HomeFeaturesDailyBriefingsRapidReconSpecial ReportsAbout Us

« November 2007 | Return to PrincipalAnalysis | January 2008 »

December 31, 2007


Bhutto Assassination Deepens Crisis

Post-Assassination Maneuvers Serve al-Qaeda More Than Pakistan

By Steve Schippert | December 31, 2007

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto can usher in change in many forms in Pakistan, while it will also serve to perpetuate the nation's seemingly constant flux between crisis and utter peril. There are many questions surrounding the actors and circumstances in Bhutto's assassination.

There are few answers, and the least credible among them are coming from the Pakistani government itself in misguided and clumsy attempts at deflecting blame and criticism from itself. And while the principal actors are almost certainly from among the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance's angry ranks, to dismiss its sympathizers and fellow Islamists among Pakistan's military and intelligence is equally is equally foolish.

Musharraf almost certainly had no hand in Bhutto's murder, but he understands that public opinion and accountability for rogue elements within Pakistani military and intelligence lands squarely on his desk. Musharraf is an intelligent and deft politician, termed by some as 'the ultimate survivor.' And the assassination of Benazir Bhutto by his hand - or any other for reasons above - would never serve to strengthen his position among the Pakistani public, already his greatest weakness. Yet, the manner in which the Musharraf government has gone about deflecting direct criticism has done it and the Pakistani president far more harm than good.

Benazir Bhutto had no shortage of enemies, and Islamists' ire for her was no secret.

Prelude to a Kill: Threats and Attempt

Before Benazir Bhutto had even returned to Pakistan, the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance had marked their target. A spokesman for Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud reportedly told journalists that they would assassinate her. In her overtures to the United States in seeking a return to Pakistani politics included a public position of allowing United States troops to pursue al-Qaeda terrorists within their newly forged Pakistani tribal area lairs. During her flight from Dubai to Pakistan on her return, Benazir Bhutto said that the terrorists who threatened her “don't believe in women governing nations, so they will try to plot against me, but these are risks that must be taken. I'm prepared to take them.” She ultimately paid for that risk with her life, and those of over 160 others killed in the October 18 and December 27 blasts.

After the threats attributed to the Taliban's Baitullah Mehsud, they were made good on the day Bhutto arrived back in Pakistan. During her slow procession through Karachi on October 18, the first attempt on her life was made. In what was likely a two-man team attack, a Russian-made grenade was thrown and detonated near Bhutto's armored vehicle, perhaps an attempt to clear a path for the eventual suicide bomber to get closer to Bhutto. The bomber did get closer, and when his bomb detonated – moments after Bhutto receded back into the protective shell of her armored vehicle – approximately 150 people were killed, half of them believed to be in Bhutto's security detail. Bhutto survived inside her vehicle.

It is important to also note that sniper fire was associated with the October attack, a little discussed but important detail. Benazir Bhutto said that her procession came under gunfire during the attack. And Bhutto's security detail said that it had earlier stopped two men, one with a bomb and the other with a gun. That Bhutto had receded back into her protective vehicle before the attackers were ready saved her life then. And her exposure outside the same sunroof is what cost her her life on December 27, regardless of fantastically revised official claims by the Pakistani government that she died by striking her head while retreating back into her vehicle.

The Assassination: A Near Carbon Copy of October's Attempt

In the successful attack, it appears a near-carbon copy tactically speaking of the failed October attempt. The principal difference is that the gunfire commenced at close range while Bhutto was exposed above her vehicle through the sunroof. Had the timing been slightly different in October, her fate may well have been sealed that day two months prior.

Perhaps a tactical adjustment on the part of the terrorist cells likely involved, the bomber and the (known) gunman were one and the same and closer to Bhutto. The attackers chose her exit route rather than Bhutto's entrance to or commencement of the political opposition rally she was leading. This provided several advantages.

