Roots of Impunity

2. A Death in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa

On the evening of January 17, 2012, a year and four days after Geo TV reporter Wali Khan Babar was gunned down on a busy street in Karachi, Mukarram Khan Aatif, a senior journalist in the tribal region of Pakistan, was offering evening prayers at a mosque near his home in Shabqadar. Two men approached and fired three times, shooting him in the chest and head. One of the bullets passed through Aatif and injured the imam as well. Aatif was pronounced dead at the hospital that night.

Almost immediately Ihsanullah Ihsan, spokesman for Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, which is based in the tribal regions, called journalists in Peshawar to say that Aatif had been told to stop propagandizing against the TTP in foreign media and to start including the group’s perspective in his stories. Aatif had ignored the demands, he said, so the TTP killed him. Ihsan warned that the TTP had named several other journalists to its hit list—and if they didn’t shape up, they would also see their ends.

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The president and the prime minister condemned the killing and offered their condolences to the family. Journalists in the tribal areas were enraged, not just that their friend and colleague was dead, but that the Taliban could kill a journalist who was so fair, and always in contact with them. “We often laughed with Mukarram that he was like a spokesman of the Taliban,” said Shams Momand, a close friend from Mohmand Agency who works for Samaa TV. “He was so popular among the locals and the Taliban—so why would they claim the killing?”

A teacher, poet, and social activist in his mid-40s, Aatif was one of the most senior journalists in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, and he was a role model for colleagues. Aatif began his career some 20 years earlier, writing reports from the tribal areas for an Urdu-language daily and founding a literary monthly. When Deewa Radio, the Pashto-language service of the U.S. government-funded Voice of America, began broadcasting in 2006, Aatif became its local correspondent.

Aatif was involved in the local literary organization and developed a friendship with a fellow poet, Omar Khalid, a young man who would become head of the TTP in Mohmand. They were friends up until the day Aatif was killed. They discussed poetry and, inevitably, Taliban wrath over Aatif’s radio reports. Deewa Radio and Radio Mashaal, the Pashto service of the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, are followed closely in the tribal areas because their programs are among the few devoted to local problems. That importance explains why journalists working at Deewa and Mashaal are trapped in a vise, squeezed by the TTP, the army, and their editors in Washington or Europe. The Taliban object to being called “terrorists,” and protest that their version of events is rarely aired.

“Mukarram recorded the voices and cries of the families of the Frontier Constables who were targeted in a suicide attack, and that was the main reason for the Taliban’s unhappiness with him,” said Ibrahim Shinwari, who also reports for VOA and has come under threat numerous times himself. Shinwari recalled that the Taliban repeatedly warned Aatif that “VOA is in fact the voice of the Americans, and the voice of the militants is not acceptable to VOA.” He added: “Mukarram discussed with me the problem that the militants wanted to give their version of an incident. Yet when the reports were aired on the radio, their version was missing.”

Officially, there is no mystery to Aatif’s death. He is another casualty of the war on terror, Taliban summary executions, and U.S. programs that can put at risk the local people associated with them. But unofficially, many I spoke with do not believe Aatif was killed on the orders of the Taliban or for the publicly stated reasons.

In November 2011, U.S. aircraft struck two Pakistani outposts at Salala, near the border with Afghanistan, killing 24 Pakistani soldiers. Relations between the United States and Pakistan were already abysmal. On January 27, 2011, Raymond Davis, a U.S. contractor who worked for the CIA, gunned down two Pakistani agents on the busy streets of Lahore, claiming he acted in self-defense. The police arrested him and a diplomatic row erupted between the two governments. Eventually the Americans paid blood money to the families, and the Pakistanis released Davis. In the wake of the affair, the ISI and the army tried to bring down Husain Haqqani, then the Pakistani ambassador to the United States, for, among other things, issuing so many visas to U.S. citizens who were part of a vast network involved in the drone program and, it turned out, the operation targeting Osama bin Laden. In May 2011, the United States launched its raid on Abbottabad, not only killing bin Laden, but striking a blow to the honor and pride of the Pakistani Army. Local journalists lost fear and respect for the military.

In late May 2011, militants connected to Al-Qaeda attacked the Mehran naval air base in Karachi, once again humiliating the military. It was time for the intelligence agencies to strike back. Saleem Shahzad, a Pakistani reporter for Asia Times Online who covered the Taliban more closely than any other journalist in the region, and who reported on Al-Qaeda infiltration of the Pakistani Navy, went missing. He was found dead a few days later, his body showing signs of torture.

