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Thursday, July 7, 2016

Elimination of General Zia - Assassination of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq

By: Edward Jay Epstein Date: 9 Jan 2014
The death of President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan and his top deputies in August 1988 altered the face of the country's politics in Pakistan in a way in which no simple coup d’état could have done. Pakistan is the only country named after an acronym: “P" stands for Punjab, “A" for Afghanistan, and the “K" for Kashmiri. It once reflected the dream of a trans-Asia Islamic state; only the “P" actually became part of Pakistan when it was carved out of British India in 1947 as a haven for Muslims. General Zia was mindful of this dream when he organized a military coup in 1977 and seized power. Zia moved almost immediately to placate the mullahs in his country by pursuing a policy ofIslamization and reinstating the law of the Koran. In an extraordinary balancing act, he also strove to build an ultra-modem military machine, complete with nuclear arms, and also to use his intelligence service, the lSI, to wage war against the Soviet occupiers of Afghanistan and the Indian army in Kashmiri. This great game, and his regime, came to an abrupt end on August 17, 1988. 

I went to Pakistan in the winter of 1989 on a Vanity Fair assignment to investigate Zia's death. Soon after I arrived in Islamabad, I found that the Pakistani officials I had made arrangements to interview were no longer available to me, either on or off the record. One aide to the foreign minister said that the subject of the "tragic accident," as he termed the plane crash that had killed General Zia, was now off limits. Since the Pakistan government was stonewalling, I turned for assistance to the only other source I could find: the children of the generals killed in the crash. My assumption that they had a motive to discover what was behind the death of their fathers proved correct. A number of these young men, including the sons of General Zia and General Akhtar Abdur Rahman (who for ten years had headed Pakistan's equivalent of the CIA, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or lSI), most of whom were in their mid-twenties, not only proved enormously eager to help but, through the medium of their fathers' military aides, had access to key officials, including the airport security officers at the control towers who had actually taped the final conversation from Zia's plane, and the medical officers who had superintended the disposal of the bodies after the crash. With their help, I was able to gradually piece together the story. 

On August 17, General Zia boarded Pak One, an American built Hercules C-130 transport plane, at the military air base outside of Bahawalpur, Pakistan. He had reluctantly gone to Bahawalpur that morning, on his first trip aboard Pak One since May 29, to witness a demonstration of the new American Abrams tank. The plane took off at 3:46 p.m., precisely on schedule for the trip back to the capital city of Islamabad. Seated next to Zia in the air-conditioned VIP capsule was General Akhtar Abdur Rahman, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and, after Zia, the second most powerful man in Pakistan. Among the other passengers were General Mohamed Afzal, Zia's chief of the General Staff; eight other Pakistan generals; Zia's top aides; and two American guests: Ambassador Arnold L. Raphe!, and General Herbert M. Wassom, the head of the U.S. military-aid mission to Pakistan. 

Shortly after takeoff, only eighteen miles from the airport, on a bright clear day, the giant aircraft lurched up and down three times in the sky, as if were on an invisible roller coaster, and then plunged straight into the desert and exploded in a fireball. All thirty persons on board, including four crew members, were dead. Within hours, army tanks sealed off public buildings and television stations, signifying a change in power. But the mystery remained: What caused the plane to crash? 

Since it involved an American-built plane, and the CIA had been partners with Zia in the war against Soviet forces in Afghanistan, the United States obtained permission for U.S. forensic experts to carry out the investigation for Pakistan's board of inquiry. But Pakistan limited the number of U.S. experts to seven Air Force accident investigators and specifically excluded any criminal, counterterrorist, or sabotage experts. The team, headed by Colonel Daniel E. Sowada, issued a 365-page red-bound report, which I obtained from a source at the Pentagon. The team had worked to eliminate what was not possible, following the precept that once the impossible is eliminated, what remains, no matter how improbable, is the truth. First, they ruled out the possibility that the plane had blown up in midair. If it had exploded in this manner, the pieces of the plane, which had different shapes and therefore different resistance to wind, would have been strewn over a wide area-but that had not happened. By reassembling the plane in a giant jigsaw puzzle and scrutinizing with magnifying glasses the edges of each broken piece, they established that the plane was in one piece when it had hit the ground. They thus concluded that structural failure - i.e. the breaking-up of the plane in flight - was not the cause. Next, they eliminated the possibility of a missile attack. If the plane had been hit by a missile, intense heat would have melted the aluminum panels and, as the plane dived, the wind would have left telltale streaks in the molten metal. But there were no streaks on the panels, and no missile part or other ordnance had been found in the area. 