1.By attacking the beginning of the exit route, it almost assured a waving Bhutto dangerously exposed above her vehicle.
2.The risk of detection was lessened by not requiring infiltration into the heart of the Rawalpindi park where the rally was held. Peripheral infiltration would suffice with considerably less risk.
3.Psychologically, while surely not relaxed, there is the potential for perception among Bhutto's immediate security detail that the riskiest part of their security task was behind them. There was the possibility of a potential slight mental relaxing that could make the difference between detection and avoidance.

Immediately after the assassination, Getty Images photographer John Moore described what he saw from close range saying, “I turned around and heard three shots go off and saw her go down, fall down through the sunroof into the car.” Seconds later, the bomb detonated. Over twenty people near the car were killed, though no one inside the vehicle lost their lives. This can be explained by the fact that Bhutto's car sped off as soon as she slumped into it bleeding profusely from a gunshot wound to her neck.

Many questions remain and much detail still unknown. Among the unknown includes speculation of other gunmen in position within nearby buildings, a detail which would directly implicate Pakistani security forces and suggest assistance form rogue elements within. It is one thing to manage an individual infiltration among a crowd, it is quite another to have a man or men in position within buildings that were or should have been cleared.

Another immediate observation on the ground by Bhutto supporters was that there was a sudden dearth of uniformed security immediately before the attack. This would indicate that there was perhaps a psychological relaxation alluded to above as the rally concluded and Mrs. Bhutto was making her exit. It would also perhaps indicate either incompetence on the part of security or perhaps conspiratorial collusion between uniformed Pakistani security and the attackers. In either case, incompetence should not be seen as a lesser of the two latter evils.

The Immediate Aftermath: Blame, Claim and Cover Up

In war reporting, the general rule is that the first report on an incident is wrong, and the second most likely inaccurate. Only later does a real picture of events accurately emerge. In Pakistan, however, and in particular in the case of the Bhutto assassination, the opposite is rule applies. The first reports will eventually emerge as closer to factual and subsequent reports, particularly on the part of the Pakistani government, will prove far from factual. The eventual official Pakistani position is almost comical. It asserts that she died not of gunshot wounds or even shrapnel from the blast, but rather from a skull fracture as the force of the blast supposedly caused her head to strike a sunroof lever on the car.

The government's account is the only account that has Mrs. Bhutto outside the car at the time of the blast. In fact, for her armored car to deliver her to the hospital, it necessarily had to distance itself from the bomb before it detonated in order to remain operable. Bombs at close range do horrible damage to rubber tires. For those who were near the bomb, many victim's clothes were ripped completely off their bodies by the force of the blast. The armor would have protected the occupants, but the car would have been disabled at the very least and been unable to deliver a mortally wounded Bhutto to a hospital some distance away.

The government account also differs from the eyewitness account of John Moore, an American photographer who has no apparent axe to grind to cause him to fabricate. So too does it differ from surviving members of Bhutto's security team. Long before there could have been any potential coordination of stories for any untoward information effort, a member of her security detail who was running alongside the vehicle and was injured in the blast said upon arriving at the hospital that he saw Bhutto shot twice, first in the neck and then in the head, after which she collapsed into the vehicle.

The Pakistani government's official explanations gradually shifted from a fatal gunshot wound, to being killed by shrapnel from the blast, to finally one that might be described as the “Magic Sunroof Handle Theory.” The story appears to transition farther from reality and closer to make-believe in equal measures as it transitions from immediate security officials on the scene in Rawalpindi to the uppermost echelons of the Pakistani government in Islamabad.

This is both unfortunate and ill-advised. While followers and members of Bhutto's Pakistani People's Party blame Musharraf, few believe him personally involved. Rather, they blame him for inactions, for “allowing this to happen” by not providing enough security and for having some in his government who would potentially collude with terrorists in order to see her killed. She said as much in a letter to Musharraf, indicating several by name.

