No Survivors: Three Decades After the Crash of PAK-1

MIN READJul 27, 2018 | 18:13 GMT

Photograph of newspaper reporting the crash of PAK-1


On August 17, 1988, PAK-1 crashed near Bahawalpur, Pakistan. Those on board the Pakistani presidential aircraft included President Zia-ul-Haq and multiple members of his joint chiefs of staff. United States Ambassador Arni Raphel and U.S. Army Brigadier General Herbert Wassom were also on board. There were no survivors.

In this episode of the Stratfor Podcast, Chief Security Officer Fred Burton reflects back on the crash with South Asia Analyst Faisel Pervaiz and discusses his role on the small State Department team sent to investigate.

Then in part two of the podcast, Stratfor Vice President of Tactical Analysis Scott Stewart offers an update on Stratfor Threat Lens, our protective intelligence solution for companies, organizations and government agencies operating around the world.

Related Reading

Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent by Fred Burton

Lessons from Old Case Files, a series by Fred Burton on Stratfor Worldview

Learn more about Stratfor Threat Lens

Spymaster by Brad Thor

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Fred Burton [00:00:00] Hello, I'm Fred Burton, and this episode of the Stratfor Podcast is brought to you by Spymaster. The latest audiobook from number one New York Times bestselling thriller author Brad Thor. Take a white-knuckle thrill ride with Navy Seal, turned covert counter-terrorism operative Scot Harvath as he defends freedom by any means necessary. The Spymaster audiobook is as current as tomorrow's headlines. Brad Thor's Spymaster is available now on CD and for download wherever audiobooks are sold. This was a catastrophic event for Pakistan. They had just lost not only their president, but cabinet level personnel that were aboard the aircraft too. There was a lot of suspicions, a lot of finger-pointing, and a tremendous amount of saber-rattling.

Ben Sheen [00:01:06] Welcome to the Stratfor Podcast focused on geopolitics and world affairs from stratfor.com. I'm your host, Ben Sheen. On August 17th, 1988, PAK-1 crashed near Bahawalpur, Pakistan. Those onboard the Pakistani presidential aircraft included President Zia-ul-Haq, and multiple members of his joint chiefs of staff. United States Ambassador Arnie Raphel and US Army Brigadier General Herbert Wassom were also onboard. There were no survivors. Stratfor Chief Security Officer Fred Burton remembers the day well. 30 years ago, just three years into his service as a counter-terrorism agent, the US State Department dispatched him to investigate the crash. In this episode of the Podcast, Burton sits down with Stratfor South Asia Analyst Faisel Pervaiz to reflect on that experience and the questions that still linger to this day. Thanks for joining us.

Faisel Pervaiz [00:02:02] I'm Faisel Pervaiz, and today it's my pleasure to be joined by Fred Burton for a conversation that involves a mysterious plane crash, the death of a dictator, and the final battle of the Cold War. Fred, thanks for joining me today.

Fred Burton [00:02:15] Thanks for agreeing to do this, Faisel. It should be fun.

Faisel Pervaiz [00:02:18] It's really my pleasure, Fred, thank you. Fred, as some of our listeners may be able to guess, I'm of course, talking about the plane crash that killed Pakistani President Zia-ul-Haq in August of 1988. Now at the time, you were a young agent with the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service. I thought Fred, that before we dive into the discussion, maybe you can set some context here for us in terms of what it was like to be working as an agent in the Cold War, and also, if you could maybe describe very quickly what exactly does the Diplomatic Security Service do?

Fred Burton [00:02:57] Sure, I'd be happy to. Well first, the Diplomatic Security Service was founded in 1916. It actually began as the Bureau of Secret Intelligence for the State Department, so it's got somewhat of a fascinating history that runs through several different time periods in our nation's history. In the 1980s, we had a very small counter-terrorism branch that was responsible for the investigation of global terrorist events, primarily directed towards US diplomatic missions, US foreign service personnel, but then it also invariably included attacks against Americans overseas in any capacity. Our small, little branch spent the better part of the 1980s, Faisel, doing nothing but going from terrorist attack, to terrorist attack, and that included events like the Rome Vienna airport massacre by Abu Nidal, the Beirut Embassy bombings, and numerous hijackings and plane crashes. In essence, you were living out of a suitcase in a time period when there was no internet, no cell phones. Everybody had old-fashioned Motorola beepers and rotary dial phones on their desk.