They further ruled out the possibility that there was an onboard fire while the plane was in the air since, if there had been one, the passengers would have breathed in soot before they died. Yet, the single autopsy performed, which was on the American general seated in the VIP capsule, showed that there was no soot in his trachea, indicating that he had died before, not after, the fire ignited by the crash. 

If it was not a missile or fire, another possibility was power failure. If that had happened, the propellers would not have been turning at their full torque when the plane crashed, which would have affected the way that their blades had broken off and curled on impact. But by examining the degree of curling on each broken propeller blade, the investigators determined that in fact the propellers were spinning at full speed when the plane hit the ground. 

Next they turned to the fuel. They ruled out the possibility of contaminated fuel by taking samples of the diesel fuel from the refueling truck, and by analyzing the residues still left in the fuel pumps in the plane, which they determined had been operating normally at the time of the crash. They also ruled out any problem with the electric power on the plane because both electric clocks on board had stopped at the exact moment of impact. The final possibility for a mechanical failure was that the controls became inoperable. But the Hercules C-130 had not one but three redundant control system. The two sets of hydraulic controls were backed up, in case of leaks of fluid in both of them, by a mechanical system of cables. If any one of them worked, the pilots would have been able to fly the plane. By comparing the position of the controls with the mechanisms in the hydraulic valves and the stabilizers in the tail of the plane (which are moved through this system when the pilot moves the steering wheel), they established that the control system was working when the plane crashed. This was confirmed by a computer simulation of the flight performed by Lockheed (the builder of the C-130). They also ruled out the possibility that the controls had temporarily jammed by a microscopic examination of the mechanical parts to see if there were any signs of jamming or binding. That left the possibility of pilot error. But the crash had occurred after a routine and safe takeoff in perfectly clear daytime weather, and the hand-picked pilots were fully experienced with the C-130 and had medical checkups before the flight. Since the plane was not in any critical phase of flight, such as takeoff or landing, where poor judgment on the part of the pilots could have resulted in the mishap, the investigators ruled out pilot error as a possible cause. Since they precluded both a mechanical failure and pilot error, a conclusion of assassination was all but inescapable. 

Based on this investigation, Pakistan's board of inquiry concluded that the cause of the crash of Pak One was a criminal act "leading to the loss of control of the aircraft." It suggested that the pilots must have been incapacitated, but this was as far as it could go, since there was no black box or cockpit recorder on Pak One and no autopsies had been done on the remains of the pilots. 

What had happened to the pilots during the final minutes of the flight? When I went to Pakistan in February 1989, I attempted to answer that question by finding other planes in the area that might have intercepted radio reports from Pak One. There were three other planes in the area tuned to the same frequency for communications-a turbojet carrying General Aslam Beg, the Army's vice chief of staff, which was waiting on the runway at Bahawalpur airport to take off next; Pak 379, which was the backup C-130 in case anything went wrong to delay Pak One; and a Cessna security plane that took off before Pak One to scout for terrorists. With the assistance of the families of the military leaders killed in the crash, I managed to locate the pilots of these planes-all of whom were well acquainted with the flight crew of Pak One and its procedures-who could listen to the conversation between Pak One and the control tower in Bahawalpur. They independently described the same sequence of events. First, Pak One reported its estimated time of arrival in the capital. Then, when the control tower asked its position, it failed to respond. At the same time Pak 379 was trying unsuccessfully to get in touch with Pak One to verify its arrival time. All they heard from Pak One was “Stand by," but no message followed. When this silence persisted, the control tower became progressively more frantic in its efforts to contact Zia's pilot, Wing Commander Mash'hood. Three or four minutes passed. Then, a faint voice in Pak One called out “Mash'hood, Mash'hood." One of the pilots overhearing this conversation recognized the voice. It was Zia's military secretary, Brigadier Najib Ahmed, who apparently, from the low volume of his voice, was in the back of the flight deck (where a door connected to the VIP capsule). If the radio was switched on and was picking up background sounds, it was the next-best thing to a cockpit flight recorder. Under these circumstances, the long silence between "Stand by" and the faint calls to Mash'hood, like the dog that didn't bark, was the relevant fact. Why wouldn't Mash'hood or any of the three other members of the flight crew have spoken if they were in trouble? The pilots aboard the other planes, who were fully familiar with Mash'hood, and the procedures he was trained in, explained that if Pak One's crew was conscious and in trouble, they would not in any circumstances have remained silent for this period of time. If there had been difficulties with controls, Mash'hood would have instantly given the emergency “Mayday" signal so help would be dispatched to the scene. Even if he had for some reason chosen not to communicate with the control tower, he would have been heard shouting orders to his crew to prepare for an emergency landing. And if there had been an attempt at a hijacking in the cockpit or a scuffle between the pilots, it would also be overheard. In retrospect, the pilots of the other aircraft had only one explanation for the prolonged silence: Mash'hood and the other pilots were unconscious while the thumb switch that operated the microphone had been kept opened by the clenched hand of a pilot. 