The Pakistani government also rapidly produced what it said was a transcript of a call between Baitullah Mehsud and Maulvi Sahib, where the two congratulated each other on the successful assassination mission carried out by two of their minions. While there should be little doubt about the Taliban-al-Qaeda hand in Bhutto's assassination, the ability of the Pakistani government to produce such exacting intelligence as evidence hours after the assassination when none such was produced after the failed October attempt brings the transcript's credibility into question. Did they have more intelligence on the October attempt? Or was this evidence perhaps manufactured in order to deflect criticism and investigation from the government? The production of the intelligence by itself does not warrant such pointed questions. But within the context of the government's other claims and actions following the Bhutto assassination, they are not unreasonable.

At the end of the day, it makes little difference whether Bhutto was killed by bullets or shrapnel wounds or 'sunroof handle' wounds from the force of the bomb blast. She is dead and Pakistan is shaken once again. But to the Musharraf government, it clearly matters much.

It is highly unlikely that Musharraf is leading a disinformation campaign in order to directly protect known killers and collaborators within his government or to conceal his own direct involvement. Rather, what is happening with the farcical official Pakistani government lines is an admission that Musharraf knows there are Islamists and Islamist sympathizers within Pakistani military and intelligence ranks. What the incredulous version of events seeks to do is sweep such questions under the rug, preferring such uncomfortable and untenable realities – which are truly societal – not be driven to Musharraf's Islamabad doorstep to be dealt with.

Such a cover up may – in the minds of the Pakistani government – serve to defer such things to be dealt with at some other time, perhaps by a different Pakistani leader at a later date. But in reality, it makes the government look even more complicit, giving added fire to the charges of Bhutto's PPP supporters that Musharraf should be held to account for Bhutto's murder. It only serves to further weaken Musharraf's already diminished domestic authority, power and influence.

Pakistan's Persistent Crisis Continues

And this only brings Pakistan closer to the brink of outright domestic crisis, a condition the United States and the West – let alone the Pakistani public – views as dangerous. And while many questions remain and the Pakistani government's official explanation is nearly universally dismissed, Pakistan has rejected an independent outside probe into the Bhutto assassination.

Meanwhile, the scheduled January 8 elections hang in the balance. Benazir Bhutto's son, 19-year old Bilwal Bhutto, has been selected as the PPP's standard bearer and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, has declared that he will 'oversee' Bilwal's chairmanship until he completes his collegiate studies. This does not bid well for a party suddenly – and still – lacking leadership in Benazir's wake.

Yet, the PPP and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistani Muslim League (PML-N) party have agreed to participate in the elections as scheduled. However, the Pakistani government has not decided yet on whether the elections will proceed as scheduled, though Musharraf made the gesture before the PPP/PML-Q joint announcement that he would honor the wishes of the PPP on whether they desired an elections delay or not.

All of this strife serves the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance in their insurgency. The more turmoil the Pakistani government must manage outside the Federally Administered Tribal Region, the less energy and fewer resources it has to confront the Islamists comfortably entrenched there. And this is the aim behind al-Qaeda's silence on the assassination of Bhutto, hoping an angry PPP will continue to point the finger inwardly at Musharraf and deepen the internal disunity. It affords them another day to plan the next attacks and gather more strength. For their insurgency feeds on inaction and takes comfort in the strategy of 'containment.' Containment, by definition, affords them conquered territory for a base of operations – operations against Pakistan as well as the rest of the region and the West.

As the Pakistani crisis continues and deepens, the United States must quickly reassess its strategy there going forward. The chess board is not static and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto is an event which will continue to have a ripple effect on the situation and the dynamics of the crisis at hand.

December 5, 2007


The Fiction of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi

Creativity Need in Information War with al-Qaeda in Iraq

By Steve Schippert and Nick Grace | December 5, 2007

Fully engaged in the Information War, al-Qaeda in Iraq continues to put forth its message in Iraq under the umbrella of a notional Islamic State of Iraq and employing an Iraqi actor to fill the fictitious shoes of its purported Iraqi leader, "Abu Omar al-Baghdadi." While al-Qaeda in Iraq is in dire straits in Iraq - as evidenced by the content of "al-Baghdadi's" latest al-Qaeda-prepared speech - its information campaign has kicked back into gear in earnest, deriding the "apostates" of the Iraqi Awakening movement (Sahawah al-Iraq or SAI) and announcing a new campaign through the end of January. The United States needs to engage in more creative means of participation in this Information War, exploiting al-Qaeda's faults and weaknesses beyond dry news releases and press conferences.

