Who Is Behind the Attack on Bhutto?

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Petr Josek / Reuters

Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto speaks to the media after a suicide attack on her motorcade killed more than 130 people.

Pakistanis from across the nation are flocking to the morgues of Karachi to identify loved ones who perished in Thursday's devastating suicide attack on a welcome-home rally for former two-time Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. The blasts killed 133 and left hundreds critically injured. As families struggled to identify mangled bodies shattered by the force of the explosions, grief turned to rage. But the inevitable questions surrounding Pakistan's worst ever terrorist attack — who did this, and why? — remain unanswered. President General Pervez Musharraf, in a condolence call to Bhutto on Friday morning, asked that no one should "take advantage of the situation and start a blame game." Police Chief Asif Farouki says that investigators have recovered part of a torso wearing a suicide vest, as well as hands and feet. He calls it a "typical suicide attack," and says that the bomber utilized sophisticated plastic explosives. "This was more an attack on the unity and integrity of the country than on any individual or any one political party," said Bhutto, in a press conference Friday evening. "It was an attack on Pakistan itself. It was an attack on our political rights, on the political process and on democracy itself."

International leaders were quick to condemn the attack and many have said that the bombing, which took place just meters from Bhutto's specially designed bulletproof armored trailer, which was transporting her to a planned rally at the tomb of Pakistan's founder, carries all the hallmarks of al-Qaeda.

Few in Pakistan are so certain. Bhutto, in a press conference late Friday, blamed militants, but suggested that the government was also at fault for failing to provide proper security. A few hours prior to the twin blasts a large section of the convoy route had been plunged into darkness when an as yet unexplained power outage shut down all the street lamps. "The closing of the street lamps was impeding our security procedures," she said. "Our security forces were having difficulty identifying suicide bombers." Ahead of her arrival, she said, she had been warned that suicide bombers were preparing for her. "I knew the attack could be carried out, but I was prepared to take this risk for my people and my land." In a letter written to Musharraf a week prior to her arrival, Bhutto had passed on the warnings, and asked for security measures equal to his own, as the right of a former leader of the country.

Rival and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is currently in exile in Saudi Arabia, said in an interview with a local television station that "the responsibility lies on the shoulders of the government. This was an extraordinary event, and the government should have gone taken extraordinary measures to protect her."

Security throughout the event was remarkably poor. The crowds that thronged the airport terminal to greet her arrival from Dubai were only superficially searched, and with hundreds of thousands lining the route to cheer her passage, it was more a question of when, not if, an attack would occur. "She was a slow moving target, and her route was known weeks in advance," says Shafqat Mahmood, a political analyst and former senator in Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP). "She was an easy target for those who hate her."

Karachi-based analyst Nusrat Javed says that several of Bhutto's statements at Western forums over the past few weeks may have riled any number of forces in Pakistan. She has said on several occasions that if the situation in the tribal areas, where senior members of al-Qaeda are thought to be hiding, continues to deteriorate, she would consider allowing American forces to fight on Pakistani soil. She has also said that she would provide the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEAP) access to nuclear proliferator — and Pakistani hero — A. Q. Khan. "These statements have been manipulated by the media to make it seem as if she is more than willing to do whatever it is the United States wants, and that is a very unpopular position here in Pakistan," says Javed. "Taken with her vow to eradicate extremism in the tribal areas, she has excited all the usual suspects in the political continuum."

Kamran Noorani, a prominent Pakistani publisher who witnessed last night's explosions firsthand, suggests that blaming al-Qaeda or international terrorist groups is too easy, and could potentially cover up a much more complicated array of forces that would benefit by attacking Bhutto. "I don't think Bhutto is much of a threat to groups like al-Qaeda," he says. "What can she really do right now to counter terrorism? Maybe in the long run she will change Pakistan, but in the short run she is less of a threat than the military is." Instead, he says, yesterday's attacks could have been at the instigation of groups within the government that feel threatened by her populist appeal. The PPP's massive grassroots support is largely dependent on carnival-like political rallies that entertain party members as much as they provide hope for a better life. No other party in Pakistan has been able to match the PPP in terms of fervent rural loyalty. With parliamentary elections due in January, Bhutto's return just in time for the start of the campaign could prove disastrous for other political groups. "This is not a country where you watch political debates between candidates on TV. Here, campaigns take place in parks, on country roads and in the streets," says Noorani. "My feeling is that this was done to scare Bhutto and the PPP. It was done to discourage proper election campaigning. This will discourage people from going out and participating."

At her press conference, Bhutto accused elements associated with the government for being behind some of the recent threats against her life. In particular she said she had told Musharraf that three people, whom she did not name, might be attempting to kill her. "I am not accusing the government," she said. "I am accusing people, certain individuals who abuse their positions. Who abuse their powers." In the past she has blamed supporters of former military general Mohammed Zia ul Haq, who overthrew Bhutto's father and PPP founder Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1977 and hanged him in 1979. Haq died in a mysterious plane crash a decade later, but his legacy, which saw the birth of the anti-Soviet jihad and a constitutional turn toward religious fundamentalism, remains strong in certain branches of the military. "Even if Musharraf wouldn't want to do something [against Bhutto], there is no guarantee that someone else from that camp is not involved with this," says Noorani.

Bhutto certainly doesn't have to look very hard to find enemies. "There is something about Benazir that is intensely polarizing," says Mahmood. "There are a lot of people who love her, but there are also a lot who hate her." Sindh Inspector General Zia-ul Hassan warns that militants have threatened more suicide attacks, and a Pakistani Taliban commander has told a local-language paper in the militant stronghold of Waziristan that "Benazir has arrived at the U.S. behest to carry out operations against the Mujahedin. We will target her."

Bhutto says she is ready for the challenge. "Let it be known to the perpetrators of the crime that the PPP will not be deterred. We will continue to fight for the people's rights, come what may." The PPP may be willing to fight, but next time around, Bhutto's base may be too afraid to come out and support her.