On May 30th, as the sun beat down on the plains of eastern Pakistan, a laborer named Muhammad Shafiq walked along the top of a dam on the Upper Jhelum Canal to begin his morning routine of clearing grass and trash that had drifted into the intake grates overnight. The water flow seemed normal, but when he started removing the debris with a crane the machinery seized up. He looked down and saw, trapped in the grates, a human form.
Shafiq called some colleagues, and together they pulled out the body. Occasionally, farmers and water buffalo drown in the canal, float downstream, and get stuck in the grates, but never a man in a suit. “Even his tie and shoes were still on,” Shafiq told me. He called the police, and by the next day they had determined the man’s identity: Syed Saleem Shahzad, a journalist known for his exposés of the Pakistani military. Shahzad had not shown up the previous afternoon for a television interview that was to be taped in Islamabad, a hundred miles to the northwest. His disappearance was being reported on the morning news, his image flashed on television screens across the country. Meanwhile, the zamindar—feudal lord—of a village twenty miles upstream from the dam called the police about a white Toyota Corolla that had been abandoned by the canal, in the shade of a banyan tree. The police discovered that the car belonged to Shahzad. Its doors were locked, and there was no trace of blood.
The previous afternoon, Shahzad had left his apartment, in the placid F-8/4 neighborhood of Islamabad, and driven toward Dunya studios, about five miles away. It was five-thirty; the television interview was scheduled for six. According to a local journalist who talked to a source in one of Pakistan’s cell-phone companies, Shahzad’s phone went dead twelve minutes later. His route passed through some of the country’s most secure neighborhoods, and no one had reported seeing anything suspicious. Some Pakistanis speculated that Shahzad might even have known the people who took him away.
It was a particularly anxious time in Pakistan. Four weeks earlier, American commandos had flown, undetected, into Abbottabad, a military town northwest of Islamabad, and killed Osama bin Laden. The Pakistani Army, which for more than sixty years has portrayed itself as the country’s guardian and guide, was deeply embarrassed: either it had helped to hide bin Laden or it had failed to realize that he was there. Certainly it hadn’t known that the Americans were coming.
Less than three weeks after the Abbottabad raid, the Army was humiliated a second time. A group of militants, armed with rocket-propelled grenades and suicide vests, breached one of the country’s most secure bases, the Pakistan Naval Air Station-Mehran, outside Karachi, and blew up two P-3C Orion surveillance planes that had been bought from the United States. At least ten Pakistanis affiliated with the base died. The components of several nuclear warheads were believed to be housed nearby, and the implication was clear: Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal was not safe. In barracks across the country, military officers questioned the competence of Pakistan’s two most powerful men, General Ashfaq Parvez Kiyani, the chief of the Army staff, and General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, the chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or I.S.I. Some officers even demanded that the Generals resign. Ordinary Pakistanis, meanwhile, publicly disparaged the one institution that, until then, had seemed to function.
Amid this tumult, Shahzad wrote a sensational story for Asia Times Online, the Web site that employed him, saying that the attack on the Mehran base had been carried out by Al Qaeda—not by the Pakistani Taliban, which had claimed responsibility. He said that the Mehran assault had been intended to punish the military for having conducted “massiveinternal crackdowns on Al Qaeda affiliates within the Navy.” A number of sailors had been detained for plotting to kill Americans, and one “was believed to have received direct instructions from Hakeemullah Mehsud”—the chief of the Pakistani Taliban. It was not the first time that Shahzad had exposed links between Islamist militants and the armed forces—a connection that Pakistan’s generals have denied for years. But the Mehran article was his biggest provocation yet.
Shahzad, whose parents migrated from India after Partition, making him a muhajir—Urdu for “immigrant”—was an affable outsider within Pakistan’s journalistic circles. Asia Times Online is not connected to any of the country’s established newspapers; its editorial operations are based in Thailand. Shahzad had no local editor to guide him or restrain him. Only a few other journalists had written as aggressively about Islamist extremism in the military, and not all of them had survived.
A hallmark of Shahzad’s reporting was that it frequently featured interviews with Islamist militants, including Al Qaeda fighters. His work was sometimes inaccurate, but it held up often enough so that other journalists followed his leads. Perhaps because he had cultivated so many militants as sources, he occasionally seemed to glorify the men who were carrying out suicide bombings and assassinations. In 2009, he published a breathless account of a meeting with Ilyas Kashmiri, a top Al Qaeda leader. Shahzad noted that the terrorist “cut a striking figure,” was “strongly built,” and had a powerful handshake, adding, “Ilyas, with his unmatched guerrilla expertise, turns the strategic vision into reality, provides the resources and gets targets achieved, but he chooses to remain in the background and very low key.” At other times, like many Pakistani journalists, he seemed to spare the intelligence services from the most damning details in his notebooks. But on several important occasions—as in the case of the Mehran attack—he wrote what appeared to be undiluted truth about the Pakistani state’s deepest dilemmas.