The Assassination of Benazir Bhutto
At around 1 a.m. on 27 December 2007 Benazir Bhutto was told someone would try to kill her that day. The warning came from no lesser a source than the director general of Pakistan’s main intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Despite the late hour, Lieutenant General Nadeem Taj, the second most powerful man in the country after the army chief, was so sure of his information that he travelled to her home in Islamabad to deliver the message in person. General Taj told her that suicide bombers would target her before, during or after an election rally she would be addressing in Rawalpindi. Suspicious that he was trying to trick her into cancelling the event, Benazir told Taj that, if he knew about some suicide bombers, he should arrest them. That was impossible, Taj replied, because it would expose his sources. ‘Giving me security is the responsibility of the state,’ Benazir insisted. ‘You beef up security and make sure that I’m fully protected. Not only I’m protected, but my people who are there, they’re fully protected.’ Taj said he would do his best.
As General Taj and Benazir were speaking, her assassins were making their final preparations. A Taliban handler, Nasrullah, had arrived in Rawalpindi shortly after midnight, bringing with him two fifteen-year-old boys, Bilal and Ikramullah. According to the rituals they had learnt in the suicide bomb facility where they had been trained, the boys had to bathe to ensure they were clean for when they entered paradise. As they prepared for martyrdom, two more handlers, named in the eventual trial as Husnain Gul and Rafaqat Hussain, went to Rawalpindi’s Liaquat Park, where the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) rally was due to be held, to check nothing would upset their plans. The police were already setting up metal detectors at each of the three gates to the park, but since the plan was to attack her as she left the rally, that didn’t matter. Satisfied that they could do it, the two young men returned and gave a pistol with live rounds to Bilal and a hand grenade to Ikramullah. As Bilal put his suicide jacket on, he took off a shawl and cap, which he left at Husnain Gul’s house. Although the state would later ignore the evidence, the clothes and the DNA left on them would provide what could be considered irrefutable proof about the identities of the conspirators. Husnain then advised Bilal to wearsomething other than training shoes, as the security forces had the idea thatjihadis wore trainers and might pick him up. He put on some sandals and left his trainers behind as well. After some prayers, Husnain took Bilal to the exit gate they thought Benazir would use, while Rafaqat took Ikramullah to another gate in case she used a different route.
Shortly after she got up, Benazir phoned her family in Dubai. ‘Your voice is going hoarse,’ her son Bilawal told her. ‘You have to make sure you drink your lemon and honey.’ She then spoke to her husband Asif Zardari. ‘I told her not to go out . . . She said, you know, some things I have to do,’ he later recalled. It was the last time she would speak to either of them. Her attitude was in part a reflection of her fatalism. ‘I believe that the time is written and when it comes it will come,’ she once said. ‘I used to be scared of death but after my father’s death I was no longer scared . . . The body is just the clothing and it is the soul that is important and the soul is free and with God and not under 6 feet of earth.’
Next, she went to a meeting with the Afghan leader Hamid Karzai in an Islamabad hotel. It has often been reported that he warned her that she was about to be attacked, but in fact, he says, they just discussed the threat she faced in general terms. Benazir’s convoy set off for Rawalpindi at around midday. She reached the park and was rushed up onto the stage. In front of her were 10,000 people, and she spoke for around half an hour, proclaiming her attachment to dynastic politics. Referring to herself twice as ‘the daughter of Zulfikar’, she invoked her father’s name no fewer than seventeen times. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, she told the crowd, found his greatness struggling against military dictators. By founding the PPP, he had placed his trust in the Pakistani people and had thereby been empowered to build the nuclear bomb and make Pakistan a great nation. And despite all these achievements he had been hanged. ‘Long live Benazir!’ the crowd roared back. ‘Benazir, Prime Minister!’
The speeches over, she got into her bulletproof Toyota. As normal, her supporters surrounded it, and by the time the vehicle moved onto the road just outside the park it was almost at a standstill. Two of Benazir’s guards climbed onto the rear bumper, while others went to the front and the sides. ‘I should stand up,’ Benazir said. As normal, she stood on the back seat, her head and shoulders sticking out of the emergency hatch above the roof. It was ten past five in the afternoon. Having waited all day, Bilal saw that his moment had come. He moved first to the front of the car and then to the side where there were fewer people, took out his pistol and pointed it at Benazir’s head. One of the guards clawed at the young man but, although he touched his arm, he was slightly too far away to get a firm grip. Bilal fired three shots in less than a second. As the second shot rang out, Benazir’s headscarf, or dupatta, moved away from her face. After the third, she fell like a stone, through the escape hatch, into the vehicle. As she did so, Bilal set off his suicide bomb.
‘I turned my face and she was on my lap,’ recalled Naheed Khan, who had been sitting on the car’s back seat, beside Benazir. ‘And her blood was oozing like I can’t explain to you. I have no words to say. Her blood was oozing. My hands, my – she was soaked in blood. My whole clothes were soaked in blood.’ Naheed Khan’s medically trained husband, Dr Safdar Abbasi, was also in the vehicle. ‘You know, I was trying to see her pulse and I was finding it very difficult, you know, to get to her pulse. But naturally, we had to take her to hospital. By that time, you know, the Jeep was all alone. There was no police car. There was no backup car.’
There was no backup car because, inexplicably, Benazir’s security chief, Rehman Malik, had driven away. He later gave a bewildering number of different accounts of his actions in those moments. In a TV interview shortly after the blast he said his car had been just 4 feet away from Benazir’s vehicle when Bilal had blown himself up. He claimed he then led Benazir’s car to the hospital and remained there. In a different interview shortly afterwards, he said that his car was moving in front of Benazir’s and that immediately after the bomb went off they accelerated, fearing another attack. Initially Benazir followed, but, after some time, they saw that Benazir’s car was no longer behind them; so they did a U-turn and returned. Both accounts – and other versions he gave – were completely untrue. In fact, Rehman Malik, together with others who were sharing his car, simply left the scene and headed for Islamabad. A decade later, when asked why he had done this, Malik said he had been following police instructions. Another occupant of the car, Benazir’s longstanding and famously loyal spokesman, Farhatullah Babar, gave a similar account, although he added that allowing himself to be driven away that day was the greatest regret of his life.
From The Bhutto Dynasty by Owen Bennett-Jones. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.
Owen Bennett-Jones has reported for the BBC from over sixty countries. He is the author of Pakistan: Eye of the Storm. Bennett-Jones has won journalism prizes and written for the Financial Times, The Guardian, and the London Review of Books. He lives in Anglesey, Wales.