There was no indication of whether the earlier account of Sheikh Essa’s arrest in Faisalabad was wrong. If it was right, how did Sheikh Essa reach Syria in 2009? Unfortunate and absolutely horrid and condemnable as Saleem Shahzad’s death was, it would be a mistake to take his stories on face value. Despite his apparently deep contacts with the militants (partly due to his former association with Jamaat-e-Islami), the glaring contradictions in his reports and the sweeping judgements contained therein do not reflect well on the credibility of either him or Asia Times online. It may sound harsh but given that he was the only Pakistani journalist with access to characters like Ilyas Kashmiri and some in Pakistani and international media are inclined to take everything he reported on al Qaeda on its face value without the usual due diligence, it becomes necessary to point toward what are some serious gaps or inaccuracies in Saleem Shahzad’s Asia Times stories.
Is it always like it seems?
I was reading an article by that brave journalist late Syed Saleem Shahzad in Asia Times ( http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/FG20Df05.html ) dated July 24, 2004 in which he wrote:
“Jundullah is a purely militant outfit whose objective is to target Pakistan’s pro-US rulers and US and British interests in the country. Members receive training in Afghanistan and South Waziristan, and it is now actively recruiting. The organization produces propaganda literature, including documentary films, and has a studio named Ummat. It does similar work for al-Qaeda’s media wing, which is called the al-Sahab Foundation.
These media outlets incite the sentiments of Muslim youths by producing films showing Western – particularly Israeli and US – “atrocities” against Muslim communities. This is the basic tool through which a new generation of jihadis is being raised.
Jundullah was allegedly headed by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the al-Qaeda operational commander of the September 11 terrorist attack in the US. He was arrested in Pakistan early last year.”
I also read the following report ( http://blogs.abcnews.com/theblotter/2007/04/abc_news_exclus.html ) by ABC News of April 3, 2007 which claimed that Jundallah was secretly supported by the United States:
“A Pakistani tribal militant group responsible for a series of deadly guerrilla raids inside Iran has been secretly encouraged and advised by American officials since 2005, U.S. and Pakistani intelligence sources tell ABC News. The group, called Jundullah, is made up of members of the Baluchi tribe and operates out of the Baluchistan province in Pakistan, just across the border from Iran. It has taken responsibility for the deaths and kidnappings of more than a dozen Iranian soldiers and officials.
U.S. officials say the U.S. relationship with Jundullah is arranged so that the U.S. provides no funding to the group, which would require an official presidential order or “finding” as well as congressional oversight. Tribal sources tell ABC News that money for Jundullah is funneled to its youthful leader, Abd el Malik Regi, through Iranian exiles who have connections with European and Gulf states.
Jundullah has produced its own videos showing Iranian soldiers and border guards it says it has captured and brought back to Pakistan. The leader, Regi, claims to have personally executed some of the Iranians. “He used to fight with the Taliban. He’s part drug smuggler, part Taliban, part Sunni activist,” said Alexis Debat, a senior fellow on counterterrorism at the Nixon Center and an ABC News consultant who recently met with Pakistani officials and tribal members.
“Regi is essentially commanding a force of several hundred guerrilla fighters that stage attacks across the border into Iran on Iranian military officers, Iranian intelligence officers, kidnapping them, executing them on camera,” Debat said. Most recently, Jundullah took credit for an attack in February that killed at least 11 members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard riding on a bus in the Iranian city of Zahedan. Last month, Iranian state television broadcast what it said were confessions by those responsible for the bus attack.
They reportedly admitted to being members of Jundullah and said they had been trained for the mission at a secret location in Pakistan. The Iranian TV broadcast is interspersed with the logo of the CIA, which the broadcast blamed for the plot. A CIA spokesperson said “the account of alleged CIA action is false” and reiterated that the U.S. provides no funding of the Jundullah group.
Pakistani government sources say the secret campaign against Iran by Jundullah was on the agenda when Vice President Dick Cheney met with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in February. A senior U.S. government official said groups such as Jundullah have been helpful in tracking al Qaeda figures and that it was appropriate for the U.S. to deal with such groups in that context. Some former CIA officers say the arrangement is reminiscent of how the U.S. government used proxy armies, funded by other countries including Saudi Arabia, to destabilize the government of Nicaragua in the 1980s.”
I also recalled having posted this story by Seymour Hersh in New Yorker of July 7, 2008: ( http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/07/07/080707fa_fact_hersh )
“ One of the most active and violent anti-regime groups in Iran today is the Jundallah, also known as the Iranian People’s Resistance Movement, which describes itself as a resistance force fighting for the rights of Sunnis in Iran. “This is a vicious Salafi organization whose followers attended the same madrassas as the Taliban and Pakistani extremists,” Nasr told me. “They are suspected of having links to Al Qaeda and they are also thought to be tied to the drug culture.” The Jundallah took responsibility for the bombing of a busload of Revolutionary Guard soldiers in February, 2007. At least eleven Guard members were killed. According to Baer and to press reports, the Jundallah is among the groups in Iran that are benefitting from U.S. support.
The C.I.A. and Special Operations communities also have long-standing ties to two other dissident groups in Iran: the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, known in the West as the M.E.K., and a Kurdish separatist group, the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan, or PJAK.
The M.E.K. has been on the State Department’s terrorist list for more than a decade, yet in recent years the group has received arms and intelligence, directly or indirectly, from the United States.”
