Globe and Mail : Musharraf or ISI? Taliban or al-Qaeda? Conspiracy theories run rampant

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Musharraf or ISI? Taliban or al-Qaeda? Conspiracy theories run rampant

SAEED SHAH | Special to The Globe and Mail | October 20, 2007

KARACHI, PAKISTAN — Pakistan is a country of conspiracy theorists and Thursday's devastating attack on Benazir Bhutto's convoy has sent wild rumour and speculation into hyper-drive.

Many ordinary Pakistanis sincerely believe that the government of General Pervez Musharraf was behind the outrage, reasoning that it was an attempt to stop a coming election that Ms. Bhutto is expected to win.

That theory usually carries with it suspicion of another player, the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, an agency with a dark history, habitually accused of terrorism in Pakistan.

It was the ISI that brought jihadi groups together to fight the Soviet Union in neighbouring Afghanistan in the 1980s, and it is this agency that is generally thought to be behind the creation of the original Taliban, a movement of radical students in Afghanistan who seized power in the 1990s. Many believe that the ISI and other Pakistani intelligence agencies kept up their connections with and possibly their support for radical Islamic groups even after 9/11.

Few independent analysts believe that high-ranking state officials were involved in Thursday's bombing, but they do think that low-ranking renegade workers in the intelligence agencies may have helped the attackers. At lower levels, the agencies contain operatives with radical Islamist thinking.

One of the chief suspects in the bombing of Ms. Bhutto's convoy, a Pakistani Taliban commander, quickly ruled himself out Friday.

“I had nothing to do with it,” said Baitullah Mehsud, who operates in Waziristan, a lawless area within Pakistan's tribal belt.

Mr. Mehsud had reportedly threatened to send suicide bombers to “greet” Ms. Bhutto. He is leader of the Pakistan's Taliban, a loose group modelled on the Afghan group.

Whether or not Mr. Mehsud was involved, suspicion points to his fellow Taliban or al-Qaeda operatives – the two are largely indistinguishable now – who operate freely in the tribal region and have personnel all over Pakistan. Karachi is a particular hot spot for militants, who can easily hide amid its sprawling slum districts.

Ms. Bhutto, as a female, secular, pro-Western politician who had closely allied herself with Washington's war on terrorism, represents everything extreme Islamists hate.

But they are not the only violent opponents of Ms. Bhutto. Karachi is the base for an ethnic movement and political party, the MQM, which was in open warfare with Ms. Bhutto's government in the 1990s. More recently, the MQM was blamed for an attack on a demonstration in Karachi in May, where indiscriminate gunfire killed 50 people.

A former director of the ISI, Hameed Gul, said: “It is the MQM who believe that Karachi is their city. Benazir made a big mistake by gathering so many people there.”

However, the MQM has never been involved in a terrorist attack on the scale seen Thursday. And the party had recently made efforts to settle its differences with Ms. Bhutto, leading to talk that the Pakistan People's Party and the MQM may be able to form a coalition after the planned general elections.