WASHINGTON — American and Pakistani military leaders are seeking to account for what may be renegade commando units from the Pakistani military's special forces in the wake of the assassination of Pakistan's opposition leader and former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto.
The attack yesterday at Rawalpindi bore the hallmarks of a sophisticated military operation. At first, Bhutto's rally was hit by a suicide bomb that turned out to be a decoy. According to press reports and a situation report of the incident relayed to The New York Sun by an American intelligence officer, Bhutto's armored limousine was shot by multiple snipers whose armor-piercing bullets penetrated the vehicle, hitting the former premier five times in the head, chest, and neck. Two of the snipers then detonated themselves shortly after the shooting, according to the situation report, while being pursued by local police.
A separate attack was thwarted at the local hospital where Bhutto possibly would have been revived had she survived the initial shooting. Also attacked yesterday was a rival politician, Nawaz Sharif, another former prime minister who took power after Bhutto lost power in 1996.
A working theory, according to this American source, is that Al Qaeda or affiliated jihadist groups had effectively suborned at least one unit of Pakistan's Special Services Group, the country's equivalent of Britain's elite SAS commandos. This official, however, stressed this was just a theory at this point. Other theories include that the assassins were trained by Qaeda or were from other military services, or the possibility that the assassins were retired Pakistani special forces.
"They just killed the most protected politician in the whole country," this source said. "We really don't know a lot at this point, but the first thing that is happening is we are asking the Pakistani military to account for every black team with special operations capabilities."
Bhutto survived a suicide bombing attack in October and then went public with a list of former and current security and military officials she said had been plotting to kill her. At the time, she asked for the FBI to investigate the attacks.
The prospect that Bhutto's attackers were trained special forces operatives raises profound questions for America's policy of giving financial aid to Pakistan's military. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, America has provided the Musharraf regime with more than $10 billion.
A close associate of Bhutto for more than two decades, Hussein Haqqani, yesterday said he believed Pakistan's security services were complicit in the assassination of his friend. "I don't think they were complicit, as in, they did it, I mean this as they allowed this to happen. Of course that includes the possibility of actual complicity. I think her security needs and concerns were not addressed," he told the Sun.
Mr. Haqqani pointed to prior attempts to assassinate President Musharraf and the attacks earlier this month against Pakistan's interior minister. "In all of these attacks, no one could penetrate the security cordon. People were killed, but the targets survived," he said.
Mr. Haqqani said he thought it was a possibility that Al Qaeda and affiliated jihadists had penetrated the security services Islamabad has promised would catch them. "The fact of the matter remains that Pakistani security services have many people in it who worked very closely with several jihadi groups that now work with global jihadi forces," he said. "Is it possible some of the security personnel have developed sympathy for the people with whom they used to work? Absolutely. Do we know this with certainty? No, we do not."
Violent protests reportedly were spreading throughout Pakistan yesterday. A Pakistan expert at the Rand Corporation, Seth Jones, said he would need to study the technical details of the assassination to determine if it was an inside job. "If there is anywhere to fault the national security establishment, it would be not protecting her well enough," he said.
Already Al Qaeda has claimed credit for the attacks. The Italian news agency, Adnkronos International, or AKI, reported the first claim of responsibility for the attack from Osama bin Laden's organization. In a dispatch datelined from Karachi, Pakistan, the agency quoted a Qaeda spokesman and commander in Afghanistan, Mustafa abu al-Yazid, in a phone interview saying, "We terminated the most precious American asset which vowed to defeat [the] mujahedeen."
Al Qaeda has openly called for Bhutto's assassination in the past and has also claimed responsibility for attempts on the life of Pakistan's current president, Pervez Musharraf. Nonetheless, the group has not yet issued an official statement claiming credit on its two largest jihad Web forums, Ekhlaas Forum and al-Firdaws.
An analyst who closely monitors the jihad Web forums, Nicholas Grace, said those two Web forums went dark yesterday between 12:05 p.m. and 1:05 p.m. EST, suggesting a major announcement was forthcoming. Al Qaeda uses these forums to communicate with its rank and file throughout the world and to indoctrinate new recruits into its terror network.
"Al Qaeda has gone on the record as stating its intention to assassinate Benazir Bhutto. The Qaeda rank and file on the Internet are at this point celebrating her assassination and also calling for the assassinations of Nawaz Sharif and Pervez Musharraf," Mr. Grace said yesterday. "Al Qaeda has increasingly issued claims of responsibilities for major attacks much more rapidly than in previous years, and the current activity on the major global jihadi Web forums suggests a claim of responsibility is imminent."
A White House spokesman, Scott Stanzel, said, "Whoever perpetrated this attack is an enemy of democracy and has used a tactic which Al Qaeda is very familiar with, and that is suicide bombing and the taking of innocent lives to try to disrupt a democratic process." President Bush yesterday condemned what he called a "cowardly attack."
A senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Daniel Markey, who just returned from Pakistan, told reporters on a conference call yesterday that there were plenty of people around Mr. Musharraf "who were angry with Benazir Bhutto, but I don't believe they would have taken this step. ... To take this step now works against Musharraf's interests and his party's interests." Mr. Markey said Mr. Musharraf would also benefit ultimately from a power-sharing arrangement that would give his unpopular government legitimacy. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for January 8.
The assassination is particularly troubling for American policy. For the last year, the State Department in particular has tried to broker a power sharing agreement between Mr. Musharraf and Bhutto, reasoning that Mr. Musharraf alone lacked the legitimacy to wage a full military war against Al Qaeda.
In 2006, Pakistan's military cut a series of agreements with the governorates of the federally administered tribal areas on the border with Pakistan, giving local tribal leaders the equivalent of home rule. The Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri are believed by American intelligence agencies to reside in these areas. American forces in Afghanistan on occasion will fire missiles at select targets in these areas, and Pakistan's military will claim official credit. Over 2007, however, it became clear to American policy makers that a sustained ground offensive would be needed to disrupt Al Qaeda's new home base.