In September 2011, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, shocked both the United States and Pakistan with his blunt farewell testimony to Congress, declaring that the insurgent Haqqani network in Afghanistan was, in essence, a militia sponsored by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. He also told reporters that Shahzad had been killed on orders of Pakistani Army Chief Ashfaq Kayani and the ISI’s director general at the time, Shuja Pasha. A Pentagon official and close aide to Mullen told me, “What you saw on September 20 was his own bitterness and disappointment over Pakistan’s refusal to change the way they do business.”

The summer had seen the most lethal and brazen attacks emanating from Pakistan. There was the Haqqani network’s attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul. There was the Wardak truck bomb that wounded 77 American soldiers on the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. “That infuriated him,” the Mullen aide said. “We told the Pakistanis that a truck bomb was coming our way, and they pledged to do something about it and didn’t. And then the killing of Shahzad. He was furious, pounding his desk. He called out the ISI and government for sanctioning the killing. At the end he felt betrayed by General Kayani and the Pakistani military establishment.”

Then, with relations between the two countries at a low, came Salala and the U.S. killing of Pakistani soldiers. The Pakistanis demanded an apology and cut off supply routes for NATO forces. The U.S. military conducted an investigation, although the Pakistanis refused to cooperate and disputed the findings. After a seven-month standoff, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed regret in a statement that said “mistakes” had led to the attack.

Mukarram Khan Aatif filed early reports on the Salala attack for Deewa Radio and took part in what are called two-ways, which are live exchanges with the station’s studio journalists. Local residents had told Aatif there was a Taliban hideout just two kilometers from the Pakistani checkposts, said a tribal area journalist, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The Taliban’s supposed proximity to the army—“under their noses,” as the journalist put it—was highly sensitive information because it could have provided some justification for the U.S. attack. Soon after, the journalist said, Aatif began receiving threats from the Pakistani Army, security agencies, and the Taliban, all angered by what had aired. Aatif’s relatives and friends in Mohmand confirmed that he received threats from militants and security officials immediately after the Deewa reports were broadcast.

No archive of Aatif’s reports on Salala is available, according to Deewa. Nafees Takar, chief of the Deewa service, said reports typically expire within 24 hours and that no reports are archived for more than a month. Spozhmai Maiwandi, director of VOA’s South Asia division, said Aatif’s Salala reports explained the geography of the area but did not mention a Taliban presence. Deewa officials did not respond to CPJ’s repeated queries seeking information on what was said by the station’s studio journalists during their live two-way exchanges with Aatif.

Known as a careful and savvy reporter, Aatif might never have intended to mention the proximity of the Taliban in his Deewa reports. But the live two-way exchanges are not always in the control of the field reporter. Studio journalists for U.S.-backed news agencies, who are conducting the two-ways from the safety of their offices, often veer into sensitive material or ask provocative questions that can pose trouble for those working in the field, according to a number of reporters.

Over the course of several interviews with different sources, including an official with the U.S. National Security Council, I was told a similar version of what may have led to Aatif’s murder. These sources not only linked Aatif’s murder to the Salala reports, they said the Taliban had not acted on their own.

“The claim of his death was accepted by militants,” said the tribal area journalist, “but according to my information, the ISI were involved in his death.” When I asked him why the Taliban took responsibility, he said, “Saleem Shahzad was killed by the agency. Everyone knows it, and the agency took the blame. It might be the reason that, for the first time, the Taliban claimed responsibility for the killing of a journalist. If they didn’t, the journalists would blame the ISI and protest across the country.”

He said it was uncharacteristic of the Taliban to take responsibility for the murder of a journalist. “Before Mukarram, 11 tribal journalists were killed by unknown persons. I know the militants killed them, but they never accepted responsibility.”

I asked him what he thought happened. “Everyone knows that the ISI and Taliban have close links,” he said. “It’s a fact. Hundreds of army men up to the rank of colonel and major are working and operating in the ranks of Taliban and have long hair and long beards. It could be an army man or agency man working in the ranks of Taliban. Or they could just tell the Taliban to do it.”

Another colleague of Aatif told me that some time after the murder, a Taliban spokesman in Mohmand Agency told local journalists that the Taliban were helpless, that the order to kill Aatif came from “above.”