The account of the eyewitnesses at the crash site dovetailed with the radio silence. They had seen the plane slowly pitching up and down. According to a C-130 expert to whom I spoke at Lockheed, a C-130 characteristically goes into a pattern known as a “phugoid" when no pilot is flying it. First, the unattended plane dives toward the ground then the mechanism in the tail automatically overcorrects for this downward motion, causing the plane to head momentarily upward. This pattern would continue, each swing becoming more pronounced until the plane crashed. Analyzing the weight on the plane, and how it had been loaded, this expert calculated that the plane would have made three rollercoaster turns before crashing, which is exactly what the witnesses had reported. He concluded from this pattern that had the pilots been conscious, they would have corrected the "phugoid"-or at least, would have made an effort, which would have been reflected in the settings of the controls. Since this had not happened, only one possibility remained: the pilots were paralyzed, unconscious, or dead. 

Meanwhile, an analysis of chemicals found in the plane's wreckage, performed by the laboratory of the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, and Tobacco in Washington, D.C., found foreign traces of pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PNET) , a secondary high explosive commonly used by saboteurs as a detonator, as well as antimony and sulfur, which, in the compound antimony sulfide, is used in fuses to set off such a device. Using these same chemicals, Pakistan ordnance experts reconstructed a low-level explosive detonator that could have been used to burst a flask the size of a soda can. These tests showed that it was possible that such a device could have been used to dispense an odorless poison gas that incapacitated the pilots. Indeed, the ATF lab also found phosphorous residue in the cockpit, which could have come from poison gas. 

The problem in pursuing this lead was that no medical examinations or autopsies were performed on the bodies of the pilots and other members of the flight crew. Doctors at the military hospital in Bahawalpur reported that parts of the victims' bodies had been brought there in plastic body bags from the crash site on the night of August 17, and stored there, so that autopsies could be performed by a team of American and Pakistani pathologists. But before the pathologists had arrived, the hospital received orders to return these plastic bags to the coffins for burial. The commanding officer ordered the medical preparations to cease and the bodies to be turned over for immediate burial. The official explanation given in the report is that Islamic law requires burial within twenty-four hours. But this could not have been the real reason, since the bodies were not returned to their families for burial until two days after the crash, as relatives confirmed to me. Nor were the families ever asked permission for autopsy examinations. And, as I learned from a doctor for the Pakistan Air Force, Islamic law notwithstanding, autopsies are routinely done on pilots in cases of air crashes. This intervention made it impossible to determine whether a nerve gas or other toxic agent had paralyzed the crew. 

These orders to literally bury the evidence came directly from the Army, which was now under the authority of General Beg, who, after having his turbojet pilot circle over the burning wreckage of Pak One, flew immediately back to Islamabad, to assume command. For their part, Pakistani military authorities concentrated their investigation on the possibility that Shiite fanatics were responsible for the crash. The copilot of Pak One, Wing Commander Sajid, was a Shiite (as are more than ten percent of Pakistan's Muslims) , as was one of the pilots of the backup C-130. This pilot, though he protested his innocence, was kept in custody for more than two months and roughly interrogated about whether Wing Commander Sajid had discussed a suicide mission. Finally, the Army abandoned this effort after the Air Force demonstrated that it would have been physically impossible for the copilot alone to have caused a C-130 to crash in the way it did. 

