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Musharraf-era spy boss in hot seat

Taliban-Afghan-US negotiations is biggest challenge for Pakistan’s new interior minister

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Domestically, he is known to have manipulated Pakistani politics both covertly and overtly, and was instrumental in doing so in his last stint during the era of General Pervez Musharraf who ruled Pakistan from 1999 to 2008. Internationally, he is known to have linkages with jihadist organisations, including al-Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban as well as Kashmir and India-focused groups.

Meet Pakistan’s new federal minister for interior, retired Brigadier Ijaz Ahmed Shah, commonly referred to as Brigadier Shah. For Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government he may be a freshly appointed minister, but he is not new to the power corridors and has long been part of the powerful military establishment.

When Musharraf imposed martial law on October 12, 1999, Brigadier Shah was the director of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in Punjab, Pakistan’s largest and politically dominant province. Thus he became an important ally in the general’s attempt at reshaping the politics of the region.

Shah is reported to have become close to the general after breaking the news of his appointment as chief of army staff in 1998 even before Musharraf got to know. It is said that Shah informed Musharraf about this when the general was on his way to meet then prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who was going to announce his appointment as army chief.

A year later, when Musharraf overthrew Sharif and took power in the bloodless coup of 1999, he made Shah the home secretary of Punjab and set him at ‘political engineering’. Shah embarked on the creation of the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) faction, which was carved out of the-then-existing Muslim League led by Sharif. As Shah initiated this project to create the PML-Q, he is accused of having ordered the picking up of several leading members in Sharif’s party, including his close aides like Senator Pervez Rasheed and Rana Sanaullah.

Many of these political leaders were brutally tortured in secret prisons and safehouses to force a switch in their loyalties and leave Sharif’s party that later came to be known as PML-N. In private conversations, many of these politicians have pointed fingers towards Shah as being the man responsible for carrying out inhumane acts against them.

Shah’s engineering project was a success as he was able to wean away many PML-N loyalists to the PML-Q, which then went on to form the government in 2002 after a general election. It became the political party that justified General Musharraf’s dictatorship until his ouster in 2008, and was, therefore, referred to as the King’s party.

In 2004, when Shah retired from the Pakistani military as a serving officer, it was reported that Musharraf wanted to appoint the Brigadier as high commissioner to Australia as he had family ties there. The proposal was, however, rejected by Australia’s department of foreign affairs. It is believed that the rebuff came because of Shah’s perceived links with terror groups. This is when General Musharraf offered Shah the position of heading the civilian institution of the Intelligence Bureau, which he accepted, becoming its chief on February 25, 2004.

Under Shah, the Intelligence Bureau became Musharraf’s eyes and ears. It reported directly to the military dictator and helped him continue a countrywide ‘political engineering’ project. But it’s not just political manipulation under General Musharraf that Brigadier Shah is known for. He was also the key to the rapid Talibanisation of the tribal belt next to the Pak-Afghan border, when Pakistan joined the so-called War on Terror in Afghanistan, led by the United States of America and its allies post 9/11.

Pakistan has been long accused of playing a double game with the Western powers in the region, whereby on the one hand it publicly supported the American pursuit of terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but on the other hand secretly allowed Taliban sanctuaries on its soil so that the Afghan- focused jihadist groups would survive.

There are many incidents that have been reported since Shah’s time in office that point towards his closeness to what the military refers to as the ‘good Taliban’, given their external focus when it comes to acts of terror.

One such example of his proximity to these groups can be traced to his involvement in the case of kidnapping and killing of American journalist Daniel Pearl who went missing from Karachi in 2002. A British jihadi, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, now on death row in Pakistan, was arrested and convicted of the kidnapping and murder of Pearl after luring him for an interview. Pearl was investigating links between Richard Reid, the infamous and unsuccessful shoe-bomber of 2001, and Pakistani and Afghan jihadist groups. The bomb is said to have been given to Reid by terrorists in the AfPak region.

Sheikh is also known for his involvement in terror activities in Kashmir and was arrested there for this. He was freed by Indian authorities following the hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane in 1999, when the perpetrators demanded his release along with that of Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar and another man in exchange for the hostages.

At a local Pakistani court during the trial over Sheikh’s involvement in Pearl’s murder, the terrorist confessed to having been with Shah, and had apparently surrendered only after spending about a week with him. Shah is said to have convinced Sheikh to give himself up to the police.

