July 13, 2011
The first email came on May 31 from London’s Pluto Press, saying that one of their authors was missing and believed to be imprisoned. The author was forty-year-old journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad, whose reporting on Pakistan and Afghanistan was famously reliable and probing. As editor of Asia Despatch and Pakistan Bureau Chief of Hong Kong’s Asia Times Online, he had broken many important stories about the two wars raging in his region: the public conflict between the US and the Taliban and the covert struggle pitting the US against its ostensible Pakistani allies. The Taliban once kidnapped him in Afghanistan and then allowed him access to their cadres as a guest.
Author Nir Rosen has said: “When Syed Saleem Shahzad talks, I listen. He is the most fearless and reliable journalist covering Pakistan and Afghanistan, and that’s why his work is read even in the halls of the Pentagon.” Shahzad should have belonged to what Graham Greene called the “non-torturable” class. Theoretically, he was immune to harassment by Pakistani government apparatchiks. But clearly he wasn’t. “According to Human Rights Watch,” Asia Times announced, “Shahzad is being held for questioning in relation to an article in the Asia Times suggesting complicity between Al Qaeda and the Pakistani Navy.” The Asia Times article alleged that the Pakistani Navy conspired with al-Qaeda to attack one of Pakistan’s own naval air facilities near Karachi. Someone seemed angry that the story got out. When Shahzad disappeared, it seemed the intelligence services had kidnapped him to torture him into revealing his sources. Their methods of discovery would not stand scrutiny in a court of law. Shahzad’s friends, whom he had already told about intelligence-service threats to his life, were justifiably worried.
Pluto Press was in the process of publishing Shahzad’s new book, Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond bin Laden and 9/11, destined to annoy many people in and out of Pakistan. Following Osama bin Laden’s assassination, it exposed Pakistani officialdom’s misdeeds at a time when its relations with Washington were especially precarious. The book includes interviews with key Taliban and al-Qaeda players who discuss their ideology, operations, and strategy. It exposed some of Pakistan’s links to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and it demonstrated the Taliban’s reliance on indirect American funding. Shahzad had reported in 2003 on his conversation with a Taliban official who told him that American officers “distribute dollars to the tribal chiefs, local administrators and other concerned people for welfare projects….Not every penny, but most goes into Taliban projects to refuel their struggle.” This, combined with Patrick Cockburn’s excellent reports in London’s Independent on America’s extortion payments to the Taliban, depicted a war in which the US was effectively funding both sides.
When I received Pluto’s email, I forwarded it to friends and organizations that espouse the cause of our colleagues in trouble: the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, and London’s Frontline Club. I expected a campaign of petitions to the Pakistani government demanding his immediate release, as well as appeals from Hillary Clinton and others on his behalf.
Unfortunately, it was too late.
Another email from Pluto arrived later that day stating he’d been found dead in Pakistan:
Further to this morning’s email. It is my sad duty to announce that Pluto author and international journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad, author of Inside Al-Qaeda: Beyond bin Laden and 9/11, has been found dead in suspicious circumstances, two days after he went missing and three days after writing an article on possible complicity between Al Qaeda and elements of the Pakistani Navy.
They found his badly tortured corpse beside a canal about eighty miles from Islamabad. Rather than allow a pathologist to conduct an autopsy, the police arranged for a speedy burial. (Shahzad’s body was later exhumed for a post-mortem examination.) Press clubs in Pakistan’s larger cities have staged protests against the government over their colleague’s murder. Journalist and author Mohammed Hanif asked on Twitter: “Any journalist here who doesn’t believe that it’s our intelligence agencies?” So far, the answer has been no.
The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that more journalists have been killed in Pakistan in the last year than in any other country. Spokesman Bob Dietz said that in Pakistan, “people who kill journalists are not brought to justice.” It may take internal and international pressure to change that, and anger in Washington may help.
Reports quickly indicated that the White House and State Department were not buying the ISI’s denials of involvement in his murder. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said he believed Pakistan’s government had “sanctioned” Shahzad’s murder.
Buy Shahzad’s book, not only to help support the wife and three children whom he leaves behind, but also to learn. It tells us what the Pakistani government, whose corruption and brutality Shahzad died to expose, does not want us to know. Finding out is the least we can do.