In a continuation of its PSYWAR campaign, al-Qaeda in Iraq's (AQI) strategic and operational effort to maintain battlefield morale and to consolidate its leadership of the broader insurgency, AQI's al-Furqan Media released a 46 minute long audio file (MP3) onto the Internet late Monday night. The recording features a speech by the notional emir of AQI's umbrella organization, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). An Arabic-language transcript, in Word, Adobe PDF, and Flash, was posted shortly after the appearance of the audio.

Al-Furqan banner for 'As for the Foam it Passes Away as Scum'

Pulp Fiction: The Islamic State of Iraq and "Abu Omar al-Baghdadi"

In order to best understand the proper and important context of the latest from the Islamic State of Iraq, it must be understood exactly what the group is and who its purported leader, "Abu Omar al-Baghdadi," really is. At the height of his bloodlust, even Usama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri atop al-Qaeda's global leadership understood that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian with a violent penchant for video taping brutal beheadings and other murders, was a liability and a public relations nightmare among local Iraqis. Once Zarqawi, then AQI's leader, was killed in an American air raid in June 2006, this opened the door for al-Qaeda to put in place a new leader, Egyptian Abu Ayyub al-Masri, to bridge the widening chasm between al-Qaeda and Iraqis created by Zarqawi.

In order to achieve this, al-Qaeda in Iraq - once led by a Jordanian run amok and now led by an Egyptian - sorely needed an Iraqi face with the appearance of Iraqi leadership. The notional "Islamic State of Iraq" organization was thus created and announced for this express purpose. Atop the ISI's leadership was an unknown figure introduced as "Abu Omar al-Baghdadi," and bin Laden's newly selected leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq pledged "allegiance" and subservience to the leadership and decisions of "Abu Omar al-Baghdadi."

There was just one problem. According to the Pentagon and confirmed to ThreatsWatch by a military intelligence source, "Abu Omar al-Baghdadi" is a notional character developed by al-Qaeda to put an Iraqi face on the Islamic State of Iraq, which is itself equally notional. A purely fictitious character, the physical role of "Abu Omar al-Baghdadi" is in fact performed by an Iraqi actor known as Abdullah al-Naima. Khalid Abdul Fatah Da’ud Mahmud al-Mashadani, the former "Information Minister" of al-Qaeda in Iraq, was captured on July 4, 2007 and revealed as much during his interrogation. The captured ISI "Information Minister" - in a distinct position to know - explained that al-Baghdadi's statements and the overall direction and strategy of the Islamic State of Iraq is, in fact, controlled by Abu Ayyub al-Masri, the Egyptian born head of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

He had, in fact, exposed a puppet show of lethal deception. Al-Qaeda never really wanted Iraqi leadership, so who better to play the part of an Iraqi leader than an actor by trade? And with the Iraqi stage and film industry being what it was under Saddam Hussein, few Iraqi actors were widely recognized, permitting the charade to commence. Multi-National Forces - Iraq (MNF-I) also revealed that some among the former insurgent groups now aligned with the Iraq Awakening movement (Sahawah al-Iraq) and Coalition forces did in fact eventually recognize al-Naima from his films, which served to drive a wedge further between them at the time.