I wrote to the Taliban with the help of a Pakistani journalist and told them the theory circulating about Aatif’s death. Here, in full, is their email response:

Miss Rubin, first of all following Footsteps of our Holy Prophet Muhammad (May Allah be Pleased with him) i Invite you to embrace Islam, the religion of Peace & Prosperity and it assures you success in life and hereafter.

Now coming to your question, everyone knows that we are striving to implement Islamic Law in Pakistan & whole world. We respect Human life. We Killed Mukkaram Khan Atif and claimed responsibility for it. Reason was that he wasn’t giving us any coverage while reporting claims of our enemies which is clear breach of Journalistic norms. Instead he was a part of Mission by government and always tried to prove us terrorists, which we are not. We claim that he was a Spy. We issued him warning many times. We also had and yet have reservations on Institute for whom he worked and we may Target it in Future, infect we will target any Journalists who will violate the practice of Fair and just journalism.

We believe in the Freedom of Journalism.



Central Spokesman TTP

A journalist from the tribal areas who knows the Taliban wondered whose response this really was, and who might have dictated it. Was it the same people who gave the order to kill Aatif? But even as I asked him these questions, he said, “We all know who killed Mukarram, but we cannot say.” Or rather they cannot say on the record.

When I asked the ISI about allegations of agency involvement in Aatif’s murder, a Pakistani security official told me: “What can I say about that accusation? A person’s beliefs are his personal beliefs. He can believe the Easter bunny lays eggs or that Saint Nick climbs down the chimney. But this is totally unsubstantiated.” I also asked the security official about the supposed proximity of the army and Taliban bases. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, responded with his own question: “The post was there to prevent cross-border activity. Why would we allow a Taliban base right next to us?”

The obvious answer is that the Taliban have been an asset of the Pakistani security establishment for some time. The soldiers on the border are from the Frontier Corps, which is composed mainly of Pashtuns from the tribal regions. They often sympathize with the Taliban or are intimidated into helping them. Invariably they look the other way when the Taliban are crossing.

A U.S. military officer involved in the Salala attack told me that a small team of U.S. Special Forces and about 120 Afghan commandos were doing a night raid on a village in Afghanistan when they took fire from a ridgeline on the Pakistani border. The Special Forces team called in close air support that included an AC-130 gunship loaded with firepower including rounds of bullets the size of Coke bottles. He said the Special Forces team on the ground and others back at base camp tried to find out if there were Pakistani soldiers on the border; they were told there were not. Separately, a Pakistani liaison officer working with Afghan and American counterparts was trying to find out who was shooting at the Pakistani border posts. Somehow, neither side got the right answer for about an hour and 45 minutes, until an American liaison officer who happened to be in Pakistan learned that Pakistani soldiers were under attack from an AC-130.

The U.S. military officer said that about a dozen undeclared insurgents were killed in addition to the 24 Pakistani soldiers. It’s possible, he said, that if U.S. forces had information earlier about the presence of Pakistani soldiers they might not have had aircraft chase down and kill the fleeing men. He did not, however, second guess the decision to call in close air support. And he was convinced that either the insurgents were firing on U.S. forces with the Pakistani soldiers looking on, or that they were firing together.

I also spoke to a U.S. official with the National Security Council who put his own interpretation on the episode. “The Frontier Corps are all Pashtuns sympathetic to the Taliban, and they turn a blind eye to the Taliban and the U.S. guys know that. So they liberally used the rules of engagement to fire back for over an hour and a half. They followed the shooters as they tried to escape from the outpost to ensure they were killed,” he said. “Add this to the list of things that happen when you leave the army in the field for so long.”

The U.S. security official said he, too, believed that Pakistani intelligence was behind Aatif’s murder. But there is no direct evidence and, likely, there never will be. Without a formal investigation, without any judicial process, there will be no case, and no one who lives and works in the tribal region is going to come forward. What we are left with is anonymous conjecture and the experience of journalists and locals who know how things work, have a history in the region, and can compare past killings with the present ones. Everyone knows by now that the Taliban and the ISI have links, that there are “good, useful” Taliban and “bad” Taliban in the eyes of the Pakistanis. The Taliban, too, know they are expendable. Sometimes they dance carefully with their ISI handlers, and sometimes they rebel. They can be hired to kill for next to nothing, so no one will ever know who gave the trigger order. But the red line is clear: Do not report on the links between the Pakistani military, ISI, and their assets. It’s against the perceived national interest.

