Master Assassin
Al Qaeda Has a New Weapon of Choice
© 2008 FrontLine Security (Vol 3, No 1)

The late Prime Minister Bhutto claimed, after the first suicide attack in October 2007, that she had received a letter, signed by someone claiming to be a friend of Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, threatening to “slaughter her like a goat.” She told UPI editor at large Arnoud de Bourchgrave that she had received an email that said she had been targeted by Baitullah Mehsud, Hamza bin Laden, Osama Bin Laden’s son, and a Red Mosque militant who had been sent to kill her. The Red Mosque militants have strong connections to the Northwest Tribal Areas and Al Qaeda leaders. An initial report, ­prepared by Pakistani security services, concluded that the attack on Bhutto appeared to be a continuation of a suicide bombing campaign that included an ­audacious attack on the Special Services Group commandos that helped storm the Red Mosque a month earlier. Baitullah Mehsud was alleged to have ties to the Red Mosque militants.

The December 27th 2007 assassination of Pakistan’s opposition leader, Benazir Bhutto, bore the hallmarks of an Al Qaeda-directed ‘hit.’ Though the cause of death is in dispute, Bhutto was assassinated as she left a rally in Rawalpindi. The assailant reportedly shot at her and then exploded a bomb, killing Bhutto and at least 20 supporters. This event was geared to produce a significant strategic effect; it required great coordination, and resulted in a high body count. The assassination of the pro-U.S., secular and westernized Bhutto, before elections she was expected win without an apparent party successor in the wings, was set up to cause confusion at the ballot box and delay the election. It also further strained the Musharraf regime’s hold on power in Pakistan and distracted a key American ally from the War on Terror, and NATO from its attempt to rebuild Afghanistan.

Al Qaeda has used assassination to further its strategic goals in the past. In the days leading up to 9-11, Shah Ahmad Massoud (nicknamed the “Lion of Panjshir”), the military leader of the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan and the top anti-Taliban leader in Afghanistan, was assassinated by Al Qaeda agents. The suicide attack occurred at Khwaja Bahauddin on September 9, 2001, when two Arab attackers claiming to be journalists went to interview Massoud and set off a bomb in a belt worn by one posing as the cameraman. Analysts believe the assassination was ­organized at the behest of Osama bin Laden to strengthen Al Qaeda’s Taliban allies in Afghanistan before they were to attack the United States on September 11, 2001.

Since then, the Taliban has tried and failed to assassinate Western-backed Afghan President Hamid Karzai and President Musharraf himself in Pakistan on at least three occasions. In 2004, three extremists were arrested in Germany on accusations they were planning to assassinate Iraqi Prime Minister, Ayad Allawi. In September of this year, a member of Algeria’s Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb killed 22 people in a suicide bombing that had as its apparent primary target Algerian President Abdulaziz Bouteflika who escaped unharmed. Al Qaeda tried to assassinate Vice President Cheney last year in Afghanistan. The terrorist group has also plotted unsuccessful assassination attempts against U.S. President Bill Clinton, Pope John Paul II, former Philippine President Fidel Ramos and Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri.

In the case of the Benazir Bhutto assassination there is, in fact, a long list of potential enemies including Al Qaeda, its Islamist allies and domestic terror partners, elements of the Pakistani security services and military, and countries such as Saudi Arabia. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif would rate much higher on a ‘Musharraf hitlist’ than Bhutto. Assassination of Bhutto did not help the recently retired military strongman Musharraf who is now being blamed for not providing Benazir Bhutto with enough security.

Additionally, Pakistan’s own security and intelligence forces are potential but unlikely suspects. The city of Rawalpindi was described by many as a fortified city. In advance of the attack, Pakistan’s intelligence services received word that there was a credible threat to Bhutto’s life and took steps to protect her. Police and military officials boasted their precautions were “foolproof.” Security forces reportedly secured Liaquat Bagh Park and the surrounding neighborhood by flooding it with hundreds of police officers, checking vehicles entering the sensitive area up to 24 hours in advance. Traffic was diverted from the site of the rally, and surveillance was conducted of routes in and out of the park and of the city. Police and Commando units were deployed at key locations within the city. Even with these security arrangements in place, the assassin still got through.

Given the facts that there was a threat of assassination in advance, the stepped up security arrangements to meet that threat, and the great international support behind Benazir Bhutto, assassination by Pakistan’s military and security services seems very unlikely but conspiracy theories still abound. Politically, the big loser in her assassination was the embattled President Pervez Musharraf and his backers in the War on Terror, the U.S.

Foreign governments like Saudi Arabia and Iran had reason perhaps to fear the re-election and the potential future transfer of power to Benazir Bhutto. Her comments about democracy and human rights did not sit well with Pakistan’s close Saudi Arabian allies. Not only was Benazir Bhutto secular and viewed as a ‘puppet of the West,’ she was also a Shia, something that did not sit well with Saudi Arabia’s Sunni leaders, who favored Nawaz Sharif. Neither was this characteristic well-viewed among Iran’s ultra conservative Mullahs or its radical President who openly talks of “wiping” countries “off of the map.” Iran had spent considerable time trying to destabilize Afghanistan and drive NATO forces from the country – de-stabilize Pakistan, and you further destabilize Afghanistan. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran might have their reasons to assassinate a foreign leader, but the risk would be enormous if they were caught – especially considering American interest in both Pakistan and Bhutto.  