A biography of al-Naima's "Abu Omar al-Baghdadi" character posted on Jihadist message boards and reported by Iraq expert Nibras Kazimi paints the lead role in al-Qaeda's screenplay as both religious and patriotic. Born in Baghdad with a strong Sunni pedigree, he is playbilled as a man in his 40s and as a Salafi activist under the rule of Saddam Hussein. His family supposedly hails from the Albu Mu'alleg clain of the Mashhadani tribe and is directly descended from the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. He is, according to the intelligence source, "the perfect Iraqi al-Qaeda leader." He is also, again, pulp fiction and al-Baghdadi's words are not those of an Iraqi leader, but rather a script penned by the foreign leadership of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

This is the context needed to best understand the message most recently attributed to one "Abu Omar al-Baghdadi," which, as will be shown, is a message of desperation from a group on the run and finding former Iraqi allies now hunting them seemingly at every turn.

The al-Qaeda-Scripted Message: Signs of Desperation

  Islamic State of Iraq logo
Logo of the Islamic State of Iraq

"Al-Baghdadi's" speech, called "As for the Foam it Passes Away as Scum," is an attempt to rebuild morale within the rank and file inside Iraq and suggests that al-Qaeda's Islamic State is not faring very well. Al-Qaeda in Iraq faces both the anti-AQ Sunni Awakening movements, which are assisting U.S. forces in the fight against al-Qaeda, and also endures competition from an umbrella group of Sunni insurgencies called the Political Council for the Iraqi Resistance (PCIR). The purported emir of the ISI calls these opponents "apostates and traitors" and warns al-Qaeda fighters against either supporting them or even giving up. Any warning over giving up the fight within public al-Qaeda communications must be seen as a sign of dire straits.

In the speech, according to a summary acquired by ThreatsWatch, ISI head "Abu Omar al-Baghdadi" directly criticizes the PCIR and calls for unity under ISI leadership. He warns that disunity works to the West's interests and that the dissolution of the Islamic State would lead to deeper fractures within the Salafi-Jihadi armed campaign. The PCIR formed on October 11, 2007, and consists of the Islamic Army in Iraq, Mujahideen Army (Jaish al-Mujahideen), Conquering Army in Iraq, Sharia Commission of Ansar al-Sunnah (Jamaat Ansar al-Sunna), Islamic Front for the Iraqi Resistance (JAAMI), and Hamas of Iraq. It was formed primarily as a platform to counter al-Qaeda's notional Islamic State of Iraq, known to be an Iraqi puppet with foreign al-Qaeda strings.

"Al-Baghdadi" continues by denying that the anti-AQ Sunni Awakening movements and councils have come about as a result of actions by the ISI. Calling the Awakening movements "apostasy," he says that the root causes are tribal ignorance (jahiliyah), a love for this world, and misconceptions promoted by provocateurs. This runs counter to the steadfast and earnest motivating factors as stated by the Awakening movement (Sahawah al-Iraq) maintained since its inception and during its fast growth.

The al-Qaeda-prepared statement read by al-Naima (as "Abu Omar al-Baghdadi") admits the loss of parts of Diyala because of "the betrayal" of Hamas of Iraq, which split from the 1920 Revolution Brigade in March 2007 and reportedly fought alongside U.S. forces to combat al-Qaeda. But it reassures supporters that the ISI continues to control "most of its territory." None of that territory includes any significant portions of urban terrain anymore, save for small rural towns overtaken in al-Qaeda retreats from such places as Baquba in Diyala province.

Ramadi, the statement says, is the last "crusader" stronghold and that "it will soon be taken care of." This will be no small feat, as Ramadi is the epicenter of the entire Awakening movement against al-Qaeda. Once al-Qaeda in Iraq's own epicenter, they were driven out through the energetic cooperation of local Ramadi Sunnis in the al-Anbar provincial capital. It is now more an Awakening stronghold than that of the "crusader" American forces. Driven out of Ramadi, al-Qaeda shifted its concentration of forces northward into Baquba, which the statement also ceded as now also lost. The nominal shell Islamic State of Iraq is truly a "state" without a capital.

