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EXCLUSIVE TO THE MEDIA LINE: Despite Taliban Claim Of Responsibility, Questions Surround Bhutto’s Assassination

In a new book, the Pakistani terror group says it orchestrated the murder of the former prime minister

Ten years after former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated at a campaign rally in Rawalpindi, the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for her murder. Bhutto twice served as Pakistani premier—between 1988-1990 and then again from 1993-1996—before fleeing the country amid corruption charges. Bhutto returned in 2007 after then-president Pervez Musharraf granted her amnesty and was viewed as a front-runner in the January 2008 elections.

In a book published late last month, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader Mufti Noor Wali—commonly known as Abu Mansoor—alleges that the terrorists who attacked Bhutto on December 27, 2007 were dispatched by his organization, which previously denied any involvement in the killing. “Bomber Bilal first fired at Benazir Bhutto from his pistol and the bullet hit her neck,” Noor Wali writes, “then he detonated his explosive jacket and blew himself up among the participants of the rally.”

The TTP chief also claims his group orchestrated a suicide bombing two months earlier in Karachi targeting a procession for Bhutto, which killed nearly 140 people but left her unharmed. The book describes Bhutto’s return to Pakistan as an American plot, aimed at combatting Islamic terrorism, a move vehemently opposed by then-TTP leader Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2009.

The TTP, banned by Islamabad in August 2008, is an umbrella organization for various militant groups based in the northwestern Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the Afghan border. Some 70,000 Pakistanis have been killed in attacks carried out by the terror group, leading to its blacklisting by most Western governments.

Bhutto was born in Karachi on June 21, 1953 and studied abroad in both the U.S. and Britain. The daughter of Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) founder and former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, she took over as chairperson of the political faction in 1982. Half a decade later, Bhutto became the first democratically-elected female leader of any Muslim-majority country.

The assassination of the charismatic Bhutto plunged Pakistan into crisis, setting off mass protests by her supporters who rampaged through several cities torching cars, trains and stores. Ensuing clashes with security officials killed nearly two dozen people. Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, her son Bilawal and the PPP leadership blamed ex-military ruler Musharraf for the murder.

After a decade-long controversial process—spanning more than 300 hearings and which was marred by the killing of the chief prosecutor—a Rawalpindi anti-terrorism court in August 2017 finally rendered a verdict in the Bhutto murder case. Saud Aziz and Khurram Shahzad, former high-ranking provincial police officials at the time of the killing, were convicted of negligence and mistreatment of evidence. Both received 17-year sentences but were granted bail by the Lahore High Court after only two months.

Musharraf, who in 2016 fled to Dubai when the Ministry of Interior lifted his travel ban—this, despite him having been under house arrest—was designated a fugitive and had his assets ordered confiscated.

In a move that surprised many observers, the court acquitted five suspects linked to the TTP.

Speaking to The Media Line, Musharraf’s deputy spokesperson in Pakistan, Shahzad Satti, vehemently denied the charges against his boss, which he described as politically-motivated. He highlighted, for instance, that Bhutto’s husband was president for five years after his wife’s murder and during that time failed to carry out a transparent investigation into the assassination. Satti revealed that Musharraf has no concerns with the TTP’s new book, which he says confirms that Bhutto’s party did not take seriously enough death threats against her.

By contrast, former parliamentarian Brigadier General Muhammed Hussan accuses the Musharraf regime of neglecting to protect Bhutto despite previous attempts on her life. While he ultimately blames the government, Hussan believes that many of the details of Bhutto’s assassination remain unknown. Commenting on the claims of responsibility by the TTP, he expressed doubt to The Media Line regarding their authenticity. “I remember that in early 2007, Baitullah Mehsud released a statement through former senator Saleh Shah that the TTP does not target women,” Hussan noted. Therefore, he believes the newly-released book is inaccurate, although he did concede that the timing of the admission was peculiar and questioned the TTP’s motives.

C R Shamsi, a prominent Pakistani writer and journalist who was a member of Bhutto’s inner circle for two decades, gave a rare interview to The Media Line in which he recalled that on October 19, 2007, the day after the Karachi attacks, Bhutto disclosed at a press conference that she had informed Musharraf that three senior government officials were planning to assassinate her and that she would hold him—and not the Taliban or Al Qa’ida—responsible.

Shamsi revealed that there were many warnings to this effect, including by ex-Afghan president Hamid Karzai who met with Bhutto at an Islamabad hotel on the day she was killed to implore her not to attend the upcoming rally—to which she replied, “I am not afraid of death.” On another occasion, former interior minister Rehman Malik told Bhutto that intelligence officials had tracked four suicide bombers into Rawalpindi, but again Bhutto insisted on attending the campaign event.

Shamsi broke down in tears while explaining that he was the first person at the hospital to receive official word of Bhutto’s death. According to his account, Bhutto’s surgeon, Dr. Mussadque, initially confirmed that she was killed by a bullet wound to the neck but then altered his story the next day. Pointing to other irregularities related to the assassination, Shamsi emphasized that the crime scene was washed of evidence before any forensic investigation could take place; that no formal autopsy was performed; that there were last-minute changes to Bhutto’s security detail; and that statements from witnesses were not properly recorded.

Accordingly, many questions relating to Bhutto’s murder remain unanswered. Regarding those proffered by the Taliban’s new book, Shamsi believes they are meant to further distort the facts of the assassination, whose masterminds, in his opinion, have not been brought to justice. “I am not going to blame anybody for Bhutto’s murder, but the actual culprits [have not yet seen the inside] of a court.” Shamsi thus concludes that Pakistani officialdom has little interest in deeply probing the case and, as such, “after 10 years, the [Bhutto] files are covered with dust.”