Faisel Pervaiz [00:04:30] Another era, really. As I was just preparing for this conversation, I was reading through your book Ghost, and you actually write a few chapters in that book about this exact incident we're going to talk about today. What I thought I'd do, Fred, is I actually thought I'd read a quick passage from the book to kind of set the context, and then maybe you can tell us a bit more of what you were experiencing and what was going on in your mind.

Fred Burton [00:04:53] Fire away.

Faisel Pervaiz [00:04:55] Here we go. It says, "From my desk behind the big, blue door, I reread the cable with a sinking feeling. Pakistan's senior governmental and military leaders are all dead. Zia barely held the country together with terror and an iron rule when he was alive. With him dead, Pakistan could dissolve into total chaos with nukes. And all of this is going down at ground zero of the biggest Cold War conflict since Vietnam." Fred, in this moment, you just received a cable basically giving you a message that you need to get to Pakistan very quickly. What was going on in your mind at that point when you're reading this message?

Fred Burton [00:05:40] How I could try to talk someone else into going. I knew that invariably, that my name would be called for this because by this period of time, I had been a agent for three years, which seemed like a lifetime because we had had so many incidents during that time period. I knew that I would be the one going, and you do what you have to do in those momenta, Faisel. You place a call home. You leave a message on the voicemail at home, which in those days, was an old-fashioned recorder. And you said, "Hey, I'm going on a trip. I don't know when I'll be back, but see you when I return." You don't mention where you're going, and you have your go bag in the office that you have some clothes, and you head to Andrews Air Force Base, which was our departure point on a special air mission called a SAM mission, so the trip begins there.

Faisel Pervaiz [00:06:43] Fred, basically, you get on a flight and you basically touch down in Germany, right?

Fred Burton [00:06:51] That's correct. From Andrews Air Force Base, myself and another agent from my group boarded a huge C-5A Galaxy, which was at the time the largest aircraft that the Air Force flew. We flew from Frankfurt Rhine-Main to Chaklala Air Force Base in Islamabad, which was the military side of the commercial airport there.

Faisel Pervaiz [00:07:20] You write here that, "Zia was our closest ally in South Asia. He spearheaded our covert war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. It is through Pakistan that all our weapons, money and ammunition flowed to the Mujahideen. Now, just as the Soviets have cried uncle and started pulling out of Afghanistan, the key architect of our victory has been burned to ashes." Now Fred, you and I frequently talk about the US-Pakistan relationship, and obviously today, it's not in a very good place. For our readers and subscribers, they're aware that if we dial the clock back three decades, in 1988, the US and Pakistan are cooperating in this final battle of the Cold War, whereas you wrote, the US is offering assistance that is being funneled through Pakistan to aid the anti-Soviet Mujahideen in Afghanistan. Pakistan plays a key role, and of course, President Zia-ul-Haq played the key role in that, as well. Then on top of that, there's another element which certainly, it's a dominant theme in the coverage of South Asia, and that is Pakistan's rivalry with India. India, of course, is a much bigger country that has a stronger military. Pakistan and India in this time have of course developed a nuclear capacity in which they can attack each other with those weapons. In any case, you land in Pakistan. Then what's kind of the next step here? You land in Pakistan, and soon thereafter are you taken directly to the crash site, or you first interact with some of your Pakistani counterparts? What is that interaction like?

Faisel Pervaiz [00:09:01] Because obviously, these investigations are complex. They take a lot of time, and having cooperation with different teams is essential. What was that dynamic like for you, Fred?

Fred Burton [00:09:14] Well, first, it's hard to think about this in today's 24/7 news cycle, and social media, and Twitter, and Facebook, and so forth, Faisel. But the entire flight over, I'm thinking that you have no concept of really what you're getting yourself into until you get there. Literally, the covert support for the Afghan Mujahideen was a highly compartmented operation inside the beltway. I'm convinced that something like that could not be done today because of just leaks, and social media, and so forth. But we had little visibility. Although we were highly cleared above top secret, so to speak, we had no need to know exactly what was going on at that time period. Literally, you're thrown into this mess where you're trying to understand the geopolitics while you're there because you're not reading the cable traffic, as we called it in those days, back in Washington. This was something that was very tightly controlled by the CIA and the National Security Council at the time. Our mission was to figure out what caused President Zia's plane, the C-130 to go down. There's a lot of unknown variables, and you're kind of flying by the seat of your pants. You're getting up to speed and getting briefings, and then when we landed there in Pakistan, we had some very tense meetings with very senior Pakistani military officials. Predominantly, the Air Force. Also, the political dynamics of that were most interesting because Zia was Army, and his pilots were Air Force, and so you could just kind of cut the tension in the air, and you could sense it and feel it.