Recruiting Calls and New Campaign: 3 Kills Each

"Al-Baghdadi" claims that while non-Iraqi fighters have greatly sacrificed for their cause, only 200 foreign mujahideen remain in Iraq. Again, al-Qaeda continues to press for the image of an Iraqi movement. This can also be seen in the fact that an 'outed' "Abu Omar al-Baghdadi" continues to stay in persistent character. He declares his admiration for the mujahideen, saying that they are stronger than steel and more stable than mountains, and tells them to show no mercy to "apostates." Suggesting that the ISI has a morale problem, he asks ISI fighters to hold steadfast and not let the blood of their brothers go to waste. He warns them against tribalism and nationalism, and commands them to protect the believers against the Awakening movements.

  ISI Promotional banner for ghazw campaign
ISI Promotional banner for ghazw campaign.

He also announces the formation of the "al-Siddiq Brigades," which refers to Abu Bakr as-Siddiq, the first of the Rashidun (rightly-guided Caliphs) who fought a war against rebel tribes and apostates, and consolidated Syria and Iraq into the caliphate. The "al-Siddiq Brigades," he says, will fight against the "apostates and traitors" that are weakening the ISI.

In conclusion, "al-Baghdadi" calls for Ghazw against members of the Awakening movements and community groups that side with U.S. forces and wear "light-reflecting uniforms." Within the jihadist's concepts of warfare, Ghazw is a call for a campaign of short and sudden attacks to terrorize and demoralize both the enemy as well as non-combatants in order to weaken and eventually subjugate them. The individual mission of each mujahid, he says, is to conduct 3 IED attacks or 3 attacks with explosives, especially martyrdom attacks, or at least to kill 3 "apostates and traitors." He then places a deadline for achieving these campaign missions - the 20th day of Muharram 1429 H (likely to be January 29, 2008).

Conclusion: Engage Pulp Fiction In The Information War

This is the sixth message delivered by Abdullah al-Naima as "Abu Omar al-Baghdadi" since his appearance as the ISI emir in October 2006 and his first speech since Usama bin Laden's controversial "Message to the People of Iraq" in October 2007, which criticized al-Qaeda in Iraq's losses.

The media theater remains a major component of al-Qaeda's strategy and its wing in Iraq has suffered major setbacks in recent months. Al-Furqan Media, al-Qaeda in Iraq's media wing, is currently on the move, according to jihadists messages obtained by ThreatsWatch, and facing logistical difficulties. "'(I)t takes time for moving such an infrastructure and find (sic) a safe place with... traitors around," one message stated. Recent sweeps in Samarra, as Bill Roggio has reported, have nailed well over 30 media operatives and suggests that al-Furqan is currently trying to reestablish its operations there.

Al-Furqan, which previously maintained a strong output of video products, released only two PDF magazines between September and November. It resumed video output on November 24 and has focused primarily on clips of modestly successful attacks against American forces and executions of Iraqi police.

The Department of Defense - from the Pentagon to the PAO's (Public Affairs Offices) for units deployed on the battlefield - have evolved into much more effective and efficient teams regarding the flow of information. However, new means of engaging in the Information War must be continually explored. Al-Qaeda has been invested and engaged to the extent that it has fielded a nominal and deceptive umbrella group called the Islamic State of Iraq and fielded a purely fictional leader whose shoes are literally filled by a stage and screen actor. Each time a statement is released, it should perhaps be broadcast in Iraq and made available in the West as a service to al-Qaeda in Iraq. The video feed should come complete with a split screen of "al-Baghdadi" on one side and a set of clips of Abdullah al-Naima's scenes in his movies on the other, slightly accelerated and enhanced with vaudeville musical fare reminiscent of the Keystone Cops.

There is more to the Information War with al-Qaeda (and others) than dry factual press releases and news conferences. We should be bold and creative enough to employ new means effectively and work in creative ways to belittle their credibility and erode what public support they maintain.

  • AudioFebruary 2, 2010
    [Listen Here]
    What on Earth can Usama bin Laden, the mystical calculus of climate change and US Homeland Security have in common? Does bin Laden really agree with the President of the United States on matters weather? How is it that the...

Special Reports

Recent Features