Bhutto's Jihadist Enemies

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Mohammad Malik / AFP / Getty

Pakistani police guard six members of the Sunni Muslim extremist group Lashkar_i_Jhangvi arrested in Multan, Pakistan in 2006.

Benazir Bhutto had long been an outspoken critic of Pakistani militants and this made her the mortal enemy of a galaxy of extremist forces inside Pakistan. "Bhutto was the only Pakistani politician willing to stand up and say, 'I don't like violent terrorists,'" says Stephen Cohen, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Many of these groups have intertwining histories and common loyalties — as well as shadowy links with Pakistani intelligence. As the probe into her assassination begins, investigators will have to sort through a morass of violent groups that were gunning for Bhutto. And while all have some historic link to al-Qaeda, they have just as much ideological impetus to act on their own — or at the behest of rogue elements of the Pakistani government sympathetic to Islamic radicals.

In a briefing Friday, the Pakistani government emphasized that al-Qaeda had Bhutto in its sights. "As you all know, Benazir Bhutto had been on the hit list of terrorists ever since she had come to Pakistan," said Javed Iqbal Cheema, the Interior Ministry spokesman. "She was on the hit list of al-Qaeda."

According to reports from the Pakistani Interior Ministry, the suicide bomber who killed Benazir Bhutto belonged to a domestic terrorist organization with links to al-Qaeda called Lashkar-i-Jhangvi. The group is responsible for dozens of attacks inside Pakistan over the past decade including sectarian killings of Shi'ites and Christians, a failed 1999 assassination attempt against then-Prime minister Nawaz Sharif, and involvement in the kidnapping and beheading of the Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl. An FBI and Department of Homeland Security bulletin sent out Thursday cited unsubstantiated reports that Lashkar-i-Jhangvi had claimed responsibility for Bhutto's assassination. An FBI official said that the bulletin was based on press reports and would not comment on whether the claim had been independently confirmed.

On Friday, a Pakistani Ministry of Interior spokesman identified another suspect: Baitullah Mehsud, a Taliban leader and an influential tribal chief in Waziristan, a restive Pakistani province on the Afghan border. Pakistani intelligence services intercepted a supposed conversation in which Mehsud congratulated those who carried out the assassination. "Fantastic job," reads the transcript released by the Pakistan Ministry of Interior, "[They were] very brave boys who killed her." But a spokesman for Mehsud told the Associated Press on Saturday that the militant was not involved in the attack, calling the allegation "government propaganda."

In 2005, Mehsud had been party to an agreement with the Pakistani government to cease his protection of al-Qaeda in his region. The Pakistani government has since then considered the agreement to have been broken. Says Frederic Grare, a former French diplomat in Pakistan and a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, "Mehsud is a very convenient [person to blame]. He’s the bad guy in the trouble areas." He asks, "Why would Mehsud be willing to kill Benazir? Beyond the stated fact that she’s against extremism. How do [Mehsud's people] benefit from Benazir’s assassination?"

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