There is a pattern to the intimidation of journalists in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, and it is a microcosm of what goes on around the country. Journalists have sources among the army, the agency, the militants, and at any moment they can wander too deeply into the maze of “security.”

“The ISI has so many people within the press corps, within the media who work with them, who are on their payroll,” said a journalist from the tribal areas who left the country under threat. “In most of the cases it’s just to make contacts, and both sides help each other. Once, a friend of mine came over to my house with an ISI guy who had moved to the analysis wing. I asked him for contacts in the media wing and after some time he asked if I expected money if he introduces me to media people. I said, no, I just needed contacts. I was surprised how openly he offered me money. He said, ‘We have so many people on our payroll.’”

The journalist continued: “I was introduced to a colonel from Waziristan. Sometimes we would meet and he was helpful. He would give me a lot of general advice of what was going on in the tribal areas. But then he asked me to turn over sources to him that he wanted for his own purposes. I couldn’t do that. I gradually distanced myself from that guy and thought I don’t need what he gives me. They come closer to you and if you don’t listen to them anymore you are in trouble.”

For the press in the tribal areas, the 2009 murder of Musa Khankhel, who worked for The News and Geo TV, symbolizes the ease with which one can kill a journalist, and the impunity enjoyed by anyone who does. During the army’s 2009 operations against the Taliban of Swat, who had taken over the region, Khankhel arrived in Islamabad complaining to his bosses at Geo that the army was punishing him for his reports by barring him from operations and news conferences. Geo had to take him off the air, and Khankhel retaliated by publishing screeds against the army in other outlets. He was then kidnapped and beaten.

“He came to me and said, ‘Record my statement,’” recalled Hamid Mir, who was Khankhel’s supervisor at the time. Mir published Khankhel’s statement in his column in The News. The head of the internal wing of the ISI assured Mir nothing would happen to Khankhel, but a few days later Khankhel called from Swat. “He told me the ISI would kill him and blame the Taliban,” Mir said. “Then he called me again and said, ‘They’ve decided to assassinate someone from Geo.’ I told him not to leave the hotel. I called the managing director of Geo in Karachi. An hour later [Khankhel] was killed with 32 bullets. The message? ‘Don’t badmouth us.’”

When I asked the Pakistani security official about Mir’s accusations, he said, “Let him interpret what he wants to. But to the best of my knowledge we don’t indulge in that kind of activity.”

Killing or threatening? I asked. “Both,” he said.

I told him I was surprised to hear that, given the number of journalists who feel threatened by the ISI. He stood by the claim nevertheless, and countered that journalists listen to “reason and logic.”

“When I talk to someone,” he said, “I talk with reason and logic and give my point of view. You want to buy it? Fine with me. You don’t want to buy it? Fine with me.” He said he could not speak for everyone at the ISI. This was just how he conducted his own meetings. Then again, if you encourage a journalist to buy your point of view, and you are with the ISI, your words carry far greater implications than those of an average citizen.

Mir, who was often accused in the past of having too close ties with the ISI and militants, told me, “I used to tell colleagues, ‘Don’t trust the Taliban and you’ll reduce the threat 50 percent. Maybe the state institutions are better.’ We used to think they were on the same side as us to get rid of extremists, but that was our miscalculation,” he says now. In fact, the agency’s philosophy is not that different in its view of killing than that of the Taliban. As Mir told me, “Retired agency officials tell me, ‘We believe that killing a human being for the protection of the larger national interest is not a bad thing.’”

From the military’s point of view, why would commanders want real reporting to emerge during their operation in Swat? It would expose too much about the army, particularly the ISI’s complicity in the rise of the Swat Taliban, and it would undermine their propaganda. A BBC editor told me that in 2009, the network was running FM broadcasts in Charsadda near Mohmand. “The military shut it down after the Swat operation in 2009. They told us, ‘We are running a propaganda campaign in Pakistan and anything that goes against that screws up this campaign.’” Tellingly, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America do not even have transmitters or towers in Pakistan. “Even our transmitters are in Muscat,” in Oman, said the BBC editor. “There’s no mobile, no FM, no television in FATA. Until we have a strong media run by the tribesmen there is no way out of the poverty, illiteracy, and militancy.”

