Hayat-Ullah Khan: Waziristan journalist who was killed for truthful reporting

On December 3, 2015 Gen Pervez Musharraf (also the then President of Pakistan) was on a state visit to Kuwait when he announced that he was “200 percent” certain that al-Qaeda’s ‘Operation Chief’ Abu Hamza Rabia had been killed two days earlier in North Waziristan’s border town of Miram Shah. Not much was known then about this Egyptian born man in his thirties, but according to US intelligence, he ranked third in al-Qaeda’s hierarchy and that made his elimination a huge success in the ongoing joint US-Pak war against terror. Whereas there was no disagreement regarding Gen Musharraf’s “200 percent” claim, but the circumstances under which Rabia met his end did raise considerable controversy.

Pakistani Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told CNN that Rabia had died in a blast that occurred while he was apparently handling explosives, and Interior Minister Aftab Ahmad Khan Sherpao too confirmed that “five miscreants, including three foreigners” had been killed in this explosion, while two others were injured. But the local residents who witnessed this explosion had something else to tell, of how they had seen a flying object discharge what appeared to be a rocket that had struck and exploded the house in which Rabia and his associates were present, killing and injuring those inside.

Pakistan vehemently denied this allegation and Washington’s reply was evasive and didn’t clarify whether it had any role in this killing. US National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said, “We’ve seen the reports (of Rabia’s killing) out of Pakistan… We are not in a position at this point to publicly declare that he has been killed. However, when he went on to say “…there are conflicting reports as to what happened, but obviously, the details of these kinds of things, are things, that is best left for the Pakistanis to talk about,” it was generally accepted that Islamabad was telling the truth.

But then a story with photographs appeared in a local Urdu daily ‘Ausaf’ that contradicted the ‘accidental’ explosion account given by Islamabad. In one of the photos, a rocket fragment with the nomenclature-plate bearing initials “US” (United States) was clearly visible, as was description of the armament (“Guided Missile Surface Attack: AGM 114”). This photo was also received by European Pressphoto Agency (EPA) on the same day, which further distributed it across the world. While this photo left no room for any doubts whatsoever that Rabia had been ‘droned’, it also revealed that even though America had violated Pakistan’s sovereignty by carrying out a drone attack on its soil, instead of confronting Washington on this unacceptable trespass, Islamabad was instead going out of its way to conceal American involvement in this incident!

Since an innocent college going youth had also died in this drone attack, the article in ‘Ausaf’ enraged locals and highlighted the government’s complete lack of control over the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). At the same time, these photos also caused immense diplomatic embarrassment for Islamabad as the international community realised that Pakistan was once again intentionally peddling lies. The person who had written the piece on this drone attack and provided the photographs to EPA was a 30-year-old freelance journalist named Hayat-Ullah Khan from Mir Ali in North Waziristan.

On December 5, 2005 (a day after his drone attack article and missile fragment photos appeared in the media), Hayat-Ullah was abducted by five armed men in broad daylight when he was on his way to cover a protest by college students against the death of their colleague in this attack. His brother Ehsan-Ullah Khan, who too is a journalist and an eyewitness to his brother’s abduction, raised a massive hue and cry, both at home and abroad by contacting various media watchdogs like the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which is a global non-profit organisation committed to the promotion of press freedom, defending rights of journalists to safe reporting without fear of any reprisals and highlighting violations against media persons worldwide.

Forced to act, the government of Pakistan did what it’s best at— giving an impression of great concern and promising to bring the perpetrators to book without really intending to do so. It asked the Pakistan Army to investigate and in March 2006, the army (expectedly) ‘confirmed; that Hayat-Ullah Khan had not been arrested by the security forces. The enquiry hinted that he may have been abducted by the Taliban and kept somewhere in Afghanistan. But if Rawalpindi thought that it could absolve the army by offering such a ludicrous ‘assessment’ that seems to have been conjured by a juvenile, then it was sadly mistaken. Doesn’t the Pakistan Army know that:

  • The Taliban doesn’t keep hostages unless they are of a status that could facilitate release of its cadres through swap deals. Hayat-Ullah certainly didn’t meet this criterion.
  • The Taliban also abducts for ransom. But here again, it was obvious that the government of Pakistan would never agree to negotiate his release in exchange of money, nor did his family have the means to offer any substantial amount for securing his release.

