Whodunit? ISI?


My friend Syed Saleem Shahzad is dead, kidnapped, tortured, killed and his body dumped in wilderness. To say that it was a heinous act would be to state the obvious. But sometimes, as in this case and many more, stating the obvious is important. But there is more, and that more is even more troubling.

From the time Saleem went missing on May 29 – he had spoken with me just a day before – almost everyone thought he was picked up by an agency, euphemism for the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate. Saleem’s disappearance came on the heels of a story he did for his online newspaper Asia Times Online in which he detailed the causes for attacks on Pakistan Navy in recent weeks which culminated in the spectacular and extremely coordinated attack on PNS Mehran.

Did that story get Saleem killed and at the hands of the ISI? Consider.

Saleem’s story, now known to half the world, claimed the attack was mounted by 313 Brigade, the operational arm of Al-Qaeda headed by Ilyas Kashmiri. The attack was a reprisal for PN’s internal crackdown on groups within the service that were considered affiliated with the AQ network. According to Saleem, AQ had sent threats to the PN to release the detainees or face the consequences. The PN of course ignored these threats and interrogations led to more suspects being netted. However, the PN was forced to open a channel with AQ when it realised that despite moving the detainees to several places, the AQ seemed to know the exact movements, implying there were people within the navy providing intelligence to AQ.

But negotiations broke down because AQ was asking for the release and reinstatement of these detainees. That led to three attacks on navy buses – warning shots – followed by the Mehran attack. This, Saleem reported, was the underlying motive, though a paragraph above in the story he also said that “The May 2 killing in Pakistan of Osama bin Laden spurred Al-Qaeda groups into developing a consensus for the attack in Karachi, in part as revenge for the death of their leader and also to deal a blow to Pakistan’s surveillance capacity against the Indian navy.”

His story did not, however, detail why Ilyas Kashmiri’s group would try and deprive Pakistan of its capability against India, given that Kashmiri, before linking up with AQ, was fighting Indian security forces in Indian-occupied Kashmir. Perhaps Saleem would have given more details in the follow-up; but whoever wanted to silence him didn’t let him do that. This question is important because all accounts, including Saleem’s, are clear about what the target of that attack was: P-3C Orions. Everything else was secondary to that mission.

Now assume the ISI decided to pick him up. What would they possibly want from him? If the idea was to kill him, a bullet was enough to do the job. Suppose they first wanted to get information out of him about his sources. They have the wherewithal to monitor calls and movements with precision. If they wanted to get to those in the PN that were providing him info, technically they did not need to pick him up for that.

But there is another theory: they didn’t want to kill him but wanted to put the fear of God in him. And while doing that, got sloppy and ended up killing Saleem mistakenly. If this theory is correct, then going by Saleem’s second autopsy report, which shows that he was kicked and repeatedly struck with a rod or rods, resulting in broken ribs that punctured his lung, the ISI is even sloppier than the Punjab police. Also, this kind of torture shows hatred and vengeance, not a cool, calculated method to either extract information or use pain selectively to break someone.

It also makes no sense for the ISI to pick him up, torture him thus and then call up Saleem’s wife to tell him that he would be back come evening – especially if they knew that the ‘treatment’ had resulted in his death. In fact, any inquiry on the basis of autopsy should be able to figure out whether or not the call correlates to Saleem’s time of injury and time of death.

There is another equally important aspect. Unless the military and the ISI live in a cocoon, they know that anything that goes wrong inside and outside Pakistan would be laid at their doors. I have no doubt that they understand this; nor does it make them happy, but that’s another story. Given that, and given that both the military and the ISI are suffering from a PR disaster following the Abbottabad raid, what could the ISI possibly gain by kidnapping Saleem and then killing him, wittingly or unwittingly?

I knew Saleem fairly well; we spoke and met fairly regularly. I can vouch for the fact that he harboured no suicidal tendency. If someone were to pick him up, he would have preferred to live and fight another day. He was a sharp reporter and a very intelligent person. Nor did he face peril for the first time; his fieldwork was always dangerous and he played at the deep end. On the basis of his many conversations with me, I can safely say that he would not have created a situation for himself which could lead someone to kill him – unless his killers had decided that that was what they wanted to do.

And why could it not be the other side – AQ? One reason given is that AQ would have simply killed him. This argument is not familiar with how the TTP and its affiliate groups have often badly tortured people before shooting or beheading them. But could there be another possibility? Someone knowing that this would be laid at the door of the ISI, given how popular the agency is, and made it look like so?

But then there is Saleem’s email to Human Rights Watch, to Mr Hameed Haroon and Asia Times Online in which he talked about his meeting with ISI officials; there are also accounts of Saleem telling some friends that he was getting threats from the ISI. His account of that October 17 meeting to me was narrated rather light-heartedly. If he got other threats, he never shared them with me.

