x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Kidnapped Pakistani rights activist is found dead

Former intelligence agent accused of spying for the US was kidnapped by militant's in Pakistan's tribal belt.

Khalid Khawaja, pictured with his daughter Rabia Khalid, was kidnapped at the end of March along with two others.
Khalid Khawaja, pictured with his daughter Rabia Khalid, was kidnapped at the end of March along with two others.

ISLAMABAD // A former Pakistani intelligence official, who had gained prominence in recent years as a rights activist, was found dead on Friday after being kidnapped by militants several weeks ago in the country's tribal belt. Khalid Khawaja, 58, a former official in Pakistan's spy agency - the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate - and air force was kidnapped at the end of March along with a documentary filmmaker, and Sultan Amir Tarar, a retired official of the Pakistan army, who is commonly known by his nom de guerre, "Col Imam".

They had travelled to the north-western region of the country, apparently, to make a documentary on the Pakistani Taliban's leadership before being kidnapped by militants thought to belong to a breakaway faction of mostly Punjabi Taliban. Both former intelligence officials are known to have contacts with Pakistani and Afghan militants. The bullet riddled body of Khawaja was found on a road between the towns of Mir Ali and Miran Shah in North Waziristan, which straddles the Afghanistan border and is a safe haven for Taliban and al Qa'eda militants.

Khawaja was shot in the head and chest. A letter that was found with his body read: "Whoever spies for America will meet the same fate". It was a gruesome end for a man who for years had crossed the murky world of intelligence and intrigue. Khawaja was extremely vocal in expressing grievances against American policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In recent years, he actively participated in a campaign to locate hundreds of people who had gone missing - held in secret detention centres by the country's intelligence agencies on charges of militancy and terrorism.

But despite Khawaja's cheerleading for the cause of the "missing persons" and Islamist extremists, suspicions that he continued to operate as an undercover intelligence operative tarnished his reputation. Allegations by militant sympathisers that he surreptitiously helped the intelligence agencies in the 2007 Red Mosque siege further tarnished his jihadi credentials. Khawaja used to brag about his relationship with Osama Bin Laden. He had helped several foreign journalists, including Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was beheaded in Karachi in 2002, to make contact with jihadi leaders.

The kidnappers, identifying themselves as the previously unknown Asian Tigers, sent an e-mail to local news media organisations, accusing Khawaja of being an American and Pakistani spy. Khawaja's son, Osama Khalid, blamed criminal elements of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a banned Sunni extremist militant outfit, for the killing as he talked to reporters outside his residence in Islamabad on Friday. "We are proud of his martyrdom," Mr Khalid said.

Pakistani analysts and officials said Khawaja convinced Col Imam to work on the documentary and was guilty of being reckless and foolhardy while embarking on the trips to North Waziristan. "Khawaja was over confident", said a Rawalpindi police official, who has been part of several investigations into the militant networks, and asked to remain anonymous because he is not allowed to speak to media.

In a video released to local news organisations days before his killing, Khawaja, apparently under duress, confessed to being a spy. In the video Khawaja said he had travelled to North Waziristan under the instructions of Lt Gen Hamid Gul, a former head of the ISI. But the retired general denied the claim. "I gave him no such instructions. In fact, I got to know about the kidnapping after nine days", said Gen Gul while talking to The National. "Imam used to meet me off and on but I did not meet Khawaja regularly."

In the wake of the killing, the authorities and public have shifted their attention to the fate of the other two captives. The kidnappers are demanding the release of several top level Afghan Taliban commanders who had been arrested in recent weeks by Pakistani intelligence agencies. Their demands also included a payment of US$10 million (Dh36.7m), according to a close friend of the journalist's family who wished to remain anonymous for fear of the militants.

Col Imam has a legendary reputation among intelligence officials and is respected by veteran Afghan fighters who had fought against the Soviets. Col Imam describes himself as a close friend of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the leader of the largest faction of Afghan Taliban, and helped create the movement in the 1990s. The British filmmaker of Pakistani origin has worked on several documentaries.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae