Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad was murdered last week outside Islamabad, the end of a fearless career reporting on the Af-Pak region. Austin Mackell recalls his encounters with Saleem
Saleem urged us, once it became clear that the bombs were still falling, to push on further south towards the action. The rest of us were not as brave as he, and reluctantly he came back with us to the relative safety of central Beirut.
We stayed in scant contact via email for a few years until Saleem finally got on Facebook, and we could get involved in more detailed discussions again. Despite his rising status as one of the foremost experts on the byzantine intrigues between Pakistan’s military, al-Qaeda and the Taliban, he would find time to offer a floundering young freelancer advice and insight, and to ask after our translator, who he knew I was still in touch with.
Aside from being a great guy, Saleem was a remarkable journalist. He referred to Afghanistan and the troubled border regions as his “backyard” and, despite being kidnapped by the Taliban and held for seven days in November of 2006, he continued his habit of trekking through the mountains of the war-zone for weeks at a time, meeting with Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters. He wrote about them, as about all other players in the deadly Af-Pak vortex, without fear or favour, the most detailed account being his recently published book, Inside Al-Qaeda.
So last week, when I first saw his face on Al-Jazeera English, where he often appeared offering expert opinions, I was initially excited and pleased, ready to learn something. Then I turned up the volume and heard words like “torture” and ”death”.
Saleem’s tortured and beaten body was found on 31 May in a canal about 100 kilometres outside Islamabad, from where he had disappeared two days earlier. He had been on his way to an interview with Pakistan’s Dunya News about a recent story he had written about the possible links between figures in the Pakistan navy and al-Qaeda; a story of particular sensitivity following the attack and takeover of a Pakistani naval base by the group. The article was the first part of a two part report that was never finished.
Human Rights Watch has told the media that Saleem had reported thinly veiled threats from the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence, including being called to the ISI’s headquarters last October where he was “requested” to retract an article in which he alleged that Pakistan had released a high member of the ranking Taliban Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. The article had in turn ”caused a lot of embarrassment for the country”.
HRW also say that before his body was found they heard from anonymous “but credible” sources that he was in the ISI’s captivity. Since then, they have — while referring to the murder as a “mystery” and demanding a full and open investigation — stated that “given the threats from the ISIalleged by Shahzad and a long pattern of similar cases involving the ISI, there is good reason to suspect the ISI’s involvement in his abduction and death”. Other journalists, including Saleem’s Pakistani colleagues, have drawn similar conclusions, in their tributes to him.
Since 2010, 15 Pakistani journalists have been killed. There have been 70 such cases since 2000. In none of these cases have the killers been brought to justice. I believe Saleem was all too aware of the danger he was in, but he chose to face it rather than cower. In doing this, he was not choosing to die, he was choosing to live as fully as was possible.
Saleem is survived by his wife Anita, and their three children. My heart, along with the hearts of many others, goes out to them for their loss.