This email is important and the statement by an unnamed ISI official to APP, which no one believes, is woefully short of what is required. The official’s disapproval of attempts to malign the country’s security agency is ridiculous. It is not the ISI’s job to determine what is in the best interest of the country. However, what it does deserve is a fair hearing on this case.

The starting point is clear: Saleem’s email. The ISI must know that it is being blamed for Saleem’s killing. The onus of responsibility is on the Agency to help the investigations. The DG-ISI, Lt-Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, himself should get involved and present his officers before an inquiry commission that should have at least three highly respected journalists in it. This is not an issue that can be brushed under the carpet.

And while we are at it, what is this Media Management Wing of the ISI? What right does this wing have to invite journalists for ‘tea’ or ask anyone to file a story or file a retraction? The inquiry commission should also look into the mandate of this wing and put it out to pasture.


The writer is Contributing Editor, The Friday Times.



  1. very nice and balanced article, and very intelligently took every aspect of the killing of SS.

  2. At last some one took a more analytical view of the whole SS saga rather than the knee-jerk reaction of blaming the ISI by majority of the opinion makers. Although the way SS (marhoom-o-maghfoor) was murdered seems to be the work of ISI, I am not convinced that his articles contained anything that would significantly infuriate the notorious secret service. For e.g. the navy-alqaeda link story ultimately put the Navy in good light as it showed that the Navy was doing something about the radicalisation of its lower cadre.

    On another note, I went through SS's interview with Commander Nazir Ahmed and wondered why would the commander divulge so much info to SS. For instance, the info about dialogue and with the Afghan National Army would be dangerous for his interests. or was that a propoganda tactic?

  3. Abducted from Islamabad!

    How about a plain simple and scientific criminal investigation with forensic experts' input. This kind of crime should be easy to solve.

    We don't need one more theory until then.

  4. @Ejaz, you write "what would ISI gain?". May be, a direct threat to jouno's who are not pro ISI like you. May be, he knows lots more od designs of ISI which they fear might get published. Also, if you have noticed, ISI or the navy has not condemned his story!

    May be, he would have had info of some of the questions that you have asked of direct relations of ISI & AQ!
    Lots of 'may be's. But one thing for sure is ISI manipulates the media which itself is to be condemned. Isn't it sir? & may i ask, have you ever been threatened by ISI or any plots offered?

  5. What kind of friendship is this where you disregard the statements of the murdered man and take the side of the institution he accused? Under the guise of impartial friendship, Mr.Ejaz tries to cover up the actions of a body which is known for its murderous activities under the cloak of an official institution.
    The truth will be out when the Establishment prevents any proper inquiry into this official murder.

  6. How is "Agency" an euphemism for the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate? It isnt. It is just another term that further discredits any factual term.

  7. When 'intellgence' does not remind you of Newton, Einstein ,Salam and used as euphemism for ISI, IB,FIA one can only pray that people like SS live in peace and RIP.

  8. raises pertinent questions that should be probed cool mindedly. Who benefited from a smashed eye; potentially capable of safeguarding pakistan only trade point with the rest of the world.
    Even Allah and his messneger did not liked compromise on strategic advantages; like gaining high ground in Badar; deputing archers in Uhad and managing seige of madinah. as the writer has said other things were secondary.
    in normal times we might have time to say many things; we should these even now; but be careful about the world we are living in; which is out to put us in a blind allay.

  9. Here is my take on Ejaz Haider's questions:

    "why Ilyas Kashmiri’s group would try and deprive Pakistan of its capability against India, given that Kashmiri, before linking up with AQ, was fighting Indian security forces in Indian-occupied Kashmir. "

    Why would Ilyas Kashmiri care what capability Pakistan had against India. It would want to degrade Pakistan's capability against itself. It would want to show to all (particularly it's supporters) that Pakistan is a paper tiger, extremely vulnerable to dedicated jihadists. It would want to give mortal wounds to Pakistan's establishment..
    I don't think there is anything illogical here at all.

  10. what could the ISI possibly gain by kidnapping Saleem and then killing him, wittingly or unwittingly?

    I would pose you a question in turn on this Ejaz. Since when has ISI cared about it's external political capital when it has been involved in domestic political interference as well as supporting non-state militant outfits? Please, they are n't puppies.

  11. "Suppose they first wanted to get information out of him about his sources. They have the wherewithal to monitor calls and movements with precision. "

    If the ISI were indeed so capable, Osama Bin Laden would not have been found sitting under their noses. Please. Given the out of control terror situation in Pakistan, you are giving huge credit to an agency which is repeatedly showing it's inability to handle the situation.

