Osama bin Laden’s personal animosity for Benazir Bhutto stretched back two decades before her assassination. He had previously financed at least two operations to kill her and one serious attempt to topple her government.

In 1989, for example, Osama is alleged to have bankrolled an establishment-backed plot to bring a no-confidence motion against her government which would effectively remove her as prime minister. Operation Midnight Jackal was led by the infamous spymaster Brigadier Imtiaz ‘The Cat’ Billa and other officers who attempted to bribe parliamentarians to rig the vote. The plot was foiled by sections of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) loyal to the PM and the officers arrested.

Benazir Bhutto claimed Osama bin Laden had funnelled $10 million to the conspirators which was used to purchase the votes. This account is confirmed by former ISI agent and one-time close confidant of bin Laden, Khalid Khawaja, who claimed that Nawaz Sharif promised Osama bin Laden that he would impose shariah in the country if he helped finance the plot.

Benazir reportedly called King Fahd of Saudi Arabia after Osama’s involvement was confirmed and asked him to recall ‘his man’ otherwise he would be arrested and interrogated. The prime minister reportedly delivered a veiled threat to the monarch, saying that failure to do this would lead to uncomfortable speculation in ‘Pakistan’s free media’ about Saudi interference in Pakistan’s internal affairs. An account of this phone call is contained in leading Al Qaeda specialist Peter Bergen’s book The Osama I Knew: An Oral history of Al Qaeda’s Leader (Simon and Schuster) which also claims it was the reason Osama finally left Pakistan.

2007 wasn’t the only time that the Al Qaeda leader had attempted to silence the PPP leader

When he attempted to travel back, his passport was snatched by Saudi authorities and he was banned from travelling.

Four years later in 1993, Osama bin Laden financed two plots to assassinate Benazir Bhutto prior to the elections. Both attempts were masterminded by Ramzi Yousef, the notorious terrorist and bomb-maker who was later convicted of the first World Trade Centre bombing that took place earlier the same year.

Yousef worked together with militants of the sectarian Sipahe Sahaba to carry out the plan. The first attempt was made in August 1993 when Yousef and another accomplice, Abdul Hakim, planted a bomb in a sewage drain outside Bilawal House in Karachi near which Benazir’s convoy would pass regularly. According to FIA documents, the plan was interrupted after a police mobile happened to pass by as the men were attempting to install the bomb. Yousef told the suspicious officers he had lost his glasses in the drain and was trying to retrieve them. The explanation got them off but the men decided to abort the operation. Later, as Yousef tried to recover the device it exploded and he sustained serious injuries to his fingers and eyes. He reportedly spent 13 days in Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre, Karachi where he was treated under a false name, Adam Khan Baloch.

Investigators say another man linked to the plot, a Sipahe Sahaba militant named Abdul Shakoor, who was arrested on a separate charge, divulged details of the Al Qaeda sponsored plan and also revealed that a man called Munir Ibrahim was the paymaster on behalf of Osama bin Laden.

Taking another shot at the contract, Ramzi and his accomplices tried to assassinate Benazir Bhutto once more in a gun attack at an election rally in Nishtar Park, Karachi. A rooftop near Nishtar park was selected as the sniper’s nest. According to official documents, Ramzi’s uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, Osama’s deputy and mastermind of 9/11 furnished the weapons for the attack, while the shooter, an ex army man was provided by Sipah Sahaba. The plan failed when the sniper couldn’t reach Karachi in time from Sukkur. Ramzi Yousef is now serving a life sentence in a US prison.

In 1995, Benazir’s second government faced a serious coup attempt by a group of serving military officers working closely with jihadi militants. The conspirators planned to assassinate the prime minister and the army top brass before imposing shariah law in the country. Qari Saifullah, a militant with close links to Osama bin Laden, was the one of the main executors of the plan. He was imprisoned for a few years before being set free.

Saifullah was head of the Harkut ul Jihad Islami which was closely allied to Al Qaeda and received direct financial assistance from bin Laden. He was named by Benazir Bhutto herself in a posthumously published book as being one of the people plotting her assassination in 2007. He was arrested in connection with this but released in a matter of weeks after the police failed to find any evidence against him. According to the New York Times, Saifullah met with Osama bin Laden in South Waziristan as late as 2009 to discuss operations in Pakistan. —ZZ

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 24th, 2017

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