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News, documents and analysis on violent extremism

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Weeks Before Assassination, Bhutto Complained to U.S. About Security Concerns Regarding Police, Government

Just weeks before Pakistan's former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, she told U.S. State Department officials that Pakistani police had pulled back their protection on her home after a suicide attack on one of her rallies, according to new documents obtained by INTELWIRE through the Freedom of Information Act.

On October 19, 2007, a suicide bomb attack killed 138 and wounded hundreds at a political procession   protesting the regime of then-President Pervez Musharraf. Bhutto, who had been the target of several previous assassination attempts, escaped unharmed.

Bhutto and her husband, current Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari had previously expressed concerns about threats on her life from Pakistani intelligence agencies, which they publicly blamed for the October bombing.

U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Anne W. Patterson called on October 23, 2007, to express her condolences. In the call, Bhutto expressed anger and frustration with the investigation into the bombing and the security being provided to her by the Pakistani government.

"Bhutto insisted that government officials were responsible for the attack and could not be trusted to conduct an independent investigation," a State Department cable summarizing the call reported. She said the government "had not shared any details of the investigation with her," and urged the United States to intervene in the case. She also complained that the government would not allow her personal guards -- "her boys," as the cable described them in quote marks -- to be armed.

On October 26, Bhutto followed up by sending two emissaries to the U.S. embassy in Islamabad to discuss the attack with the American regional security officer. The officer gave Bhutto's representatives the names of three "Pakistani protective agencies with offices in Karachi" that could assist in her protection. The specific contractors were not named in the State Department cable obtained by INTELWIRE.

The representatives told the officer "there was a perception that the police had pulled their protection away from" Bhutto's home in the days following the attack. In response to an inquiry, Pakistani police "assured" the office that they had "simply opened the perimeter up a little to allow more privacy and freedom," but that "the security is still there." The office in charge downplayed Bhutto's concerns, telling her emissaries that they might be mistaking honest differences of opinion about the size of the perimeter with a lessening of protection.

By November 7, Bhutto had the opposite problem, as police barricaded her house in Islamabad and refused to allow her to leave. According to a cable, she was blocked from leaving on all sides of the property with "five lines deep of police in the front, an armored personnel carrier on their right, and supporters clashing with police on their left." A second cable dated November 9 described the situation as "virtual house arrest." 

"Several hundred capital police have surrounded" Bhutto's home, the cable stated. "Up to 1,000" members of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) were arrested in an effort to block a planned PPP demonstration, with thousands of police and roadblocks deployed to prevent a rally in Rawalpindi to protest the declaration of a state of emergency by Musharraf. 

On November 8 and 9, Ambassador Patterson again called Bhutto, this time to urge her to consider canceling a political rally and to stop promoting protests against the government. According to a cable, this was prompted in part by concerns for Bhutto's safety but also "the possible effect her rally and arrest might have on polarization and violence in the country."

Bhutto told the ambassador that she expected attacks on her life in Rawalpindi, where she was eventually assassinated almost two months later in a suicide bombing. A U.N. report later found the Pakistani government "failed profoundly" in its efforts to protect Bhutto in the run-up to her assassination. An investigation into her death continues, amid great challenges.

While the White House publicly called on the government to allow Bhutto out of her home, the ambassador privately urged Bhutto "to take into account the possible political polarization that might ensue if she pursued her plans for a rally" and encouraged Bhutto to pursue a path of "moderation." Bhutto replied that she had to support her party loyalists and their families who had been arrested.

The cable seemed to put the primary blame for the situation on Bhutto.

"Bhutto has managed to back the government into another embarrassing crackdown" the cable read, stating that the government "stupidly" fell into her "trap."

The documents used in this story were obtained from the State Department through a broad Freedom of Information Act request on Bhutto. Please credit INTELWIRE when reporting from these documents.

Hundreds of pages of files were obtained, many of which delve deeply into Pakistan's politic scene, including details about the negotiations that allowed Bhutto to return to Pakistan after years of exile and the release of her husband, now-President Zardari, from prison where he was serving time on corruption charges.

The bulk of the documents can be read in the following two (very large) PDF files:

A few additional cables of interest have been broken out separately below:

Also broken out are two State Department intelligence reports of interest: 

Buy J.M. Berger's book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam


Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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