Published December 24, 2017

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 AlQaeda strategists and ideologues in the organisation’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, as well 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 organisation’s shura (council) and is credited with reviving its flagging fortunes after 2003 in a massive overhaul of the group’s organisational 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.

December 27 marks a decade since one of the most traumatic events in Pakistan’s recent political history. A 10-year investigation into the masterminds behind the assassination of the former prime minister of Pakistan has yielded some breakthrough revelations, that are being presented here for the first time…

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.

The disclosure was met with severe criticism and incredulity by an angry public. Doubts focused on the speed at which the government had produced the intercept, only fueling speculation about who killed her. News that the crime scene was hosed down minutes after the attack led to accusations of official complicity in the murder. The failure to conduct an autopsy compounded the situation and reinforced suspicions. Over the course of 10 years, these events have chronically overshadowed the case and ensured that the investigation into Pakistan’s most controversial murder would always remain limited in scope.

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 criticised 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 and 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 and 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 and Muhammad Rafaqat, who were later arrested.

The most crucial piece of evidence linking Al Masri to the assassination was recovered from Osama 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.

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 Long-necked one’: A Third Bomber?

According to the official investigation there were 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. The bombers were placed at alternative exits to ensure success in the event that Benazir took a different route out of the venue. 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:

Baitullah Mehsud: Who were they?

Maulvi Sahib: There was Saeed, there was Bilal from Badar and Ikramullah.

BM: The three of them did it?

MS: Ikramullah and Bilal did it.

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.

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 JIT. Its findings were originally included in an initial version of the challan submitted to the court, but this was later dropped without explanation.

“There are many things we will never know now,” said one investigator involved in the prosecution. “The links are broken forever.” He was referring to the fact that virtually every single person of interest in the assassination conspiracy has been killed in mysterious circumstances. Only the lowest level operatives have been brought to trial.

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.

Baitullah’s Denial

TTP chief Baitullah Mehsud (right) was immediately accused of orchestrating Benazir Bhutto’s assassination
TTP chief Baitullah Mehsud (right) was immediately accused of orchestrating Benazir Bhutto’s assassination

Soon after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination Baitullah Mehsud denied he had any role in it saying it was against Pakhtun customs to kill a woman. His spokesman Maulvi Omar said: “We are sad over Benazir Bhutto’s death. We do not have any enmity with Pakistani leaders and are only opposed to the US.” Officials close to the investigation are not convinced by the denial. “Baitullah only denied it later after the backlash came,” says one investigator. “He had to backtrack after the Sindhis started burning Mehsud trucks and tankers in Sindh. 90% of the trucks are run by the Mehsuds. It’s a huge source of revenue for him. He said we don’t kill women in our culture but that’s obviously false. They have no such qualms. They have killed countless women.”

Investigators have been able to piece together a fairly comprehensive picture of the lower sections of the plot, and also establish a prima facie case against Baitullah Mehsud. But the question of who was behind him has always remained elusive.

Eos has been able to obtain evidence that another hitherto unknown mastermind was behind the plot. The story begins with 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.”

Al Qaeda’s Target Pakistan Operation

Al Qaeda’s dominant presence in the tribal areas post 9/11 and its role in reshaping centuries-old local dynamics there has been well documented by local and western scholarship. In particular, its ability to decapitate the vanguard of traditionally pro-establishment tribal leaders in favor of a younger group of ruthless but malleable anti-state warlords, such as Baitullah Mehsud, changed the region forever.

Al Qaeda’s power came from its ability to harness the potential and reach of local actors by introducing sophisticated techniques and improving the capacity of militant groups in Fata. From bomb-making and fundraising, to information operations and guerilla tactics, the organisation’s foreign fighters turned the TTP into one of the most deadly insurgent groups on earth. In 2005, Al Qaeda was also able to convince the Taliban to accept the use of suicide bombing as a strategic weapon, a massive game changer.

Despite insistence from senior Al Qaeda ideologues such as Ayman Al Zawahiri, Bin Laden was at first reluctant to attack Pakistan — partly to maintain it as a sanctuary and recruiting ground, but mostly because he long believed the real war was against the ‘far enemy’ which was to be routed in the Afghan theatre.

A new book The Exile (Bloomsbury), about Bin Laden’s years in hiding by award-winning journalists Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, argues that Ilyas Kashmiri played an instrumental role in putting Pakistan in Al Qaeda’s crosshairs. At a top leadership meeting, Kashmiri argued that in addition to punishing its pro-western leaders, creating domestic chaos in Pakistan would ensnare the Pakistani security agencies who would then be less able to come after them. The argument was clinched after the siege of the Al Qaeda-linked Red Mosque in Islamabad which was to prove a watershed moment. The group’s decision to take the war to Pakistani cities in 2007 was a turning point which ushered in an era of unprecedented carnage.

