HE is no ordinary candidate. Unlike all other candidates, his life is in continuous peril — elections or no elections.

Ever since his only son was shot multiple times and killed outside his native home in Pabbi in 2010, Awami National Party’s Mian Iftikhar Hussain has never had a peaceful life.

His challenging open gauntlet-throwing taunts to militants out to sow death and mayhem during the ANP government of which he was the information minister from 2008 to 2013 ensured that his unforgiving enemies would continue to stalk him, track him down and eliminate him.

This means the 60-year-old thrice-elected parliamentarian has been on his toes ever since. He never sleeps at one place, cocks his gun, leaves his personal bulletproof car at one place to spend a night at another of which not even his driver or family knows anything about and goes incommunicado after some time at night.

“It is better to shoot myself than allow myself to be taken alive and killed later to make a scene out of it,” he says calmly. “You have to die one day, so why the tension?” he says in a matter-of-factly voice.

He has developed his own standard operating procedures to protect himself and has been religiously following it. “These have worked so far,” he says.

He has been advised to augment security measures after the death of his party colleague, Barrister Haroon Bilour, in a suicide bombing on July 10.

Threat alerts before polls

While threats to his life have never ceased, the elections have brought an uptick in their frequency. He hasn’t stopped, though he has learnt to cope with the challenges to his life and security by doing things on his own, choosing his own time and venue.

Police guards, who had been withdrawn abruptly on an order of Chief Justice of Pakistan Mian Saqib Nisar, have been returned to him after the recent killing of Mr Bilour. Yet he has to do what he can to protect himself as well as those who come to listen to his speeches, he says.

Speak to any law enforcer and they would tell you that if there is one man whose life has been in perpetual peril, it is the soft-spoken Mian, a former Pakhtun Students Federation leader, from Nowshera. Yet his name is not there on the list of politicians facing threats to their life, the interior ministry and the National Counter Terrorism Authority (Nacta) had recently shared with senators.

The list according to the lawmakers who attended the presentation included the names of ANP’s Asfandyar Wali Khan and Ameer Haider Khan Hoti. From the PPP, it vaguely included the Punjab and Sindh leadership though it mentioned Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari in the context of his election rallies in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab. The names of Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam’s Fazlur Rehman, his party leader Akram Khan Durrani, Jamaat-i-Islami chief Sirajul Haq, PML-N president Shahbaz Sharif and Qaumi Watan Party’s Aftab Sherpao besides some Muttahida Qaumi Movement and Pak Sarzameen Party leaders were also on the target list, the source added.

There have been four threat alerts involving Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf chief Imran Khan, they said. The list is rather long and detailed. According to a lawmaker present in the Senate standing committee’s meeting, there have been four threat alerts involving the PTI chief between March and July. Others from the party on the list include Faisal Vawda, Ali Zaidi and two candidates from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata).

All put together, the PTI ends up as the most threatened party in Pakistan, followed by the JUI-F, PPP, PML-N and the MQM-P. Balochistan National Party (BNP) and the ANP are the least threatened parties if the threat alerts are anything to go by, followed by Sherpao’s QWP and the newly-emerged Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek — the lead up to Milli Muslim League — which is the political branch of the banned Jamaatud Dawa.

The threats, according to the briefing to the lawmakers, are originating mostly from Pakistani militant groups operating from Afghanistan, including the TTP, its offshoot the Jamaatul Ahrar, Daesh or the so-called Islamic State, Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, hostile intelligence agencies namely Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) and India’s Research & Analysis Wing (RAW), and lastly the MQM (London).

Nature of threat alerts

But just how credible are these threat alerts? Those in the know, including law enforcers, say the alerts are vague and generic in nature. “One cannot call them intelligence reports. There is a difference between intelligence reports based on human and electronic intercept and the threat alerts,” says a top counterterrorism officer. “What will you make of a threat alert that speaks of a possible attack anywhere in the country?” he asks wryly.

In some cases, the threat is well known and well established, the law enforcers and counterterrorism officials point out. “You know there is a genuine threat against the PPP, ANP and JUI-F leadership based on past attacks so you take appropriate security measures and adopt certain standard operating procedures.

But in these and many other cases, the threats appear more as an attempt to ward against any possible finger-pointing and intelligence failure in a manner of ‘didn’t-I-tell you-before’ than any real intelligence sharing, the officials add.

“Sixty per cent times, we are just sharing reports which are mere alerts that have no real intelligence value,” admits one senior law enforcement official. “Our intelligence agencies may have real intelligence on possible terrorist attacks but that is not what comes through to us through Nacta’s facility,” the official remarks candidly.

Effects on election campaigns

For someone like Mian Iftikhar Hussain and others, these threat alerts do debilitate their election campaign.

Bilawal was forced to cancel his address in Malakand where he is a candidate for the National Assembly.

Shahbaz Sharif, too, who is an NA candidate from Swat, had to cancel his earlier visit to Swat due to security concerns. He had to reschedule his address after protests from local party leaders.

But as the ballot draws near, the frequency of these alerts and their peculiar nature has made some politicians both sceptical as well as suspicious. While still unwilling to take chances and risk their lives, they privately see these unspecific threats an attempt to undermine their election campaigns ‘to favour the preferred ones’.

That was probably one reason why ANP’s Senator Sitara Ayaz, who was representing her party as a special invitee, left the standing committee’s meeting half way through. “There was nothing that we learnt from the security presentation that we did not know before from media publications. There was nothing new, so what was the point of sitting there,” she says.

Published in Dawn, July 22nd, 2018