    "But could there be another possibility? Someone knowing that this would be laid at the door of the ISI, given how popular the agency is, and made it look like so?"

    So you are saying that this is a foreign agency – perhaps India or the US. Surely Shahzad's investigative reporting was revealing a huge problem within the armed forces – the degree to which Jihadi ideology is leading to an internal insurrection and indiscipline. This was important insight for the US and India. This makes Pakistan's army and the ISI look weak in the eyes of the public and perhaps more amenable to their influence. By that score, Shahzad was doing a very effective job for them, why would they want to kill him? It makes no sense.

  12. @Naqi Akbar
    This sherlock holmes trick of "Who benfeited" doesn't work always. Simple criminal investigation with forensics can solve the case. But here the problem is that will there be an impartial investigation?

  13. absolutely agree with Abhi…a) the who benefitted trick doesn't work always..& b) especially when used in such a one-sided manner…one can just as easily say that precisely because the 'Agency' has been getting such bad press in recent months, that decided to give a clear cut message to all outspoken journalists

  14. A clever article. The reason why ISI/Army would want Salim to issue a retraction is that the news that Al-Qaida has infiltrated Pak navy/army can be so alarming that it can paralyse US and Chinese personnel from working with navy and army. The US government would be terrified to know that it may be dealing with Pak army/ISI personnel , who may actually be AQ informers or agents. This is not the first time where Pak ISI/Aarmy intelligence has been credibly alleged to have committed cold blooded murder of its own citizens. Ask the Baluch and other reporters who have been at the receiving end from ISI.

  15. Yeah let us also discuss that since ISI's policy on anything has not benefited Pakistan to date, ISI's policies were made by someone else.

  16. PS: Psychopathic killers don't need a cost-benefit ratio to kill. If it was terrorists, as it well might have been, then why isn't ISI hopping mad about such a gruesome murder of a prominent journalist carried out right under its nose?

    At best ISI is winking at gruesome murder by Al Qaeda operatives, at worst it is complicit. Innocent helplessness is just not an option for an intelligence agency claiming to be so important to the state.

  17. In addition to the above, perhaps someone like Ilyas Kashmiri would want to reduce Pakistani capability against India because this makes it harder to cut out jihadis from Pakistan's defense equation. And demonstrating the ability to attack and destroy high tech toys raises the questions of the operational security of nuclear assets. Such insecurities could potentially lead to greater US involvement in Pakistan, further destabilizing the state and empowering the jihadis. And Mr. Haider – the implication of this question veers into conspiracy theory that the jihadis are somehow ultra-nationalists that share the military's strategic aims and hence, someone other than them must be behind terrorist attacks in Pakistan. This is uncharacteristically sloppy analysis.

  18. Q) How many web base News Papers are there (in the world) ?
    Ans.) Hardly any significant number of such type WEB-NEWS SERVICE is there!

    Q) Who will design Web Based News Papers ?
    Ans.) Peoples with short terms "Objective" or hidden Agenda

    Q) Define "Hidden Agenda" for web base news Paper formation ?
    Ans.) Recruiting / Hiring Journalist for "SPY" games activates, or Propagating Materials, or for Pre-designing "Mega-News" for strategic/political objectives

    Atimes.com looks like baseless organization, working for short terms objective, as front end cover … i do suspect them behind "killing of Brave Pakistani Journalist" and blaming this crime in account of our Forces !!!

    Think Plz = Why UN talk this ? Why US talk this ? Why UK Talk this ? Why …why… 35'000 Pakistani has been killed …No one Talk… for Syed Saleem Shahzad, everyone TALKz

    i feel BIG-Powers are Backstage Actors for Anti – ISI activities, be Careful yourself, do not be "Puppet" of Anti-Pakistan conspiracy

    We love every citizen of Pakistan, regardless of his/her Profession, creed … We are SAD for 35k Killing of Pakistanis and other losses of Nation

  19. Ejaz, either you know that ISI is involved or you do not. If you know then say it. If you dont know, why one would be take so much pains and stretch all kind of scenarios to prove ISI's innocence. Doctoring?

  20. Inference: He was killed by CIA contractors to malign ISI. Bah Ejaz. The more you save the Duffers the further you make them naked.

  21. Alright Assassination of Journalist extremely Sad, So now without Wasting any time lets Hype the already existed HYsteria against ISI…After all it has to be them no Matter the Chap had links with quiet too many Banned organization mostly due to his professional requirement, had been kidnapped in Afghanistan in 2006 but hell we donot need to hear anything As an Analysts we all Conquer it was THEM.. …And mostly self Imposed Analyst i might Add.

  22. you can almost tell by the quality of the comment who is an indian or not. Can't take a simple analysis which logicaly shows that ISI can't be blamed for every ill in the world.

Comments are closed.