Furthermore, since Hayat-Ullah’s revelation had aroused anti-US feelings amongst locals in the Tribal Area and turned them into heroes, he had actually done Taliban a big favour and as such his being abducted by them doesn’t make any sense. The Taliban could have abducted him only if they had suspected him of being a CIA or an ISI operative, but since they had already kidnapped him just a year earlier and after interrogating him found him to be ‘clean’, why should they have abducted him once again?

On June 16, 2006, Hayat-Ullah’s body was found in Miran Shah area of North Waziristan. He had multiple gunshot wounds and one of his hands still had a handcuff– the type used by ISI. An investigation was carried out by High Court Justice Mohammed Reza Khan but surprisingly, the findings were never made public. Despite receiving numerous threats not to depose before the inquiry committee, Mehrunnisa (Hayat-Ullah’s widow) did so as she was certain that her husband had been a victim of some inter/intra army or intelligence agency rivalry. In his report (Mystery of murdered tribal journalist, BBC News, 19 June 2006), Aamer Ahmed Khan of BBC’s Karachi Bureau mentions Mehrunnisa revealing that “I know those officers. They wanted Hayat-Ullah to report that Abu Hamza Rabia had been killed by an American missile.”

Since the inquiry report findings haven’t been made public, there’s no way to know what was it that Mehrunnisa revealed, and the tragedy is that we can’t ask her the same because she was killed in an IED blast on November 17, 2007, when she was sleeping inside her house. So, was Hayat-Ullah an unwitting victim of having sided with a renegade section within the army or ISI that wasn’t happy with the military top brass decision not to publicise the drone attack that killed Rabia? This isn’t mere speculation; au contraire, it seems to be the most plausible explanation for the following reasons:

  • If the sole aim of the abductors was to kill Hayat-Ullah, then why should they have taken all the trouble planning and executing his abduction, then keeping him at a secret location for more than six months, unless the aim was to keep him alive till complete information to unearth the pro-Taliban elements within its ranks had been extracted?
  • If the Pakistan Army and ISI weren’t involved, then who made threatening calls to Hayat-Ullah’s widow to dissuade her from deposing before the inquiry commission? The Taliban surely wouldn’t have-simply because government inquiries mean nothing to them!
  • If an entity other than the Pakistan Army or ISI was involved, what was the point of issuing threats to Mehrunnisa not to give her statement? Wouldn’t permanently ‘silencing’ her before she could depose be much simpler and more reliable option than just scaring her?
  • Mehrunnisa’s targeted killing indicates that someone was extremely uncomfortable with something that she knew or could reveal. Had it been the Taliban, wouldn’t it have (just like in Malala Yousufzai’s case), simply send someone to shoot her dead? Since when has the Taliban started taking the pains of setting up an IED in her house and then wait for the opportune moment to blast it, ensuring that her children aren’t harmed?

CPJ is a highly respected organisation that upholds and speaks up for the rights and safety of journalists and Islamabad has never accused it of being anti-Pakistan. So, when its website mentions “military officials” as the “Suspected Source of Fire” for Hayat-Ullah’s murder, should we believe the CPJ or instead accept Islamabad’s version that its security forces had nothing to do with this abduction and murder? I for one am more inclined to believe CPJ’s former due to its impartial reputation rather than the latter, which ruined its own credibility by trying to pass off a deliberate drone attack that took place in broad daylight as an ‘accidental’ explosion!

Had Hyat-Ullah not reported on the drone strike that killed al-Qaida’s No. 3, he and his wife would have been alive today. But, like several others zealous journalists, he made the cardinal mistake of reporting truthfully, knowing very well that his factual report would antagonize Pakistan’s deep state and so it’s not surprising that both he and his wife paid for this folly with their lives. Who killed them may matter little to Islamabad, but doesn’t Islamabad have the moral responsibility of telling the orphaned children of Hayat-Ullah and Mehrunnisa as to who had murdered their parents?

Nilesh Kunwar
Nilesh Kunwar
Writer is a retired Indian Army Officer who has served in terrorism-infested areas of Jammu & Kashmir, Assam, Nagaland and Manipur. He is a 'Kashmir-Watcher' who keeps a close tab on the state's developments.

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