Bhutto's death helps further Al Qaeda's Pakistan agenda

A string of attacks on many of the country's leaders indicates a potent new strand of militancy in Pakistan.

While much debate and speculation swirls around the circumstances of Benazir Bhutto's death last week, the consequences are clear. It has upended a fragile political process in a nation already coping with increasing instability and a rising terrorist threat.

Pakistan and the US have blamed Al Qaeda or its affiliates in Pakistan for the murder, while some say that President Pervez Musharraf himself is to blame.

But regardless, say many analysts, Ms. Bhutto's death is a victory for Osama bin Laden's network, which called the opposition figure a tool of US influence. And, they say, Al Qaeda stands to gain most from the spreading unrest in Pakistan.

Only weeks ago, Al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri issued a message saying that Bhutto, and all those who participate in Pakistan's elections, would meet their end. An Al Qaeda-linked website later claimed responsibility for the killing.

Pakistan officials say the culprits worked with local Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in the restive tribal area South Waziristan. Mr. Mehsud, like Mr. Zawahiri, had earlier vowed to assassinate Bhutto if she returned to Pakistan to run in elections. He has since denied involvement in the attack.

Al Qaeda has several times targeted President Mushaaraf, as well, and in recent months has twice targeted the former interior minister, Aftab Ahmed Sherpao. But in all those cases, the assassination attempts failed.

The day after Bhutto was killed, Asfandyar Amir Zeb was killed by a remote-controlled bomb in Swat, an area bordering Afghanistan where the Pakistani Army is battling militants. Mr. Zeb, a member of Mr. Musharraf's ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q party, was an outspoken critic of Islamic militancy.

And on Sunday, two men blew themselves up outside the eastern Pakistan residence of Ijazul Haq, the former religious affairs minister and senior leader of the ruling party, killing only themselves.

This string of attacks on many of the country's leaders indicates a new strand of operatives working in Pakistan – the very specter of extremism that Bhutto made a focus of her campaign.

"[Al Qaeda] considered [Bhutto] an American asset. They would have targeted her after Pervez Musharraf, who has a lot of security. She was exposed," says the retired Brigadier Mahmood Shah, former secretary of security for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the area where Al Qaeda is believed to have its base.

Thursday's assassination also bore the hallmark of Al Qaeda's sophisticated and deadly style: multiple attacks from various sources coupled with a suicide bombing.

US officials and Pakistani analysts have long been warning that Al Qaeda's strength has grown in Pakistan, nurtured by remote strongholds in the tribal belt and weak government counterterrorism policies. Once unknown in Pakistan, Al Qaeda-like suicide bombings are now a regular occurrence and have claimed as many as 600 lives in the last year alone.

"[Al Qaeda] seems to have increased their focus on Pakistan. There's some shift in their policy," says Mr. Shah.

Events in Pakistan would seem then to be playing out according to an Al Qaeda handbook. Elections, which it and other militant groups have vociferously opposed, now seem all but derailed. Widespread violence and rioting immediately following Bhutto's death have pushed Pakistan toward greater uncertainty.

"These extremists, they are not popular. They're not coming through elections. They thrive when there is fear and chaos," says Ijaz Khattak, a political analyst at the University of Peshawar. "When there is disruption in society, extremists get more organized and they turn the situation to their advantage."

Far from smoothing the way for Musharraf, the days ahead are likely to be among his darkest in office. Protesters have burned and ransacked offices of the ruling party throughout the country. Opposition parties, meanwhile, are planning nationwide protests and strikes.

If Musharraf finds himself beleaguered once again, battling an opposition that sees his ouster as the crux of Pakistan's survival, it is Al Qaeda that may reap dividends. "Now, even the worst elections have become unthinkable. This chaos suits Al Qaeda … because it means that the state is nearing collapse," says Mr. Khattak.

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