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 is an alias for 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 as well as the 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.

The Menace of Al Masri

The weapon recovered from the scene of the crime. TV footage showed Bilal firing the gun at the former prime minister
The weapon recovered from the scene of the crime. TV footage showed Bilal firing the gun at the former prime minister

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 and 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.

The Abbottabad Memo

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.

The courier goes onto discuss operational issues and conveys Al Masri’s concern about a shortage of funds. The message asks for Bin Laden’s permission to open a local branch in Pakistan. This is most likely a request to offer the franchise to a local group. The courier makes a supplication on behalf of Al Masri saying he is: “already taking care of the two jobs and his productivity would undoubtedly be higher should he be dedicated to one job only.” Analysts who have looked at the memo believe this a reference to the fact that Al Masri was simultaneously running Al Qaeda’s external operations and the organisation was suffering from an increasing dearth of leadership after the loss of a number of senior operatives.

The existence of this document was first revealed by investigative journalist Azaz Syed in his book The Secrets of Pakistan’s War on Al Qaeda. According to Syed, the document was among the material that American Navy Seals were not able to take with them from the compound and which was later catalogued by Pakistani investigators. “The most striking feature of this memo is the timing, delivered only two days after the assassination,” says Syed. “The general impression about Osama in Abbottabad is that he was completely isolated, but this proves he was very much in touch with key figures of his network and getting updated virtually in real time.”

An Arabic-language expert who was shown the memo is of the view that it was written by someone who knows Arabic but was not a native speaker. Syed believes this was most likely 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 actually a Pakistani whose real name was Ibrahim Saeed. A speaker of Arabic and Pashto, Saeed lived with Bin Laden for a number of 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.

Intelligence Intercept

Asif Ali Zardari attempts to control those who had arrived at Benazir’s funeral | WhiteStar
Asif Ali Zardari attempts to control those who had arrived at Benazir’s funeral | WhiteStar

Bin Laden’s final years in Abbottabad, as revealed through the memo and a treasure trove of similar evidence collected by the Americans from the compound, reveal an astonishingly resilient picture of the Al Qaeda leader. Despite his isolation, and periods of great depression and scarcity, Bin Laden appears to have been deeply engaged with his network, issuing directives, confirming appointments and also monitoring developments in the region closely, particularly in Pakistan, which was of special interest.

Yet more evidence suggests he had monitored Al Qaeda’s assassination program most closely. A secret security agency document leaked to Eos suggests that he personally oversaw the assassination of Benazir and attempts on other political leaders. The document dated 19th December, 2007, states that the agency has ‘reliably learned’ that 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.”

Former Interior Minister Rehman Malik told Eos that after his party took government, he looked more deeply into the source of this information. “It came from an informant in Miranshah,” he said. “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.”

In April 2008, US intelligence sources reported that Abu Obaidah Al Masri was dead. A US official told the BBC that Masri had apparently “died within the last two months, probably of hepatitis.” Assassinated journalist and terrorism expert Saleem Shahzad wrote about Al Qaeda’s disappointment at not being able to capitalise on the chaos in Pakistan in the post-December 27 situation because of Al Masri’s demise.

Shahzad had previously reported the only claim of responsibility in the Benazir assassination when an Al Qaeda spokesman contacted him by phone. “We terminated the most precious American asset which vowed to defeat (the) mujahideen,” he quoted Mustafa Abu Al Yazid as saying. Yazid, also known as Sheikh Saeed al Masri was known as Al Qaeda’s chief paymaster since the 1990s but rose to greater prominence in 2008, after the death of Abu Obaidah al Masri. Yazid was also involved in the financing of the 9/11 attacks, though it is said he was initially against the plan. He was killed in a drone attack in May 2010.

On August 31 this year, an Anti Terrorism Court (ATC) in Rawalpindi announced a verdict in the 10-year long Benazir Bhutto murder case. The judgement acquitted the five TTP-linked suspects and handed down 17-year jail terms to two police officers for criminal negligence in ordering the hosing down of the crime scene and their failure to provide Ms Bhutto security. The ATC also declared retired Gen Pervez Musharraf an absconder in the case. The confessions of the five accused militants were declared inadmissible by the judge on procedural bases. The police officers who are out on bail have appealed against the verdict, whereas the prosecution has appealed against the acquittal of the five accused militants. While the appeals play out in court, there now seems little chance that this judicial inquiry will advance the public’s knowledge about the larger conspiracy to eliminate Benazir Bhutto.

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

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 24th, 2017



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