgir, 150km southeast of Islamabad. The obvious reason for his kidnapping and death is an article he wrote for the portal, entitled ‘Al-Qaeda had warned of Pakistan Strike’. In this article, he forthrightly mentions the presence of an al Qaeda cell in the Pakistani Navy and the existence of Islamic sentiments among naval officers who do not like the presence of the US in the region. Some Pakistani Navy officers have been arrested in the recent past for their alleged link with the al Qaeda.
Shahzad, who had written extensively on the al Qaeda and Taliban terror groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan for the last ten years, also wrote that “Al-Qaeda carried out the brazen attack on PNS Mehran naval base in Karachi on May 22 after talks failed between the navy and al-Qaeda over the release of naval officials arrested on suspicion of al-Qaeda links.” According to Shahzad, the attackers of the PNS Mehran naval base were from Ilyas Kashmiri's 313 Brigade, which is the operational arm of the al Qaeda. To make matters worse, the official who carried out the investigation against arrested naval officers was threatened by the al Qaeda of dire consequences. Shahzad also emphasized that the al Qaeda knew the whereabouts of these arrested naval officials in Karachi. How could the al Qaeda be aware of such sensitive information, unless it was supplied from within the naval establishment, who are known to sympathize with the organization? The attacks on NATO convoys in recent times seem to be the handiwork of terrorist organizations, which get tipped off by the ISI. President Obama’s decision not to involve the ISI in the Abbottabad operation is a clear case of mistrust generated by strained relations between the CIA and the ISI, wherein the former fears the latter’s proclivity to leak sensitive information to terror organizations.
Shahzad had received threats on various occasions for his provocative writing. The ISI had warned him for writing investigative articles that allegedly had a bad effect on Pakistan's national interests. In 2006, he was kidnapped by the Taliban in Helmand in southern Afghanistan and was accused of being a spy, but was set free after seven days of captivity. Along with his brutal death, some core issues that emerge are: To what extent have inroads been made into Pakistani establishments, especially the armed forces, by terrorist organizations? Analysts argue that the attack on PNS Mehran greatly reveals the nexus between the Pakistani Army and terror outfits, since insiders must have played a lead role in carrying out such a daring attack. And more so, as had been discussed by Shahzad, the very presence of an al Qaeda cell or even its sympathizers in the Pakistani Navy aggravates the concern of the international community of terrorist organizations taking over the command and control of the armed forces.
There is also an ISI angle to the story. Whether it was 26/11 or the presence of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, the ISI was usually cited as having had a role to play in the proceedings. In the case of Shahzad, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan expressed alarm about his disappearance and suspected that he might have been abducted by a state agency. The above-mentioned article of Shahzad about al Qaeda infiltration in the Pakistani Navy surely enraged the ISI, given its impeccable timing. In addition, the agency is also under pressure after David Coleman Headley’s testimony before a Chicago trial court regarding the ISI’s involvement in planning the Mumbai terror attacks of November 2008. Shahzad’s expose thus added to the imminent disrepute of its already maligned image. In a recent statement, the ISI conceded to its involvement, which was ‘limited to a handful of rogue agents’, though not the top brass.
Shahzad’s revelations give impetus to the long-held apprehension at the global level of tacit support to terror organizations by the Pakistani Army. An even greater fear is that Pakistan’s nukes stand the risk of being handed over or taken over by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) or the al Qaeda, if such a link continues to exist.
The first casualty of such an event would be India, not the US. And India will retaliate with equal severity. There is, therefore, an urgent need for New Delhi to speed up political and diplomatic relations with Pakistan’s civilian government in reaching a consensus on the imminent security threat posed by the infiltration of the TTP or the al Qaeda in official establishments.