Al-Qaeda has claimed credit for the murder on Thursday of Benazir Bhutto: “We terminated the most precious American asset which vowed to defeat [the] mujahadeen.” According to an Italian jihadist website, the hit was ordered by none other than Ayman Al-Zawahri, Al-Qaeda’s Number Two man. However, White House spokesman Scott Stanzel was cautious about such reports: “I’m aware that al-Qaida may have claimed responsibility. I’m aware of news reports of that. But,” he told reporters, “I don’t have any specifics for you on that. Whoever perpetrated this attack is an enemy of democracy and has used a tactic that al-Qaida is very familiar with, and that is suicide bombing and the taking of innocent life to try to disrupt the democratic process.”
And disrupted it is. The remaining democratic opponent of the Musharraf regime, Nawaz Sharif, announced that his party would boycott national elections set for January: “We have decided to boycott elections in honor of Ms. Bhutto,” he said. “Under the present circumstances and under Musharraf, neither is campaigning possible nor is a free election.”
The only winner in these circumstances is likely to be the Pakistani jihadists, who have long despised Bhutto for her Western leanings and her stated determination to stamp out Al-Qaeda in the country. Whether or not Al-Qaeda actually carried out the murder of Bhutto, they had threatened to kill back in October, when she returned to Pakistan and resumed a role on the national stage. Mahmoud Al Hasan of Hizb-ul-Mujahedeen, a jihadist group allied with the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party, excoriated Bhutto at that time for saying she would join the U.S. in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. “Benazir Bhutto,” he fumed, “was totally talking like an infidel. What should be the reaction of jihadis? They should definitely kill her. She is an enemy of Islam. She is an enemy of jihadis. She is an enemy of the country.”
It may be that the assassination of Bhutto is part of this jihad, and part of a larger effort to institute Islamic rule in Pakistan. That movement has broad popular support. According to a September CNN poll, in Pakistan “bin Laden has a 46 percent approval rating. Musharraf’s support is 38 percent. U.S. President George W. Bush’s approval: 9 percent.”
Musharraf earlier this year faced down the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, whose leaders were openly calling for the strict rule of Islamic law in Pakistan; the emergency rule he declared in November was a direct attempt to counter the growing power of the exponents of political Islam. Al-Qaeda, in response, called on Muslims to wage jihad against Musharraf. And just weeks after the imposition of emergency rule, jihadists were still gaining territory in the country’s northwest region, a hotbed of jihadist sentiment, at the expense of the federal government. Once in power, they instituted draconian Islamic laws reminiscent of the Taliban, shutting down video stores and schools for girls. But such measures don’t appear to be unpopular in some areas of Pakistan. Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Righteous), another jihadist group there, collaborates with Al-Qaeda and may also be involved in actions against Western targets. The Los Angeles Times reported that “U.S. counterterrorism officials say the group’s status as a legal organization in Pakistan makes it difficult to oppose. It has thousands of loyal supporters and close ties to a government that has done little to rein it in.”
There is a great deal more evidence of jihadist sympathizers at the highest levels of the Pakistani government. Also in November, then-Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer declared: “We’ve been concerned about some elements of the Pakistani intelligence services and their links to the Taliban.” This should not be surprising, considering that Bhutto herself aided the Taliban during her tenure as prime minister: an exercise in realpolitik that her followers may be regretting today.
Given such a political climate, it should not be surprising if Bush’s call to Pakistanis to “honor Benazir Bhutto’s memory by continuing with the democratic process for which she so bravely gave her life,” if followed through with free elections, results in the installation of an Islamic regime in Pakistan. Then a nuclear-armed state dedicated to the jihad ideology and Islamic supremacism will alter the uneasy status quo in the Islamic world and the world at large, forever.