A leading Pakistani daily reported Nov. 4 that jihadists are hatching fresh plots to eliminate President Gen. Pervez Musharraf. The details of the report and the current political situation on the ground raise questions about the nature of such a possible plot. Political stability and continuity in Islamabad are a major concern for Washington, and the Musharraf regime could be trying to leverage geopolitical dividends from the Bush administration.
Pakistan's leading English language newspaper, the Daily Times, reported in its Web edition Nov. 4 that Pakistani intelligence agencies reported to the Ministry of Interior that two jihadist groups are planning yet another assassination attempt against President Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Although Islamist militants have targeted Musharraf on at least three prior occasions, the details of this report do not add up and raise doubts about the reality of the threat. That the main story refers back to reports involving the country's intelligence network and its civilian security apparatus indicates that the regime had an interest in divulging information about the alleged plot. The report's appearance in an internationally respected English-language news outlet indicates that Islamabad's intended audience quite possibly was Washington. The Musharraf regime understands that in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks the United States places a huge premium on the stability of Pakistan's military-led government. Like many other states watching the Bush administration's growing domestic woes, Pakistan likely is trying its hand at taking advantage of the desperation in Washington over President George W. Bush's declining public approval ratings. Though countries such as Iran and North Korea will make high-risk maneuvers, Pakistan will settle for scare tactics to get what it wants from Washington. It also is not impossible that the intelligence reports have some merit. This could be a case of al Qaeda pinging the system — deliberately feeding information to intelligence channels to see the regime's response — as part of its plans to move against Musharraf in the future. That said, there are enough anomalies in the report to render it highly suspicious. The report says that anti-Shia sectarian group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Jamiat-ul-Furqan, the reincarnation of banned jihadist group Jaish-e-Mohammed, are trying to "cultivate" one of Musharraf's estranged relatives who opposes the president's policies. Should this effort fail, the groups plan to target Musharraf's close relatives and friends. The Interior Ministry, in response to the threat alert, has asked the four provinces' home secretaries and Islamabad's chief commissioner to compile and submit a detailed list of Musharraf's close relatives and friends. The authorities also have been directed to brief the Pakistani leader's relatives and friends and advise them on enhancing their security. Meanwhile, the police have been instructed to beef up security in general. There are a number of points here that undermine the authenticity of the report. First, jihadists do not start coups d'etat by backing a dissident against an incumbent regime. Seeking support from influential individuals within or close to the government is the tactic used by transnational radical Islamist group Hizb al-Tahrir, which jihadists abhor as a deviant group and whose Pakistani branch has negligible public support domestically. Moreover, in Pakistan — unlike all other countries — jihadists long constituted an instrument of foreign policy and had no plans to topple the Pakistani regime. At most, they have tried to assassinate Musharraf and other leading members of his government in order to offset the post-Sept. 11 dragnet against them. Harakat ul-Mujahideen al-Almi — a Pakistani Islamist militant group that turned against Musharraf after he banned jihadist groups fighting Indian rule in Kashmir — tried to kill Musharraf in April 2002 in Karachi, and al Qaeda made two unsuccessful attempts in late 2003 in Rawalpindi. Assuming the latest threat is genuine, any relative of Musharraf who would be "cultivated" would have to hold a senior position in the military for the plan to be effective. Musharraf has no such relatives in Pakistan's top military circles. Moreover, any dissenter within the military would never join forces with groups that operate beyond legal boundaries and are outside the political mainstream, because he would need public support. Even if this relative is a civilian, he likely would choose to align with one or more of the major political parties as opposed to jihadists. The alternative plan of killing Musharraf's friends and relatives also makes no sense, because that plan probably would not bring about a regime change in Islamabad. Additionally, the state of "freedom of the press" in Pakistan is such that the country's media are exceedingly cautious about publishing anything regarding the military. Fearing a visit from men in uniform, Pakistani journalists are careful about even getting a punctuation mark wrong in a piece regarding even a low-ranking officer. Therefore, the source of the threat story is, in all likelihood, the regime itself. This, then, raises the question of what Islamabad's interest is in disseminating such information. Pakistan's delaying the purchase of F-16 fighter aircraft and Washington's strategic bonding with India through joint military exercises and a civilian nuclear deal appear to have a lot to do with the new threat's appearance. The report also could serve to offset criticism Islamabad has received for its discontented response to relief efforts after the South Asian earthquake. Islamabad also could be trying to distance itself from the recent attacks in India by Kashmiri Islamist militants, given Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's remarks to Musharraf during a recent phone conversation that New Delhi sees external (read: Pakistani) links to the triple bombings in New Delhi. Regardless of the actual motives behind Islamabad allowing the report to make it to the press, even though jihadists have made several attempts on Musharraf's life — and they are likely to do so again — the latest threat has too many holes in it to be genuine.