Syed Saleem Shahzad, RIP

by Joshua Foust on 5/31/2011 · 13 comments

Syed Saleem Shahzad, the Pakistan Bureau Chief of the Asia Times Online, has been found dead near his car in Sarai Alamgir, about 200 kilometres from Islamabad. The body, according to reports, showed “signs of torture.”

This is a serious loss—not just for his family, which must mourn a senseless death, but for people trying to understand the inexplicable militancy in Pakistan. He often had incredible sources, embedding with the insurgency inside Pakistan and Afghanistan and bringing to light narratives, perspectives, and stories no one could even hope to touch. Shahzad also seemed to have close ties to the ISI, and he performed an invaluable service reflecting those views to the outside world.

Shahzad, in other words, helped us start to understand why things happen in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Beyond his value as a human being—which means already that he couldn’t ever deserve to be abducted off the road and tortured to death—Syed Saleem Shahzad lived his life reporting things no one else would or could. And for that, we should celebrate what he accomplished.

Today, May 31, is Salman Taseer’s birthday. Taseer was the governor of the province of Punjab from 2008 until his assassination in early 2011. His killer, a bodyguard who disagreed with Taseer’s opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, was widely celebrated within Pakistan. Will the same be true of Shahzad’s killers? I really hope not—Pakistani society’s indifference to the brutality directed at reporters and reformists is abhorrent.

In his last tweet (a depressing thing to tally), Shahzad had pointed to his most recent story, detailing the role al Qaeda played in a recent massive assault on a Pakistani Naval Base. His book, Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond bin Laden and 9/11, was released last week.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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JYD May 31, 2011 at 10:06 am

Saleem was an email acquaintance of mine and I considered him a good friend. He was courageous and had a kind of indignant zeal to try to understand and convey the jihadist perspective in a manner that irked Pakistani military types.

Theories may abound but it is unlikely that militants were behind this despicable act, because they usually found an honest outlet in Saleem. It is the uniformed and non-uniformed spooks/jihadis of Pakistan who felt most threatened by SS.

What a great loss to all of us!

Tommy Peters May 31, 2011 at 10:17 am

“Shahzad, in other words, helped us start to understand why things happen in Pakistan and Afghanistan.” – That he did. Condolences and love to the family of Shahzad, from Malaysia.

omar May 31, 2011 at 10:19 am

btw, Kiyani sahib went to school in Sarai Alamgir. This might be a message to him (i doubt if it is a message FROM him…I personally think he is not a bad person, but he lacks the means to clean the augean stables). OK, maybe not. I am conspiracy mongering now.

So, whodunnit? A lot of people will immediately say “the ISI” and of course, they may be right. But it could also be jihadis (or the jihadi wing of the ISI) killing two birds with one stone.
Bad business either way. Very bad business.

Steve Schippert May 31, 2011 at 10:29 am

This feels like a bowling ball was just hurled at my chest. Such invaluable work from a very good man. Heartbreaking and enraging.

While we amuse ourselves with superficial consideration of who did or did not make a “gutsy call,” Syed Saleem Shahzad tangibly made them daily, armed with a pen, a keyboard and a mind. Most men with his intelligence are smart enough to keep safe distance. But most men of his intelligence do not also possess the courage he did. Precious few sew the two commodities together with conviction. Syed Saleem Shahzad did.

I second your assessment, Joshua, that the least likely culprits were any of the various stripes of militants and most likely “uniformed and non-uniformed spooks/jihadis of Pakistan who felt most threatened” by him and his work. Bingo.

Rest in peace, Saleem. You will be missed but never forgotten.

ER May 31, 2011 at 10:32 am

tears 🙁

Shez May 31, 2011 at 10:51 am

A great loss indeed. He was a true brave journalist.

The area in which he has been murdered is known for harboring Shiite militants with ties to Iran. Mandi, where his body was found, is notorious for hosting secret training camps that have the covert support of some members of the ruling PPP government, which has a strong shiite cadre.

Saleem had recently done a story on retired Pakistani soldiers being hired by Bahrain government. Given the reports emerging from Syria, where Iranian revolutionary guards, Hezbollah, and other shiite outfits are said to be helping Bashar thugs in killing unarmed protesters, it is possible if some of the muscle power is being provided by shiite groups in Pakistan. Remember, Iran wields strong influence in Pakistan through its proxy groups. And Shahzad might be working on this. He was known for his in-depth stories and had sources in many militant groups, of all sectarian persuasions.

ISI of course remains the main suspect but given the mess that is Pakistan; we cannot ignore other possibilities.

TLW May 31, 2011 at 2:09 pm

Shez, where are these phantom Shiite cadres you speak off? Why don’t they retaliate against all the threats that Pakistanis face?

The most likely suspect is firstly the ISI, secondly, some brand of sectarian religio-fanatic Al Qaeda affiliated group. There really is little other way to go at this.

TLW May 31, 2011 at 2:09 pm

And I am deeply saddened and disturbed by the loss of Syed Saleem Shehzad. This is a horrible loss for the journalist community of Pakistan.

Shez June 1, 2011 at 3:38 am


So you have done all the investigations to be so sure about the killers?

Why would shiite groups retaliate against the threats when they are themselves a major security threat to Pakistan? They are loyal to Iran and to some PPP leaders, not to Pakistan. And they are involved in sabotage and target killings.

ISI remains the prime suspect but we can’t rule out the involvement of other groups, including Taliban and shiites.

omar June 1, 2011 at 2:37 pm

According to Najm Sethi (who probably knows a thing or two), ISI did not want to kill him. They “just wanted to torture him” but the poor sod died.
I dont see how that lets ISI off the hook, but there you have it.

Toryalay Shirzay June 1, 2011 at 6:09 pm

The torture and murder of journalist Saleem Shahzad is a reflection of a broader picture of Pakistan in which a fascist-terrorist military regime uses proxy wars to become a regional power.Whoever interferes with this goal of the regime will be eliminated in no time and all those concerned should be aware of this fact and take necessary precautions.The civilian government in Pakistan is put forth by this same military regime to whitewash its image and to deceive Paki denizens and outsiders that Pakistan is a democratic society which then helps the regime to get billions of Dollars in aid.
Last but not least, a thorough analysis of of all the information coming out of the elimination of Osama Bin Laden, strongly suggests that the Pakistani military-ISI regime along with the islamic terrorist Alqaeda were the principle culprits behind the attack on New York and Washington .This is the inescapable conclusion in a nutshell which for many reasons the Americans will not admit ,at least not right now.They have only been saying about the role Al Qaeda played but never about the role the big fish played!!

Personal Home Inspector June 1, 2011 at 10:24 pm

Those who have grown up in the West, used to a sense of justice and power of the individual, often have a hard time understanding that gangs and thugs can rule countries. This is the case in places like Pakistan, Russia, and so many more countries. Sometimes it takes the death of a brave man like this to remind us of this fact.

Louise M June 2, 2011 at 9:48 am

Such a sad and serious loss. The situation in the Middle East needs to be sorted out quickly, I think most people would agree that it has gone on too long and far too many innocent lives are being lost as a result.
My condolences to his family and friends.

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