No sooner did Benazir Bhutto narrowly escape a two-man suicide bombing attack than she faced the next death threat of many more to come.
Like paparazzi chasing down a celebrity, would-be assassins will be dogging her every step as she leads her Pakistan People's Party in the coming election campaign to reclaim Pakistan's prime ministership, from which she was deposed in 1990 and again in 1996.
Five days after 140 people were killed and some 400 wounded in Bhutto's brush with martyrdom, she received a two-page handwritten letter in Urdu from a "friend of al-Qaida" that threatened to eliminate her "by any means."
Frighteningly long lists of plots are being hatched by a wide variety of extremist organizations and groups. And there is no shortage of killers and volunteers for suicide bombings, martyrs anxious to die for a new global caliphate. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf himself has been the target of nine assassination attempts, two by suicide bombers. Conspiracy is Pakistan's middle name.
Government sleuths reassembled body parts to get a lead on the would-be assassins. Released to the media were ghoulish photos of the severed head of what the police were certain was one of the perpetrators. Pakistani intelligence from a northern tribal territory reported another 30 suicide bombers had been assigned to "high-value political targets."
Radical groups pollute Pakistan's political scene. Since Sept. 11, 2001, when Musharraf, under U.S. pressure, dumped his Taliban proteges, extremist groups, once encouraged by the all-powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency for the "liberation" of Indian Kashmir, were ordered to shut down. Many of them had offices in the major cities that were closed only to reopen with a different name a block or two away.
The most ominous warning of all for Bhutto came from the federal railways minister, Sheik Rashid Ahmad. He accused her of "raising the flag of imperialism" (i.e., Bush administration support), which means she "will have to face suicide attacks. We have already conveyed to her that the ground realities have changed (since she was last in her country eight years ago)."
This perennial cabinet minister ran a jihadi training camp in the 1980s. He also served in the previous military government under President Zia ul-Haq. As Musharraf's information minister, he was known as a champion spin doctor who affects an always-in-the-know image. This time he inadvertently validated Bhutto's claim that some elements in Musharraf's government collude with militant radicals assigned to sabotage her political comeback.
Ahmad is a close friend of retired Gen. Hamid Gul, a former ISI chief who acts as strategic adviser to the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal coalition of six politico-religious extremist parties that governs two of Pakistan's four provinces (Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier province).
Gul hates the United States — and anything Washington favors — with a passion. He assisted the creation of the Taliban in the early 1990s and to this day believes the Sept. 11 al-Qaida attacks were a plot engineered by Israel's Mossad, the CIA and the U.S. Air Force. ("How come no fighters were scrambled to take on the planes you say were hijacked?" he asked this reporter.)
From al-Qaida and Taliban sanctuaries in the tribal areas on the Afghan border to Karachi, a teeming port city of 15 million some 600 miles away, there are tens of thousands of fanatics who would love to see Bhutto dead.
To lengthen the odds, the government banned political rallies and street demonstrations. But she will still have television, now accessible to 60 percent of the country. The privately owned ARY television network has 12 24/7 channels for news and commentary and for everything from food to fashion. ARY Chief Executive Officer Salman Iqbal was in Washington and New York this month to recruit "intellectual talent" for a new a "think tank" channel, directed by Ammar Turabi. It will focus on counterterrorism, human rights and distance learning.
Despite the newly acquired accoutrements of modernity, a large part of Pakistan is still stuck in the past.
More than half its 160 million people are illiterate. And aligned against Bhutto's return to power are renegade ISI cadres; the nationwide MMA coalition of extremists throughout the country; supporters of the late military dictator ul-Haq, who seized power from Bhutto's father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and then ordered him executed by hanging (Zia himself died in a mysterious plane crash in 1988 and Benazir became prime minister in a restored civilian government); and the countless flat-Earth clerics and their followers who regard a female leader as an abomination.
Yet Bhutto's popularity in this deeply divided society remains high. And her Pakistan People's Party is the country's largest, backed and funded by a burgeoning middle class in a country with an annual growth rate of 7 percent. Her power-sharing deal with Musharraf called for corruption charges against her to be dropped as she returned from self-imposed exile in London and Dubai, in exchange for which Musharraf would doff his general's uniform after the Supreme Court certifies his election to another five-year term. He seized power in a bloodless military coup eight years ago.
Several hundred lame-duck lawmakers from four provincial assemblies, the federal Assembly and the Senate re-elected him recently; all opposition parties boycotted the balloting.
Assuming all goes according to plan — always a big "if" in Pakistan — the big question will be who will wield the most clout on defense and internal security matters? Bhutto believes the seven troubled tribal areas on the Afghan border, now under the sway of al-Qaida, the Taliban and assorted jihadis from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, can be brought to heel by introducing political parties and election campaigning to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
Today only the MMA is authorized to recruit and propagandize in the FATA. The MMA is pro-Taliban and its leaders are self-avowed admirers of Osama bin Laden, the world's most wanted terrorist. Pakistan's mainstream political parties are not welcome in North and South Waziristan where the Taliban and al-Qaida rule and where Pakistani troops are loath to fight.
Pakistani intelligence reported from the northern tribal territories another 30 suicide bombers had been assigned to terminate high-value political targets.
Bhutto is now the target with the highest value. The late ul-Haq once said his greatest mistake was not killing Bhutto the daughter as he had ordered the execution of her father. Benazir's assassination would relegate Pakistan to "failing nuclear state."
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