Notes From the Margins…

In Memoriam: Syed Saleem Shahzad

  • June 02, 2011
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The murder of the Pakistani journalist  Syed Saleem Shahzad, bureau chief of the Asia Times Online,  is another indication of the rottenness at the heart of the Pakistani state.   Last year 44 journalists were killed in Pakistan, more than any other country in the world.

Shahzad was one of the most courageous, well-informed and reliable reporters in the country,  and I often read his sharp and well-informed dispatches in the  Asia Times, which has just published some moving tributes to him.

Shahzad was killed after filing the first of a two-part report on last month’s attack on the PNS Meran naval station in Karachi last month.

At the time the attack was seen as another act of vengeance for the killing of Osama bin Laden,  but Shahzad claimed that it was carried out in response to the arrest of an al-Qaeda cell inside the navy itself.  The second part of the story on  ‘recruitment and training of militants’ was never completed.

The most probable culprit appears to be the Pakistani intelligence agency, the fearsome Inter Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI).

Human Rights Watch claims to have been informed by a ‘reliable interlocutor’ that Shahzad was abducted by the ISI before his death, and Shahzad himself also told colleagues that he had been indirectly threatened by the ISI.

The ISI is a fairly monstrous institution, an intelligence agency-cum-mafia, in which state-sponsored jihadism, gangsterism, drugdealing, and profiteering overlap with Pakistan’s military and strategic competition with India.

Its dominant position in Pakistani society can be traced back to the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, when together with the Saudi intelligence services and the CIA, it managed the supply of weapons and training to the Afghan Mujahideen.

The ISI also helped organize the transportation of Afghan opium and heroin production to finance the ‘muj’- a pipeline which neatly combined various objectives at the same time, from turning Soviet soldiers into heroin addicts, financing the jihad and making a lot of money for those involved in the trade.

From the point of view of the United States, the ISI has always been an ambiguous and difficult ally.   Long before his death, Osama bin Laden was believed to have a good working relationship with the ISI, which some believe helped him get out of Afghanistan during Nato’s toppling of the Taliban.

The essential ambivalence of this relationship was embodied by the presence in Washington on the morning of September 11 2001, of the ISI’s then director-general General Mahmood Ahmed at a meeting with the House Intelligence Committee.

Previously, according to the Times of India,  General Mahmood had sent  a cheque for $100,000 to the lead hijacker Muhammed Atta via an emissary called Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh

A British-born militant of Pakistani origin, Saeed Sheikh was subsequently convicted in Pakistan of the murder of  the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who bravely – if somewhat naively – attempted to investigate Pakistan’s military-al Qaeda connections by himself following the September 11 attacks.

According to reporting carried out by The Pearl Project – a joint project carried out by Georgetown University and  the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists at the Center for Public Integrity – the  man who killed Pearl was none other than Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged 9/11 ‘mastermind’ – and if he murdered Pearl on behalf of the ISI then he too was likely to have been an ISI operative.

The Taliban was originally an ISI creation and many analysts believe that these links continue.

Last year a report by the London School of Economics claimed that  support for the Taliban was ‘official ISI policy’ and that ‘  There is thus a strong case that the ISI orchestrates, sustains and shapes the overall insurgent campaign’.

It may seem somewhat paradoxical – and illogical – that the United States has spent the last decade fighting the ‘war on terror’ with an ally whose intelligence services have played a role in the 9/11 attacks, murdered an American journalist,  sponsored jihadist violence both inside and outside Pakistan, and which also collaborates with the same fundamentalist insurgents who American and European troops are fighting in Afghanistan in order to uphold democracy and Western ‘values’ .

The ‘war on terror’ is riddled with similar contradictions.

Hillary Clinton has condemned the killing of Shahzad and declared that ‘ His work reporting on terrorism and intelligence issues in Pakistan brought to light the troubles extremism poses to Pakistan”s stability.’

But this ‘extremism’  is partly a legacy of the sleazy and corrupt strategic relationship with the Pakistani military and intelligence services established by the United States and its allies during the Cold War.   As Lord Palmerston famously put it in a different context ‘we have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.’

For Pakistani civil society the dominance and impunity of the ISI  and the military is an ongoing disaster, which is choking the prospects for democratic growth and threatens to unravel the country.

Syed Salam Shahzad may be one more victim of a monster which the West helped to create – and may no longer be capable of controlling.


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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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