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In a Ditch

The growing--and murderous--divide between old and new guard jihadists in Pakistan.

Corpses have been showing up on roadsides in North and South Waziristan for years. Some of the time they are headless; almost all of the time they display a note alleging that the deceased was a spy. Khalid Khawaja’s death was no different, except that he never hid the fact that he had once worked for Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency, the ISI. The association gave him credibility in many circles. Khawaja’s generation of spooks, after all, trained local and foreign jihadis in Afghanistan during the 1980s, frequented Taliban-controlled Afghanistan during the 1990s, and continued—at least unofficially—to support some insurgents in Afghanistan (and Pakistan) throughout the past decade. Between his intel background and his continued devotion to the cause, Khawaja was an important, outspoken player on the jihadi scene.

It was shocking, then, to hear that a previously unknown faction of militants calling themselves the Asian Tigers had kidnapped Khawaja, along with a British reporter and another retired ISI officer, a month ago in North Waziristan. Two weeks later, Khawaja appeared in a hostage video, confessing to have been secretly working for the ISI throughout the crisis at the Red Mosque, the hyper-radical mosque in Islamabad that was stormed by commandos in July 2007. And on Friday, Khawaja’s dead body appeared on a roadside in North Waziristan, along with a note claiming that he was an American spy.

So how could someone like Khawaja—a self-described confidant of Osama bin Laden who relished affiliations with the Taliban of old—have ended up dead in a ditch, murdered by the kind of people he was previously accused of aiding? And what does that say about the dramatic cultural changes underway in Pakistan? 

A quick word about Khawaja himself. A squadron commander in the Pakistani Air Force early in his life, Khawaja later joined the ISI. After getting kicked out of the spy agency in 1988 for writing a letter to President Zia ul Haq that charged the army chief with hypocrisy, he set out freelancing. He reportedly arranged five meetings in the late 1980s between bin Laden and former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif. He described himself as a mujahid, while also acting as the chief spokesperson for the Defense of Human Rights, a Pakistani organization campaigning on behalf of the legions of “disappeared” persons suspected of being kidnapped by the ISI. Most recently, he had been acting as counsel to the five Americans arrested in Pakistan in December 2009.

I first met Khawaja in early 2006 at Cafe Lazeez, an upscale restaurant in Islamabad. I had been trying to arrange a meeting with Abdul Rashid Ghazi, one of the two brothers running the Red Mosque; Khawaja was playing the role of the mosque’s press attache. Khawaja was a skilled propagandist, with his fluent English and bulging Rolodex. Such credentials, not surprisingly, made him rather shady as well. Daniel Pearl and Khawaja had met, and then stayed in phone and email contact, just prior to Pearl’s abduction in January 2002. Pearl’s wife claims that Khawaja had a hand in her husband’s death.

Sitting across the table from me, Khawaja stroked his whiskbroom beard and trained his dark, sharp eyes on mine. While sincere and generous with his time, there was little I found settling about Khawaja’s presence. “I’ll talk to Ghazi and see if he wants to meet you,” Khawaja said, concluding the luncheon. “But if I tell you that Ghazi is off-limits, I don’t want to hear that you’re going behind my back trying to meet him through other channels, okay? I told Daniel Pearl that Sheik Gilani was off-limits …”. His voice trailed off and I anxiously departed from the cafe. A week later he facilitated the first of my many meetings with Ghazi.

Khawaja was also sensitive to the press, unlike the majority of Pakistan’s current generation of jihadis. Last June, The Minneapolis Star Tribune reviewed my book and the writer briefly mentioned my relationship to Khawaja: “Chillingly, and perhaps foolishly, [Schmidle] uses the same intermediary (Khalid Khawaja) that slain journalist Daniel Pearl used.” Khawaja must have maintained a Google Alert account on his name. A day later, Khawaja took to the message boards and posted two comments at the end of the piece defending himself and even including his personal phone number in case people wanted to discuss further.

Despite his technological and media savvy, Khawaja was nonetheless old school when it came to the generational divides among militants. The old guard feels as if it’s at least partly acting on behalf of the state, while the new guard seeks to overthrow the state. Whoever steps in the way of that mission is considered an enemy—and, by extension, an American stooge. Did Khawaja see himself as a bridge between the two groups? Perhaps. But he clearly didn’t make a good enough impression on the new guard.

It’s important to consider what Khawaja might have been doing in North Waziristan. The Pakistani army is apparently gearing up for an offensive there against the Taliban, akin to the ones conducted in Swat and South Waziristan last year. In his confession from captivity, Khawaja claimed that he was sent by two former ISI chiefs to broker a deal with the militants, telling them that they’ll be spared if they simply aim their weapons towards Afghanistan, rather than on targets in Pakistan. It’s also been reported that Khawaja had arranged for the kidnapped British journalist to meet with Hakimullah Mehsud, the Pakistani Taliban leader rumored dead who has recently surfaced. That Khawaja, on either mission, would be kidnapped and murdered illustrates a profound evolution that’s occurred in Pakistan over recent years concerning the dynamic between the ISI and their one-time jihadi clients.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the ISI fostered the development of several militant organizations as national security assets; Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Jaish-e-Mohammad were instruments of Islamabad’s foreign policy in Kashmir. Pervez Musharraf banned the prominent militant outfits after September 11, but the status quo remained until 2004. Then, under American pressure, Musharraf ordered the army into South Waziristan. The relationship between the army and the militants cracked. Ghazi’s brother at the Red Mosque issued a fatwa decreeing that any soldiers killed in South Waziristan should be denied a proper Muslim burial. When commandos stormed the Red Mosque in July 2007, leaving Ghazi and hundreds of others dead, the militants turned their guns fully against the state. Five months later, the Pakistani Taliban was formed.

One of the characteristics distinguishing the new generation of militants from the old has been their deep mistrust of traditional authorities, such as the intelligence agencies, the tribal structures, and the mainstream Islamist parties. Two months before his death in July 2007, Ghazi told me even the traditional jihadi organizations like Jaish-e-Mohammad and Sipah-e-Sahaba (a sectarian outfit that attacks Shias) were being undermined as the rank-and-file defected and joined his movement. “Everywhere you look, you can see youngsters rejecting the old ones,” he explained. The splintering phenomenon continues today: the Asian Tigers are considered an offshoot of either Jaish-e-Mohammad or of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which itself broke off from Sipah-e-Sahaba in the early 1990s. Some Western audiences might applaud the fracturing and dividing, assuming that smaller outfits are easier to isolate. But each new group is more violent and reckless than the next—and also more removed from the original puppet-masters in ISI headquarters. Negotiations, bribes, and settlements hold no appeal for this generation of militants.

Several major questions remain about Khawaja and his death. Is it possible that he, as the Tigers allege, intentionally misled Ghazi and his brother Abdul Aziz during the July 2007 rebellion at the Red Mosque, which ultimately led to Ghazi’s death and Aziz’s arrest? Was Khawaja still working for the ISI and—perhaps by extension—the CIA?

No matter what the answers are, even positing such questions about a man like Khalid Khawaja speaks to the tremendous state of deception and paranoia in Pakistan. An already confusing place has perhaps never been more inscrutable.

Nicholas Schmidle, a fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of To Live or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan.