WASHINGTON — The CIA believes that Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mahsud and his associates, some linked to Al Qaeda, were responsible for the assassination last month of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, a U.S. intelligence official said Thursday.
"There are strong indications that Baitullah Mahsud was behind the Bhutto assassination," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. "There is certainly no reason to doubt that Mahsud was behind this."
The intelligence official said he could not disclose how the CIA had reached that conclusion, including whether the assessment was based, at least in part, on a telephone call that Pakistani authorities say they intercepted shortly after Bhutto was killed. In that call, a man said to be Mahsud congratulates a cleric who claims that his associates carried out the killing.
Mahsud has denied involvement in the attack on Bhutto on Dec. 27 after a political rally in the garrison city of Rawalpindi. But Mahsud, a tribal leader in northwest Pakistan, has not publicly commented on the purported call.
The CIA assessment concurred with that of Pakistani officials, who have said they believe that Mahsud was most likely behind the assassination, as well as an attack on Bhutto's convoy in October, hours after she returned to Pakistan from a self-imposed eight-year exile.
But an associate of Bhutto's said Thursday that her Pakistan People's Party was deeply skeptical of the CIA's assertions, especially when so little in the way of a forensic criminal investigation has been done. Party officials say that most, if not all, of the evidence in the case was destroyed by police and firefighters who hosed down the site within hours of the shooting and suicide attack, making it virtually impossible to gather evidence to help determine who else might have been involved.
"Whoever is now identified as responsible by state sources, we would need to know how they came to any conclusions, as we are uncomfortable with the cover-up that was done on the ground after Ms. Bhutto's assassination," the party official said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution by Pakistani officials.
Bhutto had contended that the rise of extremism in Pakistan could not have happened without support from government agencies, including the military and the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI. And she said that though Mahsud had reportedly threatened to send suicide bombers against her if she came back to Pakistan, the real danger came from extremist elements within the government that were opposed to her return.
"I'm not worried about Mahsud, I'm worried about the threat within the government," she told the Guardian newspaper of London. "People like Mahsud are just pawns. It is the forces behind them that have presided over the rise of extremism and militancy in my country."
Pakistani officials angrily denied such allegations. And the U.S. intelligence official said, "We don't have information that points to the involvement of the ISI or any other organization within the Pakistan government in the plot."
Robert Grenier, the CIA's station chief in Islamabad, the capital, from 1999 to 2002, said he too believed that "extremists within Pakistan and folks associated with Baitullah Mahsud" were the likely culprits.
One former Pakistani official, however, cautioned that even if Mahsud was involved, that did not mean that elements in the Pakistani army or intelligence agencies did not play a role in the slaying, , even if only to look the other way or help stymie an investigation.
"My view is that this was a combination of elements from the intelligence agencies with people from the extremist groups with whom they have working relationships," said Hassan Abbas, a former official in the administrations of Bhutto and President Pervez Musharraf and author of the book "Pakistan's Drift into Extremism: Allah, the Army and America's War on Terror."
The CIA's conclusions about Mahsud's involvement were first reported in the Washington Post, based on comments made to the newspaper by CIA Director Michael V. Hayden.
The U.S. intelligence official also said Mahsud's organization poses a serious internal threat to Pakistan.
American counter-terrorism officials have said recently that Mahsud has amassed a large force of fighters that has been responsible for potentially dozens of suicide bombings and other serious attacks.
"Mahsud is a die-hard militant with strong ties to Al Qaeda, the Taliban and other terrorist organizations," the U.S. official said. "He and his followers, who operate out of the tribal areas, pose serious security risks inside Pakistan and have to be among the first suspects to look at if terrorist attacks occur there in the future."