Monday, January 21, 2008

CIA blames Al Qaeda, Taliban for assassination

from the January 19, 2008 edition

CIA blames Al Qaeda, Taliban for Bhutto assassination
Director of CIA says "no reason" to doubt Islamist group's responsibility, echoing findings of Scotland Yard.
By Arthur Bright

According to the CIA, former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated by Islamic militants with ties to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, offering new support to similar but criticized assertions made by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

CIA director Michael Hayden told The Washington Post that the agency has concluded that followers of Islamist tribal leader Baitullah Mehsud were responsible for carrying out Mrs. Bhutto's assassination.

"This was done by that network around Baitullah Mehsud. We have no reason to question that," Hayden said. He described the killing as "part of an organized campaign" that has included suicide bombings and other attacks on Pakistani leaders.

Some administration officials outside the agency who deal with Pakistani issues were less conclusive, with one calling the assertion "a very good assumption."

One of the officials said there was no "incontrovertible" evidence to prove or rebut the assessment.

Mr. Hayden added that Mr. Mehsud is receiving support from Al Qaeda, an accusation also asserted by the Pakistani government. The alliance between Mehsud and Al Qaeda, Hayden says, presents a new threat to Pakistan's stability.

"What you see is, I think, a change in the character of what's going on there," he said. "You've got this nexus now that probably was always there in latency but is now active: a nexus between al-Qaeda and various extremist and separatist groups."

Hayden added, "It is clear that their intention is to continue to try to do harm to the Pakistani state as it currently exists."

The Los Angeles Times cites similar comments from a US intelligence official who, speaking anonymously, said, "There is certainly no reason to doubt that [Mehsud] was behind this." Like Hayden, the official did not disclose how the CIA came to such a conclusion. The Times notes that Pakistani officials, including Mr. Musharraf, accused Mehsud largely on the basis of a telephone-call recording in which a man they believe to be Mehsud congratulates a cleric for his followers' success in killing Bhutto. Mehsud has denied involvement in Bhutto's assassination, but he has not yet commented on the recording.

The Times adds that an official in Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party remained skeptical of the CIA's assertions, noting that the agency was unable to examine much of the forensic evidence because both the crime scene and Bhutto's vehicle were "hosed down" shortly after the attack.

"Whoever is now identified as responsible by state sources, we would need to know how they came to any conclusions, as we are uncomfortable with the cover-up that was done on the ground after Ms. Bhutto's assassination," the party official said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution by Pakistani officials.

Mehsud, whose followers are also thought to be responsible for an attack Thursday in which insurgents overran a Pakistani fort, is "the premier militant commander" in the Pakistani territory of South Waziristan, writes the BBC in a profile. Mehsud "played a major role" in making South Waziristan into a safe haven for Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Commander Mehsud makes no bones about this, and says it is in fact the duty of every Muslim to wage jihad against "the infidel forces of America and Britain".

Talking to the BBC in an exclusive interview earlier in 2007, he said the militants were dead set on their goal of freeing Afghanistan through jihad. "Only jihad can bring peace to the world," he said.

The militant leader on several occasions has openly admitted to crossing the [Pakistan-Afghanistan] border to fight foreign troops.

The BBC adds that Mehsud is believed to lead some 20,000 insurgents, the majority of whom belong to the Mehsud tribe, and that Mehsud serves under Taliban commander Jalaluddin Haqqani, who allegedly aided Osama Bin Laden's escape from the Afghan mountain fortress in Tora Bora in 2002.

The US's conclusion that Mehsud was involved in Bhutto's murder echoes that of Scotland Yard, which Musharraf asked to investigate the assassination. The Sunday Times of London wrote last weekend that Scotland Yard found the evidence supported Musharraf's claim that Mehsud was involved.

The gun fired at Bhutto has been checked for fingerprints by the Scotland Yard detectives. A government minister told The Sunday Times that these have been traced through identity cards to a man in Swat, an area where Mehsud's men have been fighting.

"There was no cover-up," he insisted. "It was just unfortunate that in all the shock and confusion at the beginning, people shot their mouths off talking about sunroofs rather than simply saying it would be investigated."

The Times adds, however, that Bhutto's widow, Asif Ali Zardari, rejected Scotland Yard's findings and called for an independent, UN-led investigation into her death.

Bhutto herself in the days before her death dismissed Mehsud as just a pawn of the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies, which she told The Observer were the true threat to Pakistani democracy.

"I'm not worried about [Mehsud],' said Bhutto. 'I'm worried about the threat within the government. People like [Mehsud] are just pawns. It is the forces behind them that have presided over the rise of extremism and militancy in my country. They feel threatened now that their infrastructure will be rolled back when democracy is restored."

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