Courageous Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad, who had scored major scoops on al Qaeda and the Taliban, was abducted and brutally murdered this week. Was the ISI, the country’s shady intelligence agency, to blame? Ron Moreau, Fasih Ahmed, and Marvi Sirmed report on the ISI’s history of intimidation—and why Shahzad’s death may have been a bloody warning to scare off their critics in the media.
About 6 p.m. on Sunday, Syed Saleem Shahzad left his house in Islamabad for the short drive to a Pakistani television station where he was scheduled to appear on a political talk show. The hard-hitting investigative journalist never got there. Instead, he disappeared—picked up by Pakistani intelligence, it’s widely believed. Human Rights Watch’s country representative in Pakistan, Ali Dayan Hasan, tells The Daily Beast he “put out feelers” when he heard that Shahzad had gone missing and was led to believe “through unspecified but credible sources” that Shahzad was in the custody of agents from Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate. Dayan says his understanding was that Shahzad would be home by Monday night. He adds that Shahzad’s family was given the same assurances. Shahzad’s wife reportedly got an anonymous phone call on Monday saying her husband would be home in the next 24 hours.
It was not to be. On Tuesday Shahzad’s abandoned car and his wristwatch were found about 100 kilometers from Islamabad. His dead body was discovered in a canal several kilometers from that spot. He had been shot in the stomach, and there were marks of torture on his face and body. Shahzad, 40, was the latest Pakistani journalist to die under mysterious circumstances. Since 2010, 15 Pakistani journalists have been killed, making Pakistan one of the world’s most dangerous countries for the profession, according to Reporters Without Borders.
Shahzad, a father of three, covered a particularly dangerous beat—and landed stories that no one else had. In 2008 he interviewed the bloodthirsty Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, who would be killed in a drone strike the following year. And two years ago he scored an interview with Ilyas Kashmiri, the al Qaeda-affiliated jihadist believed to have masterminded the 2008 terrorist rampage that left more than 160 dead in Mumbai.
Shahzad’s latest book, Inside al Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond bin Laden and 9/11, has just been published, and only two days before his disappearance he posted a story on Asia Times Online about the deadly May 22 attack on Karachi’s Mehran naval air station. “Al Qaeda carried out the brazen attack on the PNS Mehran naval air station in Karachi on May 22 after talks failed between the navy and al Qaeda over the release of naval officials arrested on suspicion of al Qaeda links, an Asia Times Online investigation reveals,” Shahzad wrote.
Pakistan’s TV news outlets, known more for their passion than for accuracy, have all but accused the ISI of Shahzad’s abduction and death. The ISI and other Pakistani intelligence entities have a history of intimidating—and sometimes abducting—outspoken, unruly, and uncooperative reporters and politicians. Umar Cheema, a first-rate reporter for one of the country’s largest English-language dailies, The News, published some articles critical of Pakistan’s armed forces and got a warning from the ISI. “They approached me,” he tells The Daily Beast. “They said what they wanted to say, and in a nice manner. Going by what I’d heard, I feared they wouldn’t be so nice in future—that the next message would be a harsher one.”
Cheema was driving home from dinner in Islamabad last Sept. 4 when a group of men in black commando-style shirts stopped his car, blindfolded him, and took him to a house where he was stripped, beaten, and videotaped in humiliating positions. He believes they were ISI. “They continue to deny it, but I’m convinced it was them,” he says. Nevertheless, he says, it’s too soon to accuse the ISI of killing Shahzad. “His beat was al Qaeda and the Taliban,” says Cheema. “So it could be them. But if it’s not the ISI then they [the ISI] need to locate the people who did this, because they certainly can.” Cheema is more concerned than ever for his own safety. “Obviously I feel really vulnerable,” he says. “We need an independent commission to look into [Shahzad’s death].”
Shahzad became fearful for his family and himself after being summoned to the ISI’s Islamabad headquarters last October. The next day he sent an email to Dayan of Human Rights Watch, describing his meeting with Rear Adm. Adnan Nazir, director general of the ISI’s media wing, and Commodore Khalid Pervaiz, Nazir’s deputy. They demanded that Shahzad explain an Asia Times article he had written in which he alleged that Pakistan had released Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Afghan Taliban’s former second in command who had been arrested the previous February. Admiral Nazir, according to Shahzad’s notes, said that the “story had caused a lot of embarrassment for the country” and suggested that Shahzad write a retraction.
Shahzad refused, calling the idea “impractical.” He said the story was leaked to him by “an intelligence channel”—meaning an ISI agent—and confirmed by “credible” Taliban sources. Shahzad’s email said the conversation with the ISI officials was held in an “extremely polite and friendly atmosphere.” But Admiral Nazir seemed to interject a note of menace at the end, informing Shahzad that the ISI had recently arrested a terrorist who had a lot of material in his possession, including a hit list. “If I find your name on the list,” Shahzad quoted him as saying, “I will certainly let you know.”
Shahzad’s email to Dayan explained: “I am forwarding this email to you for your record only if in case something happens to me or my family in the future.” After the meeting at ISI headquarters, according to Dayan, “he said he was being followed and receiving threatening phone calls.” Nevertheless, Dayan adds: “He’d factored this into his life and kept going.”
Although it’s too early to accuse the ISI, Dayan says, he nevertheless thinks the directorate has to be a top suspect. “We don’t know if the ISI killed him,” Dayan says, “but the manner of his killing is consistent with the other murders where there has been credible evidence of ISI involvement. The fact is that no military or intelligence personnel are ever punished for crimes that may have been perpetrated by them.” Asked about his own safely, he replies: “I’m fine until further notice.”
But the ISI has been in a defensive crouch ever since the discovery of Osama bin Laden living comfortably just down the street from the country’s military academy. Pakistani journalists on Shahzad’s difficult and dangerous beat fear that the ISI may have made an example of him in order to scare them off of criticizing the directorate. “The ISI is under fire at home and abroad, so perhaps it has just sent a very bloody and scary message to the rest of the media here,” says a Pakistani journalist, asking not to be named.
The Daily Beast visited Shahzad’s widow after his body was found. Aneeqa Saleem sat in shocked disbelief on the corner of a bed. Trauma seems a small word for the expressions on their three children. The youngest, 7-year-old Rehman Shah, was completely focused on trying to make his mother smile. “Mom, you still not happy?” he kept asking. “When will you smile?” His mother only looked at him helplessly.
She said she wants no criminal charges filed, nothing said to accuse any institution or organization, no autopsy. The case should be buried with her husband, she insisted. On a television in the room, a newscast showed pictures of his battered corpse. “My handsome husband!” she said. “Just look what they have made of him.”
— with Marvi Sirmed, a governance specialist, freelance journalist, and founder and editor of the political blog site Baaghi
Ron Moreau is Newsweek’s Afghanistan and Pakistan correspondent and has been covering the region for the magazine the past 10 years. Since he first joined Newsweek during the Vietnam War, he has reported extensively from Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.
Fasih Ahmed is the editor of Newsweek Pakistan. He won a New York Press Club award for Newsweek’s coverage of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. Ahmed was also the inaugural Daniel Pearl fellow and worked at The Wall Street Journal’s Washington, D.C., bureau in 2003. He graduated from Columbia University and lives in Lahore.