The murder this week of another prominent Pakistani politician who advocated tolerance and democracy is the latest sign of how al Qaeda has created an underground syndicate of terror within the Pakistani state that threatens its very survival. By building alliances with like-minded jihadists inside Pakistan, al Qaeda has become a real and present danger to the sixth-largest country in the world, a country with the fastest-growing arsenal of nuclear weapons in the world.
Minister of Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated in Islamabad in broad daylight by terrorists who sprayed him and his car with bullets. They left behind leaflets taking credit for the deed in the name of al Qaeda and its Pakistani ally, Tehrik-i-Taliban. Bhatti had been an outspoken advocate of repealing the death sentence for blasphemy—which prohibits any criticism of Islam or the Prophet Muhammad on pain of death. The death sentence is a legacy of Pakistan’s jihadist dictator, General Zia ul Haq, who ruled from 1977 to 1988 and was the beneficiary of billions of dollars in U.S. aid from the Carter and Reagan administrations.
The assassination of another critic of the blasphemy law the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, by his own body guard in January showed how the terror underground has penetrated the very security establishment it is fighting. According to the Pakistani press, the assassin had a long track record of sympathy for extremist Islam. Yet he also guarded the President or Prime Minister eighteen times in the last three years, and was assigned to guard two (unnamed) foreign dignitaries before he shot dead the governor of the country’s largest province.
Just before her death, Ms. Bhutto warned that she could see al Qaeda “marching on Islamabad in two or four years.” By murdering Bhatti this week, al Qaeda showed it is on the streets of Islamabad today, operating with impunity.
Of course, the wife of Pakistan’s President Asif Zardari, Benazir Bhutto, was also assassinated in 2007 by the same syndicate of terror. The U.N.’s investigation concluded al Qaeda was behind her death as well, probably the jihadists’ biggest success since 9/11. At the time al Qaeda said it had “terminated the most precious American asset” in Pakistan, a judgment that has stood the passing of time. Ms. Bhutto was a flawed leader but she may have been the last really good chance at keeping a moderate Pakistan alive.
The Zardari government has been systematically weakened by the army since it came to power. The government’s own corruption and incompetence has made it easy. The army has waged an unprecedented series of military campaigns against the jihadists in the remote tribal regions along the Afghanistan border, but it has had little or no success in curbing the al Qaeda-Taliban threat in the country‘s urban areas. It is in the cities like Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad that the danger is actually the most acute.
Another al Qaeda ally, Lashkar e-Taiba, which carried out the attack on Mumbai in November 2008 from Karachi still enjoys the patronage of the army. The interrogation of the convicted American citizen, David Headley, who did the reconnaissance missions to prepare for the Mumbai attacks show he was an agent of both al Qaeda, Lashkar e-Taiba and the Pakistani army’s Inter Services Intelligence bureau, the ISI. The man who was head of the ISI when the Mumbai plot was hatched and developed is today Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.
The murders have had their intended chilling effect. Other moderates and democrats must live in fear for their lives or go into exile. Intimidation is stifling debate in Pakistan. The murderers have been hailed at heroes for fighting infidels. Bhatti was a Christian and an easy target for the extremist machine.
The al Qaeda senior leadership, Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri, learned from their mistakes in the past in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iraq--where they allowed al Qaeda to be isolated from the mainstream of Islamist politics and then marginalized. In Pakistan they have brilliantly woven alliances with Pakistani groups that share their global jihadist goals and provide protection and space for al Qaeda to survive. They serve in effect as force multipliers for al Qaeda.
President Obama has understood the stakes in Pakistan from the start. But the U.S.-Pakistan relationship today is clouded by the fate of one man, Raymond Davis, who has been arrested for killing two Pakistani men last month in Lahore. We are demanding his release under diplomatic immunity. The jihadists and their allies are demanding he be hung. Lashkar-e-Taiba is leading the chants. The Zardari government is too weak to take them on. The ISI wants U.S. intelligence operations in the country curbed and under its full control as the price for letting Davis go. There is no solution yet in sight.
The stakes here are enormous. Pakistan is on track to be the fifth-largest nuclear weapons state in the foreseeable future, surpassing the United Kingdom. With the new reactors it has built or is building with Chinese help, it will surpass France to become the fourth largest nuclear power in a few years. Just before her death, Ms. Bhutto warned that she could see al Qaeda “marching on Islamabad in two or four years.” By murdering Bhatti this week, al Qaeda showed it is on the streets of Islamabad today, operating with impunity.
Bruce Riedel, a former long-time CIA officer, is a senior fellow in the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. At Obama’s request, he chaired the strategic review of policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009. He is author of the new book Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of the Global Jihad and The Search for Al Qaeda: Its Leadership, Ideology and Future.