The New York Times has published a remarkable article on the murder of Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad. It is not the story’s central allegation that makes the piece remarkable – it is all too believable that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate had Shahzad killed. The intelligence summarized in the article is what makes it especially noteworthy.
The Times reports (emphasis added):
New classified intelligence obtained before the May 29 disappearance of the journalist, Saleem Shahzad…showed that senior officials of the spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, directed the attack on him in an effort to silence criticism, two senior administration officials said.
There are two key phrases in this passage.
First, we learn that the intelligence was obtained “before” Shahzad’s disappearance. Second, according to the Times, the intelligence is specific enough to say that senior Pakistani officials “directed the attack.”
Put together, this implies that U.S. intelligence authorities were closely monitoring the unnamed Pakistani officials before Shahzad was even kidnapped. The classified intelligence could have come by way of intercepts (I’d say this is likely) or by way of a well-placed source (somewhat less likely, in my view, but possible).
Either way, this Times’ disclosure has the potential to disrupt a sensitive intelligence-gathering operation. The senior Pakistani spies who allegedly ordered Shahzad’s murder have surely read the Times’ account. And they will adjust accordingly. They will change the way they communicate if they suspect their phone conversations and/or email have been compromised. They are going to seek out any spies in their midst, too.
However, it may be the case that the Obama administration is not concerned about compromising intelligence collection here. They could simply want to send a political message to the powers that be in the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment. Whether that message will have any real effect is another matter.
The Pakistani military-intelligence complex’s relationships with various jihadist groups, including the Taliban and al Qaeda, are well-known. If Pakistan’s bad actors are willing to shelter Mullah Omar and support the Afghan insurgency while the Pakistani government receives billions of dollars in American aid, then the same bad actors are not going to hesitate when killing a journalist. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 37 journalists have been killed inside Pakistan since September 11, 2001.
Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was murdered by an alphabet soup coalition of Pakistani-backed jihadist groups, but no one inside the Pakistani establishment was ever held accountable. The Times account does not say if Shahzad’s murder was outsourced to one or more of the same terror groups backed by the ISI, but we should not be surprised if that turns out to be the case.
Despite the Pakistani government’s claim that it will conduct an honest investigation into Shahzad’s murder, it is highly doubtful that any Pakistani intelligence officials will ever be held accountable.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.