By Joby Warrick and Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 28, 2007
Even before the official search got underway in Pakistan, U.S. intelligence agencies yesterday were drawing up their own list of possible suspects in the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto -- a list that includes al-Qaeda as well as elements of Pakistan's own intelligence service.
In the initial hours after the slaying, intelligence officials had no firm indication of who was behind the attack and no independent means of verifying any early claims of responsibility. But it was quickly clear that numerous groups possessed both the means of carrying out the assassination and a deep antagonism toward Bhutto and the moderating influences she embodied, according to several current and former officials closely tracking the situation.
At the top of the list, the officials said, is the al-Qaeda terrorist network and its legion of allies, including loosely affiliated groups that espouse similar views and, in some cases, share training facilities and other resources. But several officials said it is equally plausible that the assassination was carried out with the support -- or at least the tacit approval -- of Pakistani government employees. Most of the officials expressed doubt, however, that President Pervez Musharraf himself would have approved the killing.
"There are many Pakistani intelligence types who don't like Benazir Bhutto," said one U.S. official familiar with the country's internal politics. "She had more than her share of detractors throughout the government." At the same time, the official said, the rioting and unrest triggered by the slaying threaten the country's stability in a way that directly undermines the government of Musharraf, who had been her chief political rival.
Some former U.S. intelligence and defense experts said they believe that the assassination marks the beginning of a new and significant Islamic extremist offensive against the government of Pakistan.
"I think they see an opportunity to make Pakistan a new battleground," retired Marine Gen. Anthony C. Zinni said of al-Qaeda and its allies. Zinni -- who dealt often with Musharraf when he was chief of Central Command, the U.S. military headquarters for the Middle East -- said there is "no doubt in my mind" that the culprits are linked to al-Qaeda, which has long-established havens along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. He said the group was being pressured by recent agreements between the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and "felt they had to do something."
Al-Qaeda possessed the clearest motive for the attack: the destabilization of Pakistan's government, which Osama bin Laden personally called for in a statement addressed to Pakistan's citizens this past fall. "They had means, plenty of martyr wannabes. And they probably had inside information on her route and security," said Bruce Reidel, a former CIA official and onetime member of the National Security Council.
U.S. officials also mentioned as a possible suspect the Sunni group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which has been linked to previous attempts to assassinate Pakistani political figures.
Although Zinni is skeptical of the notion that Pakistani intelligence backed the assassination, other experts saw the hand of Pakistan's military intelligence arm, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, which supported the Taliban inside Afghanistan until the U.S. invasion in 2001, and is believed to maintain links to Islamic extremist groups.
Andrew Exum, who fought in Afghanistan as a U.S. Army officer and now studies Islamic militant groups at King's College London, said he has "a hard time believing no one in ISI knew about this attack."
In the end, however, the facts may not matter as much as perception, said Barnett R. Rubin, a New York University expert on South Asian affairs. "I know what many people in Pakistan and Afghanistan believe: They think that the Pakistani military killed her," he said. "I am not endorsing this belief -- or denying it -- but it is a political reality."
Staff writer Robin Wright contributed to this report.