Arrested Pakistani police guard, right, sits in a police van at the site… (Sabir Kahn, AFP/Getty Images )
Reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan — Zahid Manzoor Bajwa wasn't exactly cop material.
When police in the city of Lahore raided his house and those of associates in 2003, they found hand grenades, timers and loaded pistols. Asked about their arsenal, Bajwa and his friends acknowledged that they were planning to kidnap the son of a wealthy steel mill owner so they could buy enough explosives to kill foreigners.
Somehow, Bajwa's two-year stint behind bars went unnoticed by security officials in Punjab province. In 2009, they made him computer section chief for the Punjab police's intelligence wing, a post that gave him access to investigations and special reports on militant groups, surveillance directives, even security arrangements for VIPs.
Investigators now believe Bajwa downloaded secret data onto a flash drive and relayed it to the Pakistani Taliban, the insurgent group responsible for waves of suicide bombings across the country, said a Punjab security official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on such matters.
"Almost every important and secret document was in his access," the security official said.
Bajwa, under arrest and charged with providing information to terrorists, exemplifies the ease with which extremists can infiltrate the ranks of law enforcement in a country where radical thinking has increasingly crept into mainstream society.
The Jan. 4 assassination of Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer provided the starkest example yet of the danger posed by radicals given a uniform and a gun. Taseer's alleged assassin, Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, was a member of an elite police force and one of the governor's bodyguards. Convinced that his boss had insulted Islam by opposing the country's blasphemy law, Qadri pumped more than 20 bullets into Taseer's back outside an Islamabad restaurant before giving himself up.
Warning signs from police officials in 2004 about Qadri's extremist leanings went ignored, and in 2008 he was assigned to Taseer's security detail.
The cases of Bajwa and Qadri are shots across the bow for a law enforcement community that has been lax about its screening procedures and slow to recognize the threat of extremism seeping into its ranks.
"There's no doubt that such thinking has crept into the police," said Irshad Hussain, a former police chief for the southern province of Baluchistan. "Senior police officials are very worried about this. They never thought such things could happen, and they're perplexed about what should be done."
Police departments and other security agencies lack the money and manpower to carry out psychological evaluations of applicants, experts say. And the country's law enforcement community lacks a national computerized criminal database, making effective background checks impossible.
Usually, screening involves sending a police officer to the applicant's hometown to talk with his relatives, village elders and police. That system can work in villages where the person is known, but it's impractical for people coming from densely populated neighborhoods in cities such as Karachi or Lahore.
Once an officer is on the force, often there is no system in place to detect whether the officer has become influenced by extremists.
"The current level of screening is not geared toward finding out the radicalized tendencies of a person," said a Pakistani intelligence official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "There's a police check at the guy's residence to see whether he has a criminal record or not. Beyond that, there's not much more. It's very basic."
The task of keeping extremists and radicals out of law enforcement is even tougher in northwest Pakistan, the world's nerve center for terrorism.
The Frontier Constabulary, a paramilitary police force that operates across Pakistan, draws its recruits from the northwest part of the country, including villages in the tribal areas where the Pakistani Taliban and a cauldron of other militant organizations control swaths of territory and enjoy varying degrees of sympathy from residents.
In 2008, Pakistani Taliban militants kidnapped Noor Jehan, a member of the Frontier Constabulary, from a tribal area town, said a Pakistani security official who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to discuss the case. Militants held him for 25 days, working on him daily and eventually persuading him to switch sides.
After his release, Jehan was assigned to Islamabad, the capital, where his deployments included the Jordanian and Egyptian embassies and the office of the United Nations' World Food Program.
Jehan told Taliban leaders that their next target should be the WFP office and explained how the bombing should be done: The bomber should dress in a Frontier Constabulary uniform and ask a guard at the gate for permission to use the bathroom. "In this way, he could get inside," said the Pakistani security official.