|Syed Saleem Shahzad|
Shahzad had been warned in the past by Pakistan's ISI intelligence agency about critical articles he had written and had told friends and colleagues he feared for his life. A recent article he wrote on al-Qaeda infiltration in the Pakistan Navy is thought by some to have been the reason for his kidnap and murder.
This article suggested that al-Qaeda carried out the 18-hour siege on the PNS Mehran naval air station in Karachi on 22 May after talks between the navy and al-Qaeda over the release of naval ratings who had been arrested on suspicion of links to al-Qaeda had broken down.
The attack, in which two US-supplied Orion surveillance aircraft were destroyed and ten soldiers killed, was a huge embarrassment to the Pakistan military and followed three attacks on navy buses in the last month in which nine service personnel were killed. Clearly the attackers were trying to make a point. Shahzad said in his article that they came from Ilyas Kashmiri's 313 Brigade, the military section of al-Qaeda.
Shahzad went on to say that Pakistani naval intelligence had recently traced an al-Qaeda cell operating within several navy bases in Karachi. When messages were intercepted hinting at an attack on visiting American officials it was decided to arrest at least ten ratings, mostly of lower rank. Almost immediately the officer in charge received death threats from al-Qaeda which made it clear that they knew where the ratings were being held. The prisoners were quickly moved to a safer location, but the threats continued.
Shahzad says that such was the threat that a senior-level naval conference was held at which it was decided to open up negotiations with al-Qaeda. An approach was made to Abdul Samad Mansoori, a member of 313 brigade who lives in North Waziristan. He demanded the immediate release of the ratings, but the navy wanted to interrogate them and then discharge them from the armed services. Al-Qaeda's response was the attacks on the naval buses.
This in turn was followed by more arrests, including a naval commando from the Mahsud tribe of South Waziristan with close links to Tehreek-e-Taliban leader Hakimullah Mahsud. Following the death of bin Laden on 2 May, the militants decided to launch an attack on PNS Mehran. Shahzad says that insiders at the base provided maps, pictures of exit and entry routes, the location of hangars and details of the likely reaction from external security forces. Three groups entered the base: one targeted the aircraft, one engaged the response force and a third section escaped as the others provided covering fire. Up to six escaped, while four were killed on the base.
Shahzad was a superb journalist and despatches like this one will be sorely missed. Pakistan remains a deadly place for serious journalists.