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ASSASSINATION IN PAKISTAN: THE LAST RALLY; SUSPECTS

A long and tangled list of enemies

Analysts suspect that Al Qaeda had a hand in the attack, possibly with other extremist groups.

December 28, 2007|Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — It may have been a single assassin who killed former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, but if so, he could have been working with any number of Islamic extremist groups, U.S. intelligence officials and South Asia analysts said Thursday.

Bhutto had returned from eight years of self-imposed exile with a pledge to reform Pakistan in ways that would upset entrenched political interests, powerful fundamentalist religious organizations, and Al Qaeda and the Taliban. She was aligned with the U.S., and vowed to crack down on the increasingly popular radicalism spreading through the country. And she had publicly accused the government's military and intelligence establishments of coddling terrorists.

As a result, the list of people and groups considered Bhutto's archenemies was a long one. But determining who killed her, and why, could be a complicated and confounding investigation, say current and former U.S. officials and analysts. They say it is not likely that someone working alone killed the daughter of a Pakistani political dynasty.

A more likely scenario, they say, is that Al Qaeda was ultimately responsible, because it has long targeted Bhutto and stands to gain the most from the political destabilization that is certain to follow her slaying. If that turns out to be the case, it is also likely that additional extremist organizations were involved, analysts say.

Within Pakistan, Osama bin Laden's global network group has worked closely with more than a dozen radical fundamentalist Islamic organizations in Pakistan that have grown in power and popularity.

Two of them, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad, changed their names to avoid U.S. and Pakistani sanctions after they were designated as terrorist organizations. Other groups include Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan. All are Sunni Muslim-based and oppose Bhutto in part because she was female and Shiite Muslim. Though they have links to Al Qaeda, such Sunni Muslim extremist groups have their own leaders and their own agendas, and potentially thousands of foot soldiers.

Another suspect is Baitullah Mahsud, a Taliban commander operating in Pakistan's tribal areas, who reportedly pledged before Bhutto returned to Pakistan in October to dispatch suicide bombers against her, say current and former U.S. intelligence and counter-terrorism officials. Mahsud has denied that.

Complicating the situation is the fact that many of the extremist groups have ties to Pakistan's political establishment, including elements of the government loyal to President Pervez Musharraf, as well as close ties to the military and its intelligence agencies. Bhutto had long criticized such links, and in the wake of her killing Thursday, some of her supporters accused the government of playing a role. One senior U.S. counter-terrorism official also said Washington suspected that rogue officials within the military or intelligence agencies could have been involved, noting that though there is no evidence, they have detested Bhutto for more than a decade.

U.S. intelligence and counter-terrorism agencies, and groups such as the Sept. 11 commission, have said that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency in particular has cultivated relationships with radical groups, using them as proxies to wage war against India while protecting Pakistan's interests in Afghanistan.

U.S. intelligence officials said they were investigating but could not confirm an initial claim of responsibility for the attack that reportedly came from an Al Qaeda leader. An Italian website said Mustafa Abu al Yazid, Al Qaeda's commander in Afghanistan, told its reporter in a phone call, "We terminated the most precious American asset which vowed to defeat [the] mujahedin."

The website also said the decision to assassinate Bhutto was made in October by Al Qaeda's No. 2 leader, Ayman Zawahiri.

Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for the Directorate of National Intelligence, said authorities were "obviously looking into" such reports but had not yet been able to confirm them.

Even if Al Qaeda does claim responsibility, current and former U.S. intelligence officials said they would be skeptical that it acted without help from Pakistan-based groups, whose members are less likely to stand out.

"We're still early on piecing it together," a U.S. intelligence official said. "There are any number of groups within Pakistan that could have mounted this attack."

In Pakistan, Musharraf blamed Islamic extremists and pledged to redouble efforts to fight them. "This is the work of those terrorists with whom we are engaged in war," he said in a nationally televised speech.

President Bush described the slaying as a "cowardly act by murderous extremists" trying to undermine Pakistan.

White House spokesman Scott Stanzel stopped short of accusing Al Qaeda or the Taliban, but said the attack used methods with which "Al Qaeda is very familiar."

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