Pakistani investigative journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad knew that speaking the truth can be dangerous. On May 31, Pakistani police found the dead body of Shahzad in a canal in the Mandi Bahauddin district, about 150 kilometers southeast of Islamabad, and about 10 kilometers from where his car was found. His mutilated body bore the marks of torture. He left a wife and three children.
Shahzad, 40, had been writing for nearly 10 years for Asia Times, an online newspaper based in Hong Kong, and owned by Thai tycoon Sondhi Limthongkul. Shahzad specialized in covering security and terrorism topics, especially about Al-Qaeda's activities in the Indian subcontinent.
Shahzad was the author of a book, Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11, published just before his assassination. The alarm for his disappearance had been launched after he failed to show up on a television talk show in Islamabad. Immediately, the International Federation of Journalists made an appeal to the government of Pakistan to activate its security forces "to find a senior journalist who disappeared in Islamabad on May 29."
Suspicion about his murder, especially among Pakistani journalists, fell upon the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). "Any journalist here who doesn't believe that it's our intelligence agencies?" author and journalist Muhammad Hanif asked on Twitter. The first to accuse the ISI was Ali Dayan Hasan, Human Rights Watch's [HRW] South Asia researcher. The day Shahzad's body was discovered, Hasan said: "We were informed through reliable interlocutors that he was detained by the ISI." The HRW researcher then reported that in the past, Shahzad had already received threats from members of the ISI, who considered his articles tarnishing Pakistan's international image. "The other day he visited our office and informed us that ISI had threatened him," Hasan said. "He told us that if anything happened to him, we should inform the media about the situation and threats."
On October 2010, Shahzad published in Asia Times an article, "Pakistan frees Taliban Commander," stating that Pakistani authorities had freed one of the most powerful figures in the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Baradar, in order to "play a pivotal role in backchannel talks through the Pakistani army with Washington." As a consequence, Shahzad had been summoned to the Islamabad headquarters of the ISI and told to reveal his sources or retract the story. When he refused, a not-so-veiled threat emerged: the ISI had "arrested a terrorist who carried a hit list and that the ISI would let him know whether or not his name was on it."
On May 27, just few days before his death, Shahzad wrote an article that cost him his life. In the article, about an Al-Qaeda military strike on Pakistan, the courageous Pakistani journalist exposed the existing links between Al-Qaeda and members of the Pakistani navy. The article dealt with the attack carried out by Al-Qaeda, on May 22, against the Mehran naval station in Karachi, after navy authorities had refused to free naval officials arrested "on suspicion of Al-Qaeda links." The attack caused at least 10 casualties and material damages of over $100 million USD.
"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. The deeper underlying motive, though, was a reaction to massive internal crackdowns on Al-Qaeda affiliates within the navy. Several weeks ago, naval intelligence traced an Al-Qaeda cell operating inside several navy bases in Karachi, the country's largest city and key port," Shahzad wrote. On the eve of his participation to a talk show where he was due to take part, in a discussion about his latest article, Shahzad went missing only to be found dead a few days later. Pakistani writer, Mahjabeen Islam, wrote that Shahzad paid with his life for "the drastic revelation that we [Pakistanis] do not just have Taliban sympathizers in the armed forces, our navy appears to be laced with al Qaeda itself."
The ISI, accused by the U.S. and by the Pakistani population of having hidden Osama Bin Laden, must have considered Shahzad's articles too dangerous. Shahzad was exposing the links between Al-Qaeda and the Pakistani armed force at a delicate moment for the Pakistani intelligence. The ISI is under scrutiny now in Chicago where a terror trial is putting the spotlight on Pakistan intelligence's involvement in the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008.
The ISI directorate issued what was defined a "rare public statement "denying involvement in the killing of the Pakistani journalist. However, after Shahzad's brutal assassination, Pakistani journalists are now scared of speaking the truth. "I am seriously considering the entire process of reporting, and to what extent I can put my own team at risk," said Zaffar Abbas, Pakistani daily Dawn's Islamabad resident editor. "It is becoming increasingly dangerous for people to openly report whether militants or security agencies are involved."
Political assassinations are unfortunately now a common feature of Pakistan. This year, the governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, and the minister for minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, were both shot dead because they were trying to introduce some amendments to the blasphemy law.
Journalist Shada Islam wrote recently in the daily Dawn that after these assassinations by extremist militants, she was hoping that "Pakistan was finally going to turn over a new leaf. But there have been too many false dawns, too many hopes shattered by incompetent leaders — and too many mistruths peddled by an army and security apparatus with an uncanny power to survive repeated shame and scandal."
Pakistani intellectuals such as Mahjabeen Islam are trying to wake up Pakistanis: "We need a resounding chorus of protest that does not just condemn this barbarity but outs the extremists from every walk of life. Many have been martyred for the motherland, dying fearlessly in the way of the truth: Governor Salmaan Taseer, Minister Shahbaz Bhatti and journalist Wali Khan Babar are just a few names that come to mind, and almost invariably the murderers have not been brought to justice.
"Saleem Shahzad's criticism got him killed," Mahjabeen courageously wrote, "yet could his murderers kill millions of Pakistanis that protest extremism? The stakes just keep getting higher. There must be protest and action from every street-corner in Pakistan against extremism. For the next victim is not a young and healthy Saleem Shahzad, it is another young though frail and almost comatose Pakistan."
The West would do well to try to amplify the voices of these courageous reformers. The majority of the population is afraid to speak up; if even the intellectuals feel abandoned and therefore stop denouncing terrorism, many other Shahzads will continue to die.