The killing of Musa Khankhel was not the only journalist fatality to occur during the Swat operations. In August 2009, Janullah Hashimzada, an Afghan journalist who reported for The Associated Press, CNN, Al-Arabiya, and Shamshad, a Pashto-language Afghan TV station, was shot dead in a bizarre ambush. He was on a passenger coach driving through Khyber Agency when four gunmen driving a white sedan, the standard intelligence agency vehicle, intercepted the bus. They forced the bus driver out and then walked down the aisle and shot Hashimzada in the forehead, killing him on the spot. “Janullah was a very good friend of mine,” said Daud Khattak, a journalist from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa who is now working for RFE/RL in Prague. “Just a few days before he was killed he interviewed the Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid, and in his story he said they interviewed him in the Hyatabad area of Peshawar.” In other words, Mujahid was openly living in one of the main settled cities of Pakistan. “We told him it would be a problem,” Khattak said. “Zardari was on his U.S. visit at the time.”

The consensus among many journalists is that Hashimzada was another victim of an agency killing. To them, the pattern is obvious.

When a journalist airs a fact that embarrasses the military or the intelligence apparatus, an official will visit, call, warn, and in some cases, if it happens too often, kill the individual.

When I asked the ISI about the Hashimzada murder, the security official said: “I haven’t heard any such story.”

“Which part? The killing of Janullah Hashimzada or the accusation that the ISI killed him,” I asked.

“Both,” he said. “I don’t know about this incident.”

Sometimes the offending piece of information is any information at all. Shams Momand, who works for Samaa TV, has been navigating these tricky waters for years because he, like Aatif, comes from Mohmand Agency. In 2011, the army was claiming to have swept Mohmand clean of Taliban and returned life to normal. Anyone who lived there knew the reality. The bazaars were still closed. Roads were still closed.

“So I reported that the locals face fear and their businesses and activities are banned by the Taliban,” Momand said. “After that the army banned me from going with them. They want us to report that everything is OK.” In fact, it’s not. The evening before I met Momand, the Taliban had destroyed a school; while we spoke, he received a phone call that an IED had just gone off on a local road.

If exposing unwanted truths can be fatal, being employed by an American or Western media outlet or research institution incurs risk as well. Many journalists have stopped using their names in reports. Riaz Gul, who is based in Islamabad for Radio Mashaal, told me that in March 2012 he got a call from a TTP spokesman giving him news of an attack in Swat. When we met in Islamabad, Gul recounted the conversation. “He told me, ‘You Mashaal people should air our voices; otherwise we know how to deal with you. All you people at Mashaal became a party and are not impartial, so please cover us as you cover other people like the police and agencies. This is your duty.’ I said, ‘We are doing our job. We can’t do anything if we send our report to the head office; it’s up to them whether they like to put it on air or not.” The Pakistani establishment knows the Taliban are putting this kind of pressure on journalists, but they sanction it by doing nothing about it.

For most journalists, in fact, the intelligence agency’s own pressure is far more sinister.

In March 2012, I met with a journalist from the tribal areas who was working for Radio Mashaal in Islamabad. He was so spooked by months of harassment by the agency that he finally quit. He seems to have caught the attention of intelligence officials not just for his affiliation with a Western radio station but also for his research papers for U.S. institutes linked to the government or military.

Shortly before I left Pakistan, I met with Safdar Dawar, president of the Tribal Union of Journalists, which plays a vital role in FATA. One of the problems is that virtually no organization is allowed in the tribal areas. “Here in Islamabad you have high court, ministries, political parties, human rights activists, social activists. But in the tribal areas, NGOs are not allowed,” Dawar said. “There’s no power for human rights groups, no child labor laws, or anti-corruption, only the TUJ. But the intelligence does not like the media because then [intelligence] cannot act so freely.” He quoted a saying about the tribal region: “FATA has military, militancy, and media—and sometimes the first two get together against the third.”

The media do not belong to the people of the tribal areas, either. They are basically foreign-owned. The Taliban run illegal radio stations, but the government will not issue licenses to ordinary citizens for radio stations—which leads one to all kinds of conspiracy theories if you’re a citizen in FATA. “There is no local media. It’s banned,” Dawar said. “For that, we are told, we have to change the constitution.”

(Photo by AP)

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