Fred Burton [00:11:09] It's kind of hard to describe, but I think everybody, to include you and all of us, and Joshua working the boards here that's been in these kinds of meetings where you just know that there's something else going on, and you really can't put your finger on it, but you know something's just not right.

Ben Sheen [00:11:28] We'll get back to Fred Burton and Faisel Pervaiz's conversation about the 1988 crash of Pakistan's presidential aircraft in just one moment. But if you'd like to learn more about Burton's experience investigating the PAK-1 crash, be sure to pick up a copy of his book Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent. We'll include a link in the show notes. If you'd like to hear his insights and experiences on a wide range of other issues related to security and international affairs, you can find many of his reflections collected at Stratfor Worldview under the Lessons from Old Case Files series section. If you're not already a Stratfor Worldview member, you can register for free limited access, or learn more about complete access to our analysis through individual, team and enterprise subscriptions at Worldview.Stratfor.com/subscribe. Now, back to our conversation about the crash of PAK-1, 30 years later.

Faisel Pervaiz [00:12:26] You have an investigative mind, and you're obviously very keen in being able to ask what are the right questions to get to the bottom of something? There's a point in the book where you talk about how you arrive in sort of this desert. Like a desert. Your words were, "There's nothing but a vast and empty sea of sand and reddish brown dirt off the runway." What I wonder is that when you're approaching a crash site, Fred, what is your mental checklist? What are the questions that are going through your mind?

Fred Burton [00:12:57] What are some of the things that you want answered and that you're going to look for first? Well, the first thing you're looking for when you arrive on the site, which we ultimately did. We took a C-130 Hercules, which is interestingly, exactly like the one that had crashed from Islamabad to Bahawalpur, Pakistan. Once we got there, the first thing that I'm taking into account going up to the scene, is the weather. It's hot. It's sunny. There's not a cloud in the sky. You sense the weather's not a variable. You kind of sense that. You don't sense that that's going to be a factor. The plane took off in bright daylight. And then as you approach the actual crash site, what you first see is to paint a picture for our listeners, is you have a very sandy terrain which looks a lot like rural west Texas, and sagebrush is blowing around, and dust devils. Then all of a sudden you see a very noticeable outline of an aircraft that has hit the sand. You could actually see the wings, where they hit. My initial assessment was the plane was intact when it hit because you could physically observe that. It's not rocket science at the time. You just knew that the chances of this aircraft exploding in midair had not occurred, therefore the plane went down intact. That helps you think a little bit about next steps, once you see that.

Faisel Pervaiz [00:14:43] In terms of witnesses, Fred, wasn't there a shepherd nearby that you guys interact with, and he kind of motions to you that the plane, almost like a rollercoaster, was kind of going up and down in the sky?

Fred Burton [00:14:57] That was somewhat amazing, Faisel, because I digress back to my old uniformed police days before I was an agent, and I told the Pakistani Intelligence Service, minders that was with us, I said look. We need to do what we call a neighborhood canvas. We need to talk to people to see if anybody saw the plane go down. They agreed, and were fully cooperative, and low and behold, we stumbled upon an old shepherd. A very old man. I can visualize him in my mind as we're talking about this, and he didn't speak a lick of English, obviously, so we were going through our Pakistani spook handler. He was translating for us. The old shepherd got very animated and started moving his arm up and down like giving us a rollercoaster kind of motion. He had witnessed this unbelievable event, and he got very animated and agitated in showing this. It told me at the time that the aircraft was out of control, to some capacity and went down, which explained why it went down intact. Then of course, there was a huge fire and explosion once it hit.

Faisel Pervaiz [00:16:21] Fred, I guess my final question here actually involves going back to India and Pakistan, and the rivalry. Because one thing which stood out to me when I was reading the book was how the FBI was not sent to this investigation site. Why was that, Fred?

Fred Burton [00:16:41] Well, I did not know it at the time, and again, this is another one of the facts. We launched within 24 hours of the plane crash, and I learned subsequently that the White House, the National Security Council had made a decision that if they dispatched the FBI, the immediate reaction by the world would be that America, the United States, suspected some sort of foul play. That by sending the FBI, it notes a criminal investigation, therefore, I guess I was the path of least resistance, or the fall guy, so to speak, to go out and try to figure out what happened here. That was the interesting political dynamics that take place, which in retrospect, makes sense because of the geopolitics between India and Pakistan. Look, this was a catastrophic event for Pakistan, and they had just lost not only their president, but their entire cabinet level group of personnel that were aboard the aircraft, too. There was a lot of suspicions, a lot of finger pointing, a lot of initial thoughts that India might have been behind this. A tremendous amount of saber-rattling, Faisel, that I'm only glad I did not see how bad it was. I was only told about all of this upon returning to Washington a few weeks later.