The fact that Sheikh has not been executed yet despite being convicted and sentenced to death more than a decade ago goes to show that there was some arrangement between him and Shah.

Shah is not just Sheikh’s handler; his links with other international terrorists have also surfaced in recent years. The new interior minister of Pakistan is accused of linkages with Osama bin Laden and it is believed that he was the man behind the harbouring of the al-Qaeda founder in Pakistan for years before he was found by the Americans in 2011. The allegation was made by the former Pakistani military chief General Khawaja Ziauddin Abbasi, also known as General Ziauddin Butt.

In an interview, the general claimed that Brigadier Shah was the man who helped construct the now-demolished compound where the now-dead terror bigwig is said to have lived for years before being killed in an American raid in May 2011. The compound was constructed in 2005 near the premier military academy in Abbotabad, and bin Laden’s presence so close to the army facility had raised questions about their involvement at the time.

Shah has denied this in public, saying that Butt only made these accusations because he was a rival of General Musharraf, who had sacked him as chief of army staff just hours into the job in 1999, and that Shah’s proximity to Musharraf was why he wanted to embroil them in such a controversy.

The new Pakistan interior minister is also known to have a soft spot for Sunni extremist groups, including the banned Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), and reportedly also called Ahmad Ludhyanvi, the chief of the now-banned and renamed SSP, ‘their man’.

Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, which has been involved in targeting Shias in the country, was banned in the early 2000s by the Musharraf regime, but like other jihadist groups, it has survived by changing names and faces and has only met with a cosmetic crackdown subsequently.

The most incriminating allegation against Shah yet is by the assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who first named him as one of the suspects behind the suicide bombing targeting her on arrival in October 2007 in the city of Karachi. Bhutto survived the attack that left at least 180 people dead. She named him again in a letter made public after her death, saying Brigadier Shah should be investigated if she were assassinated. Bhutto had alleged that Shah was conspiring with terrorists to carry out her assassination. On December 27, Bhutto met the fate she had already predicted and the-then Musharraf government blamed Pakistani terrorist groups. At this time, Brigadier Shah was still heading the Intelligence Bureau (IB) of Pakistan, but retired soon after, in March 2008.

Since then, the former spymaster has been focusing on creating a political career for himself but was unsuccessful until the recent 2018 elections, when he won from his hometown Nankana Sahib, representing Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), the current ruling party in Pakistan. But even his poll victory is mired in controversy and the result has been challenged by rival candidates in the Supreme Court, alleging that he pressured the election commission staff to change the results in the constituency.
In the aftermath of the case against Shah, local politicians say they are being harassed by the police and even military officials who have raided their offices on flimsy grounds of investigating suspicious activities. One such candidate is Saddam Hussain who has been facing inquiries from officials of the military intelligence. He believes Shah has used his political and military influence to target him and other political opponents in his home constituency.

The PTI government did not name Shah as a minister after he won the seat. It was only recently that Shah was named as the federal minister for parliamentary affairs and now, after a cabinet reshuffle, as the federal interior minister. It is widely believed that the move comes at the behest of the Pakistani military because of performance issues with the previous set-up.

This reshuffle and the addition of Shah in the cabinet comes at a time when Pakistan is facing possible blacklisting by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international body for monitoring money laundering and terrorism financing. The FATF has to review by September whether the Imran Khan-led government has done enough to curb money laundering and terror financing, and analysts believe putting someone like Shah as in-charge of the interior ministry raises questions about the PTI government’s commitment, given his reported linkages to terror organisations.

So why bring such a controversial figure to the forefront at such a crucial time? While his past has been murky and rife with allegations, it is also believed that Shah may be the person best suited to take forward the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban, given that the latter have support from Pakistan and the brigadier is someone who has managed them well in the past.

Will he genuinely bring the Afghan Taliban to the table to negotiate with the Afghans and the Americans who want a graceful exit from Afghanistan? This will be one of the biggest tests Shah will face in the coming days. Also, given his past strong-arm tactics of controlling political rivals during the Musharraf era, it is also believed that he may embark on a crackdown on political opposition that Khan and the Pakistan military face. The shape of things to come is indicated by a recent statement from Shah when he threatened violence against political opponents and warned the public not to support any protests.

Taha Siddiqui is an award-winning Pakistani journalist living in exile in France.

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