While Saleem Shahzad worked hard to get to the facts often by travelling extensively in the FATA and Afghanistan and cultivating contacts, he was apparently unaware of the clandestine connections of some of the “al Qaeda” linked groups with the CIA as reported by credible US sources such as the ABC News, Seymour Hersh, and Vali Nasr.. all citing top US intelligence sources. A complete analysis is not possible without taking into consideration the other or US side of the story.
Saleem Shahzad broke the story of Al-Qaeda’s responsibility of Benazir’s murder. Saleem Shahzad in a report (http://www.adnkronos.com/AKI/English/Security/?id=1.0.1710322437 ) released by the Italian news agency Adnkronos International (AKI) within hours of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination stated that “a spokesperson for the al-Qaeda terrorist network has claimed responsibility for the death on Thursday of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto.” The report also claimed:
” It is believed that the decision to kill Bhutto, who is the leader of the opposition Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), was made by al-Qaeda No. 2, the Egyptian doctor, Ayman al-Zawahiri in October. Death squads were allegedly constituted for the mission and ultimately one cell comprising a defunct Lashkar-i-Jhangvi’s Punjabi volunteer succeeded in killing Bhutto.”
Musharraf government blamed Baitullah Mehsud but Al Qaeda’s involvment was denied the next day by Moulvi Omar.
Given the hugely controversial role of Pervez Musharraf’s government, blatant destruction of evidence, and the details of obstruction of the investigations as later documented by the U.N. commission, the above claim in the AKI story done by Saleem Shahzad was suspect at best and competely misleading and false at worst.
A former top Indian official B. Raman (who served as an additional secretary) had questioned the authencity of this claim noting that it came from a “Pakistani journalist of unestablished credibility” in an analysis published by South Asia Analysis Group, a think-tank. ABC News had noted that the claim was posted by an obscure Italian website (AKI) “.
I had questioned the credibility of the above report not only in my blog but also in my TV appearances. It was also not clear how Saleem Shahzad was able to pinpoint the decision makers and executioneers within hours of the assassination. Was Saleem Shahzad misled by his sources in the intelligence community? Was he fed information, that was wrong, as sometime happens? We may never know. But the report released through “the obsure Italian website” did give an opportunity to Musharraf and United States to condemn the assassination and point towards al-Qaeda. Benazir Bhutto in her life had suspected Pakistani intelligence agencies and their sponsored groups. Some of her closest and well-informed associates did not believe this story and told me it was the work of elements within the government.
This was not the only instance where late Saleem Shahzad reported a speculation or an incorrect account with absolute confidence.
On May 29, 2009, Saleem published a story titled “Al-Qaeda strikes back in Lahore” in Asia Times online. The report http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/KE29Df01.html said:
” After assuming office in January, President Barack Obama picked up on the Bush administration’s warning to the Pakistani envoy, and soon after a top al-Qaeda ideologue, Egyptian scholar Sheikh Essa al-Misri, was arrested. Abu Amro Abdul Hakeem alias Sheikh Essa, in his 70s, had never been particularly popular with the al-Qaeda leadership, but given of his background he was respected in jihadi circles. He was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1960s and close to slain Abdul Qadir Audah, a Muslim Brotherhood general who was executed by Gamal Abdul Nasser’s regime in Egypt in 1960.
Sheikh Essa, who had recovered from a form of paralysis, had settled in the North Waziristan tribal area in a very secure environment. However, while traveling to a meeting in Faisalabad in Punjab he was captured by security agents. This arrest caused considerable anger in militant circles, especially in the Arab camps. ”
The above report implied that Abu Amro Abdul Hakeem alias Sheikh Essa was arrested in Pakistan sometime in January or early 2009.
On November 10, 2010, Saleem Shahzad published another story ( http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/LK19Df04.html ) titled, “Al-Qaeda ideologue held in Syria”, which contradicted what was reported in May 29, 2009 Asia Times report. The November 10th report said:
“The al-Qaeda ideologue responsible for formulating strategy in the South Asia war theater, and who also instigating a rebellion against the Pakistani armed forces among Pakistani tribesmen and jihadi militants in the cities, has been languishing in a Syrian prison for the past several months. Seventy-year-old Egyptian Abu “Amr” Abd al-Hakim Hassan, popularly known as Sheikh Essa, was arrested in Syria in 2009 and, according to high-profile intelligence sources, is in a poor state of health.”
Despite the clear contradiction between the two stories, there was no indication, let alone clarification or apology, of whether the earlier account of Sheikh Essa’s arrest in Faisalabad was wrong. If it was right, how did Sheikh Essa reach Syria in 2009?
Unfortunate and absolutely horrid and condemnable as Saleem Shahzad’s death was, it would be a mistake to take his stories on face value. Despite his apparently deep contacts with the militants (partly due to his former association with Jamaat-e-Islami), the glaring contradictions in his reports and the sweeping judgements contained therein do not reflect well on the credibility of either him or Asia Times online. It may sound harsh but given that he was the only Pakistani journalist with access to chracters like Ilyas Kashmiri and some in Pakistani and international media are inclined to take everything he reported on al Qaeda on its face value without the usual due diligence, it becomes necessary to point toward what are some serious gaps or inaccuracies in Saleem Shahzad’s Asia Times stories