Faisel Pervaiz [00:18:11] Fred, so what began with this frantic cable, telling you of this fatal plane crash, leads to an investigation which ultimately ends in a report. What conclusions did you draw from your investigation?

Fred Burton [00:18:29] Well, I would love for listeners to pick up a copy of my book Ghost, to figure out what happened, but I'll give you a teaser. At the end of the day, we agreed that there would be one report. That the Pakistani government would issue the report. That our internal findings and investigative help would be part and parcel to that. The accident board that the Pakistanis put together attributed the crash to a probable criminal act, and/or sabotage.

Faisel Pervaiz [00:19:06] I will have to vouch for you, Fred, that going through Ghost, it's a fun read. If anything, it really put me in the driver's seat of what these events are. As I take a step back and I look at sort of the broader geopolitical landscape, you look at India and Pakistan today, obviously these two countries remain antagonistic towards each other. They have a rivalry, they have nuclear weapons, they have military capabilities that are designed against the other. When I look at the United States and Pakistan, which is sort of the subtext of what you're talking about in the book, that relationship has really hit the rocks. And remember that at the beginning of this year, the very first tweet that President Trump sent out was actually criticizing Pakistan. In some sense, this dynamic of Pakistan projecting power into Afghanistan through proxies continues, and the US is still trying to manage that, and so we go onto another day. Fred, fascinating conversation. Thank you very much for joining me today. I really appreciate it.

Fred Burton [00:20:15] Thanks for doing this, Faisel.

Faisel Pervaiz [00:20:16] My pleasure. Thank you.

Ben Sheen [00:20:20] Many thanks to Stratfor's Faisel Pervaiz and Fred Burton for taking the time to reflect back on the 1988 crash of PAK-1, and the US State Department investigation that followed. I also recently had a chance to sit down with one of Fred Burton's colleagues from his time at the US State Department, Stratfor's Vice President of Tactical Analysis Scott Stewart, and we talked about some of the latest offerings from our Stratfor Threat Lens team. Threat Lens is a resource we provide to help corporations, international organizations, and government agencies identify, anticipate, measure and mitigate threats to their operations around the globe. With me today in the Stratfor studio I have Scott Stewart, who's going to be talking with me a little bit about Stratfor Threat Lens. Scott, thanks for joining me today.

Scott Stewart [00:21:04] Oh, thanks for having me on, Ben. It's great to be here and talking to you and our audience.

Ben Sheen [00:21:09] Absolutely. Scott, for people who aren't necessarily familiar with Stratfor Threat Lens, can you give us a quick overview of what Stratfor Threat Lens is?

Scott Stewart [00:21:18] Threat Lens was an attempt by the company to really increase the coverage we were giving to protective intelligence type topics. We've been doing that at Stratfor, for decades now. But we really wanted to increase the amount of coverage of these topics such as terrorism and insurgency, organized crime, other kinds of business espionage risks, and really business continuity problems, and really provide that to empower corporate security directors, and other that are concerned with risk and security to be able to do their jobs better.

Ben Sheen [00:21:54] It's been a real success in the way you've been able to take a lot of this security coverage that we used to have on Stratfor, break it out into this very unique product that is certainly essential in the way that a lot of security professionals conduct themselves on a day-to-day basis. It's about to get a lot more special, isn't it? With the release of the next iteration of Stratfor Threat Lens.

Scott Stewart [00:22:13] One of the things that we really try to think about when we're looking at the Threat Lens material is understand that what we're writing and what we're providing to the clients is really a tool to start a dialogue with them. We really want to provide them with information, but at the same time, it's a jumping off point for them to engage with us and with our analyst team about topics that are of interest to them in that realm. We've always tried to be responsive to their needs, and because of that, we've gone through and kind of put out the second version of Threat Lens to make it just a little bit more accessible. But it's also customizable, which is huge. If that's really your interest, you can go to the analysis page first. If you are more interested in what's going on in a specific country, you can go to the risk dashboard and look at the specific countries that you selected there, or really go to our threat monitoring tab and just have global situation awareness of items that are happening across the globe.

Ben Sheen [00:23:15] I know you're being a little modest when you say redesigned, because there's been a huge amount of work behind the scenes to really tailor this to what the customer wants and needs. It's the best way to get our refined product to them in an actionable and timely way. What are some of the features that you're really excited about, Scott, on this latest iteration of Threat Lens?