The government then appointed a commission headed by Justice Shafiur Rehman, a well-respected judge on the Supreme Court, to establish the cause of the crash. Five years later, in 1993, it issued a secret report concluding that the Army had so effectively obstructed the investigation that the perpetrators behind the crash could not be brought to justice. The one uncounted casualty of Pak One was thus the truth. 

There is, to be sure, an abundance of theories based on who had a motive to kill General Zia. Not unlike the plot of Agatha Christie's Marder on the Orient Express, in which, if one looked hard enough, everyone aboard the train had a motive for the murder, many parties, with the means to sabotage a plane, had a motive to eliminate Zia.
  • First, there is the CIA. According to this theory, the CIA had become concerned that Zia was diverting a large share of the weapons it supplied to the lSI to an extreme Mujahideen group led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Not only was this group anti-American, but its strategy appeared to be aimed at dividing the rest of the Afghan resistance so that it could take over in Kabul with Zia's support.
  • Second, there is the Bhutto family. Zia had, after all, usurped power from President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. He had also allowed Bhutto to be hanged like a common criminal in 1979 on what Bhutto's family viewed as a trumped-up charge. In addition, Zia outlawed Bhutto’s political party, the Pakistan People's Party; imprisoned his wife (even though she was suffering from lung cancer) and his daughter, Benazir Bhutto; and had both his sons, who were in exile abroad, convicted of high crimes in absentia. The eldest son, Shah Nawaz, was then murdered in France in 1986, and the younger son, Mir Murtaza, driven into hiding. Demanding vengeance, Mir Murtaza Bhutto headed an anti-Zia group called Al Zulfikar ("the sword"), which operated out of Afghanistan and Syria. One of its operations was to hijack a Pakistan International Airlines Boeing 727 with 100 passengers aboard. Another involved attempting to blow Pak One out of the sky with Zia aboard it by firing a Soviet-built SAM 7 missile at it. In all, Mir Murtaza claimed he was behind five attempts to assassinate Zia. Initially, his group also had taken credit for the successful destruction of Pak One in a phone call to the BBC, but it subsequently retracted this claim. In any case, there was no doubt that he was well motivated. (Mir Murtaza was killed in a shootout with police in Karachi in 1996.)
  • A third theory is that the KGB killed Zia. Moscow also had a motive, since Zia was behind covert attacks on Soviet troops not only in Afghanistan but in the Soviet Union itself. Earlier that August, the Soviet Union had temporarily suspended its troop withdrawals from Afghanistan because it alleged that Zia had violated the Geneva Accords, which had been signed in May. A spokesman for the foreign ministry in Moscow said only a week before the crash that Zia's "obstructionist policy cannot be tolerated." Moscow officials even took the extraordinary step of calling in the American Ambassador to Moscow, Jack Matlock, and informing him that it intended "to teach Zia a lesson." It certainly had the means in place in Pakistan to make this threat credible, having trained, subsidized, and effectively run the Afghan intelligence service, WAD, which operated in Pakistan. In 1988, according to a State Department report, such covert operations had killed and wounded more than 1,400 people in Pakistan.
  • A fourth theory was that India was the culprit. Less than two weeks before the crash, the Indian prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, had warned Pakistan that it would have cause "to regret its behavior" in covertly supplying weapons to Sikh terrorists in India. Not only had the Sikhs assassinated Indira Gandhi, Rajiv's mother, when she was prime minister, they now had more than 2,000 armed guerrillas located mainly around the Pakistan border, and Zia had been supplying them with AK-47 assault rifles, rocket launchers, and sanctuaries inside Pakistan. Accordingly, India had a motive to get rid of Zia. It also had the means, having organized a special covert-action unit that went by the initials R.A.W, to recruit agents inside Pakistan.
  • A fifth theory was that Shiites were behind Zia's death. Zia's Sunni regime had been repressing the Shiite minority, and, according to this theory, the Shiites struck back by recruiting the Shiite copilot of Zia's plane, Wing Commander Sajid. This was why Pakistani military authorities arrested the Shiite pilot of the backup C-130, who was a close friend of Sajid, and interrogated him for more than two months. (Even under torture, he insisted that, as far as he knew, Sajid was a loyal pilot who would not commit suicide.) The problem here was that in order to crash the plane Sajid would have had to overpower the rest of the four-man flight crew, but no such struggle had been heard over the radio.
    Finally, there is the Army coup theory. Zia had told his close associates that he planned to purge and reorganize the army, and this threat, according to this theory, would provide a motive for a preemptive move against Zia. Among the few top generals not aboard Pak One was General Aslam Beg, the Army's vice chief of staff. He waved good-bye to Zia from the runway, and then, after the crash, flew immediately to Islamabad to take control, ordering army units to cordon off official residences, government buildings, and other strategic locations in the capital.

