Report: Day after Bhutto assassination, US Predator targeted Islamist ideologue
In the wake of last week's assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the Pakistan bureau chief of Asia Times is laying responsibility for the killing on a new and more radical splinter group of al-Qaeda.
According to journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad, the United States retaliated against the head of that faction immediately following the attack on Bhutto:
"This nest of takfiris and their intrigues was on the radar of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the day after Bhutto's killing Sheikh Essa was targeted by CIA Predator drones in his home in North Waziristan. According to Asia Times Online contacts, he survived, but was seriously wounded. Sheikh Essa had only recently recovered from a stroke which had left him bedridden."
There have been no other press reports of such an attack and no US claims of responsibility. However, the US never does acknowledge participating in events of this sort. For example, in October 2006, a religious school on the Afghan-Pakistan border was destroyed in an airstrike, killing 80 suspected militants and leading to angry protests. Mulitiple reports indicated the school had been hit by a US Predator drone, but a Pakistani army spokesman denied any direct US involvement.
Shazad's belief that Bhutto was assassinated as part of an al-Qaeda operation to prevent the emergence of a more liberal and secular Pakistan has been promoted by the Pakistani leadership but does not appear to be widely shared. Most current speculation is focused on suspicions of complicity by elements within President Musharraf's government.
However, Shazad's discussion of Sheikh Essa, his radical takfiri followers, and his growing influence in the Pakistani border region of Waziristan may still shed light on the current turmoil in that country.
The Egyptian-born Sheikh Essa -- originally known as Abu Amro Abdul Hakeem -- teaches that all non-practicing Muslims are anti-God, so that jihadis are justified in taking arms not merely against foreign troops but also against secular Muslim governments. He is particularly influential in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, with his claims that the leaders of those two countries, as well as Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen, should be targeted for elimination.
According to Shazad, the split between the takfiris and more traditional jihadis explains much of what has happened across the Middle East over the last several years, as outside radicals come into conflict with local resistance movements like the insurgents in Iraq or the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Shazad writes, "Many of the foreign volunteers who have flooded into Pakistan and Iraq since 2003 are Takfirists, who regard 'bad Muslims' as the real enemy. Indigenous Islamic resistance groups have reacted uncomfortably to the growth of this near-heresy within al-Qaida which, by waging war against Muslim governments, has brought chaos to the populations it claims to defend."
Sheikh Essa has gained many adherents in North Waziristan, including former members of other jihadi outfits. One warlord in South Waziristan, Baitullah Mehsud, recently advanced the goal of denying legitimacy to Pakistan's national government by declaring "Islamic Emirates" in the region and pressing for a boycott of Pakistan's upcoming national elections. The Pakistani Interior Ministry has even claimed that Mehsud was behind the attack on Bhutto, but he has denied it.