Scott Stewart [00:23:35] Well, one of the things, and actually some of it's going to be a little bit invisible, but really, even in the analysis tab where the in-depth stuff is, we've started changing the way that we're writing, quite honestly. We're trying to put more of the takeaways in the headlines so that the readers can know right away what's up front. We're trying to put bulleted why is this important up at the top. I mean, most of our clients are very busy. They're getting hit by a lot of information. This gives them the ability to say this is something I'm interested in. I want to read more. They can bookmark it, obviously. Send it to their library to read later on, if it something that's not necessarily, I need to read it now, but I'm interested in. That's really one of the things. It's been that customization and the ability to select how you want to really consume the content.

Ben Sheen [00:24:23] Absolutely, and I think that's certainly some of the feedback we've been getting through from customers. They really enjoy the hard-hitting, in-depth data-first approach that we have. But actually being able to tailor it to individual users so they can get maximum value from it. That's been something that we've really driven towards, hasn't it?

Scott Stewart [00:24:37] Yeah, and that really shows up in the risk dashboard now. Many of our clients, especially some of the larger companies have various users on the portal. Quite frankly, if you're a Latin America security director, you're not as concerned about what's going on in Asia, or South Asia as the guys over there. So really, with the risk dashboard, we allow the clients to select which countries that they look at first, and so they can kind of pull what we call a card, and place that on the dashboard. That will give them kind of a curated content feed of content related to those specific countries, which is very useful to them. Of course, through the way that they set up their notifications, they can also customize it very heavily. Whether they want to get it by text message, whether they want to get it by email, what kind of content they want to receive. Whether it's individual items, whether it's a digest form, when they receive the digest, when they receive the items. Also, they can customize based on country, threat, other keywords and tags. It allows them to get what they want, when they want it, and how they want it.

Ben Sheen [00:25:47] That's really important because we're actually, we've taken this feedback and built it into the new model. And I know, Scott, beyond obviously, running, managing the team and making sure Threat Lens is everything it can be, you spend a lot of time in the field. What's some of the user feedback you're getting from people that have had first exposure to this latest iteration of Threat Lens?

Scott Stewart [00:26:07] It's been very well received so far. I had a chance to go to ASIS over in Rotterdam, where I had an iPad with the version 2.0. It was fun being able to kind of interact with the clients. Let them see what it was. Not only the current clients, and then see the shift over, but for prospective clients, and kind of see how this information can be useful to them in their various roles.

Ben Sheen [00:26:34] Another thing that I'm interested in is sort of, what's next for Threat Lens. Clearly, you guys, you're never sitting still. You're always looking ahead to the horizon. What can we expect for further developments on the Threat Lens front?

Scott Stewart [00:26:46] One of the things, obviously, is we're trying to stay ahead analytically of the curve. We're really looking at the trends for our various forecasts. Whether it's the general forecasts, whether it's specific forecasts of things like the Jihadist movement, or other global dynamics. A lot of that is really what we're focusing on kind of maniacally. At the same time, we are really very focused on continuing to make the product more user-friendly. We want to continue to interact with the clients. Find out what they like. Are there things that we need to adjust? Because we really do value their time, and we don't want to steal their time by making something difficult to use. They have so much information coming at them every day. They have so many tools. We want to make this something that's easy to use, that's useful, intuitive, and gets them what they need when they need it.

Ben Sheen [00:27:38] Well, I think that's a brilliant point to end on. Scott, thank you so much for taking the time to talk through some of the new features of Threat Lens. Absolute pleasure to have you in the studio, and speak to you soon.

Scott Stewart [00:27:47] Thanks, Ben.

Ben Sheen [00:27:48] Scott Stewart is Stratfor's Vice President of Tactical Analysis, and leads Stratfor's Threat Lens team. That's it for this episode of the Stratfor Podcast. Thanks again to Scott Stewart, Fred Burton and Faisel Pervaiz for joining us. If you'd like to learn more about Fred Burton's experience as a counter-terrorism agent and the crash of PAK-1, we'll include links in the show notes. And you can learn more about Stratfor Threat Lens, our protective intelligence solution for organizations operating around the world at stratfor.com/threatlens. We also have some related video webcast discussions and Threat Lens updates available on our blog at stratfor.com/horizons. Just click on the events section. For more geopolitical intelligence, analysis and forecasting, it will reveal the underlying significance and future implications of emerging world events, follow us on Twitter, @Stratfor.

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