My assessment is that Zia and all thirty people aboard Pak One, were victims of sabotage. After going to Islamabad and Lahore to investigate in 1989, I was allowed to read the red-cover secret U.S. report on the accident by a U.S. Defense Department official, who asked to remain anonymous. This report reinforced my conclusion that the pilots and flight crew were incapacitated by a quick-acting nerve gas, such as "VX," which is odorless, easily transportable in liquid form, and, when vaporized by a small explosion, would cause paralysis and loss of speech within thirty seconds. VX gas would leave precisely the residue of phosphorous that was found in the chemical analysis of debris from the cockpit. A soda-sized can of VX could have been planted in the air vent of the pilot's compartment and triggered by a pressure sensor to activate on takeoff. 

But who did it? All the suspected parties-including Mir Murtaza Bhutto’s terrorists-had the capability of obtaining VX or a similar nerve gas, and any of them could have recruited an agent to plant a gas bomb on Pak One, since it had been grounded at the airstrip at Bahawalpur in violation of the prescribed procedure of flying it to the larger airport at Multan, where it could be properly guarded. During its four-hour grounding at Bahawalpur, workers reportedly entered Pak One without being searched in order to work on adjusting its cargo door. One of them could have planted a device. So all the suspects had the means to sabotage the plane. But only one of these parties, the Pakistan military, had the power to stop the planned autopsies, seize the telephone records of calls made to Zia and Rahman just prior to the crash, transfer the military personnel at Bahawalpur who might have witnessed the crime, stifle interrogations of police, and keep the FBI out of the picture. In short, only the Pakistan generals who assumed control that day had the power to create a cover-up that followed the crash. They also had a motive for making it look like something more legitimate than a coup d’état. 

In addition, the Pakistan military was the only agency capable of assuring that both President Zia and his second-in-command, General Rahman, were on the plane together. And unless both of these men could be eliminated simultaneously, no regime change could be certain. According to General Rahman's family, whom I interviewed at length in Lahore, General Rahman had not wanted to go to the tank demonstration, but he was told that Zia needed his counsel on an "urgent matter." So, under pressure from a general on Beg's staff, he changed his plans and flew with Zia. But that counsel turned out to be untrue. Not only was Zia surprised to see Rahman on the plane, but, as General Rahman related in a phone call from Bahawalpur to his son just before his death, Zia told him that there was no "urgent matter" requiring his presence on the plane. 

Zia's eldest son, Ijaz ul-Haq, also believed that his father had been manipulated by the military into going to the tank demonstration. He told me that his father was in the midst of making major changes in the military hierarchy and saw no point in going to this tank demonstration. He then received "continued calls" from General Mahmud Durrani, who was on Beg's staff, pressing him to be at the demonstration. The general said that the "Americans would consider it a slight" if he missed this event. So, despite his misgivings, he agreed to go. But according to U.S. Ambassador Robert Bigger Oakley, who in August 1988 had been the assistant to the president for Pakistan on the National Security Council, neither the U.S. embassy nor the military mission had pressed for Zia's attendance. He also told me that Ambassador Raphel, his predecessor, made a snap decision twenty-four hours beforehand to fly on Pak One when he learned, to his surprise, that Zia would be aboard the plane. If so, Zia, like Rahman, had been misled by his advisors. 

The level of orchestration necessary to bring about this regime change, both before the crash and in effecting the cover-up after the crash, persuades me that this was an inside job by a Pakistani military cabal. The journalistic lesson in the Zia case is that even when a government officially embargoes a subject, such as the Pakistan government did in this case, in a relatively porous country such as Pakistan, it is possible to get answers from low-level civil servants, such as air tower controllers, mortuary officers, and police officials.

Courtesy: The Annals of Unsolved Crime by Edward Jay Epstein


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