The only ‘player’ with a no risk, clear and major gain in the assassination was Al Qaeda and its allies. Benazir Bhutto was not only an object of hate in both Al Qaeda and Taliban circles but she was a Shiite who had openly threatened to rid Pakistan of terrorists. She was also viewed as a friend and ally of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and a friend of the United States.

Al Qaeda reportedly claimed responsibility for the October 18th bomb attack during Bhutto’s homecoming rally that killed 140 people in Karachi and wounded more than 300.

Al Qaeda had no shortage of allies within Pakistan to carry out a successful execution; two Pakistani militant warlords based in the country’s northwestern tribal areas and involved in an insurgency against the Musharraf government had already threatened to kill Bhutto. One was Baitullah Mehsud, the top militant commander fighting the Pakistani Army in South Waziristan, and the other was Haji Omar, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, also from South Waziristan. Both have close ties to the Afghan Taliban and are believed to have ties to bin Laden.

U.S. officials have reportedly mentioned the Sunni terror group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which has been linked to previous attempts to assassinate Pakistani political figures. Al Qaeda has also worked closely with more than a dozen other radical fundamentalist Islamist organizations in Pakistan, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan.

The day after the assassination, it was reported that the Pakistani Interior Ministry had “intelligence intercepts” indicating Mehsud was behind the opposition leader’s death in Rawalpindi. That same day, an obscure Italian Web site claimed that Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, Al Qaeda’s commander in Afghanistan, had told its reporter in a phone call that, “we terminated the most precious American asset which vowed to defeat [the] mujahedeen.”

Prior to the attack, it was widely reported that Baitullah threatened to ‘welcome’ Bhutto with suicide bombers. The Italian Web site also claimed that Al Qaeda’s second-in-command, Ayman al Zawahri decided to assassinate Bhutto in October and gave orders for the killing. Zawahri was previously imprisoned in Egypt for his role in the assassination of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

Three days after the Bhutto assassination, two suspected suicide bombers were killed when their bomb exploded prematurely near the residence of a former Pakistan government minister, Ijaz ul Haq in Haroonabad, in the southern province of Punjab. Haq, a senior leader of ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid, was not at home when the explosion occurred. Six days prior to the Bhutto assassination, a suicide attacker detonated a bomb packed with ball bearings and nails amid hundreds of holiday worshippers at the residential compound of Pakistan’s former interior minister, killing at least 50 people and wounding over 100. That was the second suicide attack in eight months on Aftab Khan Sherpao.

On March 1st, Pakistani authorities announced, after two months of investigation aided by the United Kingdom, that they had formally charged Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, with planning the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Four other men were also charged in the attack on the opposition leader. A judge issued arrest warrants for the five suspects after charges were filed. Five men have already been arrested over the bomb attack that killed former Prime Minister Bhutto. CIA Director Michael Hayden has also claimed that Bhutto was killed by the “network around Baitullah Mehsud” and that it was “part of an organized campaign” of suicide bombings and attacks on Pakistani leaders.

While it appears that Baitullah Mehsud’s power base is limited to the tribal areas in South Waziristan, his alliances with other tribal militants, links to foreign jihadists, and growing media profile could make him a major Al Qaeda operational commander in their global jihad. Reports in Jane’s have suggested that he could be the next Zarqawi. ABC News has described him as “more dangerous than Osama bin Laden.” A very worrisome sign is that Baitullah Mehsud has already been accused of plotting a series of attacks in Europe after the recent arrests in Spain of 12 Pakistanis and two Indians suspected of planning suicide bombings in Barcelona. On January 30th of this year, the Barcelona newspaper El Peridico quoted an unnamed Spanish official as warning that the detained terrorists intended to carry out three attacks in Barcelona, but not all on the same day. Their reported intention was to commit the first attack, after which their leader, Baitullah Mehsud, would issue a press release demanding the withdrawal of the Spanish troops from Afghanistan – mirroring the infamous Madrid bombings in 2004 that forced Spain out of Iraq.

The Sunday Times later reported that six Pakistanis arriving from Barcelona had been arrested at London’s Gatwick Airport. They were deported back to Pakistan after questioning. The paper quoted a senior British official as saying that Britain was targeted for a second wave of bombings after Spain.

Baitullah Mehsud, emboldened by the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and armed with a small army of suicide bombers has become a major operational commander for Al Qaeda that threatens Afghanistan, Pakistan and Europe. Will North America and the “Great Satan” be next?

Joseph B. Varner is Managing Editor of and Director of National Security and Intelligence Studies at Cana­dian Centre for Policy Studies. A Senior Research Fellow at the Canadian Institute for Strategic Studies, he also teaches courses in homeland security and intelligence studies at American Military University.
© FrontLine Security 2008