Saleem Shahzad: Pakistan journalist courted danger

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Saleem Shahzad
Image caption,
Saleem Shahzad was feared abducted after he went missing on Sunday

Two Pakistani journalists pay tribute to their late colleague, Saleem Shahzad. They recall a resourceful investigative reporter whose scoops raised hackles among Pakistani intelligence - and may have ultimately cost him his life.

Hasan Mansoor, AFP correspondent, Karachi

I vividly remember my first meeting with Saleem Shahzad. It was back in 1995, in Karachi. I had joined a then popular evening newspaper, the Star.

Shahzad joined the Star a few days later. He was then lean and young, with a small, unruly beard, unkempt hair and probing eyes. He was wearing cheap jeans and a sweat-soaked shirt.

He stretched his hand across our rundown circular table around which the reporters sat.

"I am Saleem Shahzad, I've just joined."

For the next five or six years, we worked on piecemeal remunerations, and depended entirely for our income on whether or not the editors would use our reports.

We went together from gloom to doom on a daily basis. If I made it to the front page, he would demand I bummed him a cigarette. I would do the same.

We were economically stretched, but we kept our humour.

And despite our destitution, both of us got married just two months apart in 1997.

Image caption,
Shahzad broke a series of corruption scandals within the Karachi Electric Supply Company

Saleem had a penchant for quarrels - though not without a cause.

His primary beat at the Star was to cover the local utility service, the Karachi Electric Supply Company (KESC).

Unlike most journalists, he would never rely on the statements of the KESC spokesman, but would roam around the grid stations to find something different. And he always did.

He broke a series of corruption scandals within the KESC. That got him into trouble not only with the KESC officialdom, but also with the newspaper's management.

For several months the news desk refused to run his stories, thereby squeezing him financially.

But he made a comeback when the editor of the paper changed and gave him a free hand.

"I now have more space to play tricks with monsters," he once remarked.

Courting trouble

This defiance was inherent in his character, and it finally took him down.

In 2001, he landed a job with the Asia Times Online. I also moved to the AFP news agency.

Our meetings became few and far between, but we did meet off and on until about two years ago when he moved to Islamabad.

I was aware of the inroads he made into militant networks in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

And I also knew about the troubles he courted.

The Star's management was instrumental in saving his life some years ago when the Taliban captured him in southern Afghanistan.

His brush with the Pakistani intelligence services was the last evidence of his defiance.

He was not one of the best journalists in Pakistan, but he had an unparalleled obsession to run down the "monsters".

I wonder if he knew that you cannot always win.

"If they don't respond to what you report, it probably means they are planning to pick you up."

This is what the journalist, Saleem Shahzad, told one of his friends the day before he was abducted and killed, allegedly by Pakistani intelligence.

I first met Shahzad when he was working for a private news agency, back in the late 1990s.

By that time, he was already a well-known journalist, though mostly for his startling stories on local crime in the Karachi evening newspaper, The Star.

A few minutes with him were enough to convince you that he was one of those journalists who had not yet found his "big story". And that he would not rest until he did.

Like hundreds of other journalists around the world, he got his break with 9/11.

Moving to the Hong Kong-based news website, Asia Times Online, he started reporting on the so-called "war on terror" and seemed to have found his calling in life.

From Kabul to Baghdad, Shahzad loved to put himself in the thick of things and it was not long before I heard that he had disappeared along with his interpreter somewhere in Afghanistan.

For several days, we knew nothing about him until he resurfaced in Quetta. But he refused to say much about where he had been.

He was that kind of a guy - never too worried about what he was getting into and often unwilling to talk about what he had gotten away with.

Image caption,
The Taliban - including late leader Baitullah Mehsud, seen here in 2008 - were the focus of much of Saleem Shahzad's reporting

Years of reporting on al-Qaeda and its affiliates based in Pakistan seemed to have convinced him that 9/11 had caused an ideological split of sorts in the country's armed forces.

As recently as the third week of May, he had expounded his theory in detail in a video interview with the website,, about the aftermath of Bin Laden's killing.

No wonder that calls from Pakistan's powerful intelligence agency, the ISI, were a norm for him.

He once joked that a colonel working in the ISI had called him and said: "We haven't had any complaint against you for such a long time that I feel like buying you a cup of tea."

Shahzad recently published his insights in his book, Inside al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and his friends say that his second book on al-Qaeda's strategy is currently being edited.

He was often asked why he loved to flirt with danger despite the fact that he had a young family - two sons and a daughter. But he would only smile in response.