Saleem Shahzad was a courageous journalist and a friend. We called each other ‘bhai’ which means brother, out of respect and love. I admired him for reporting in a very dangerous region. He covered a subject few dared tackle and paid the ultimate price for it. Today, I got the sad news that his tortured and murdered bodywas recovered six miles from his car on the outskirts of Islamabad. He had disappeared two nights ago en route to a television studio to be interviewed about his allegations that Al-Qaeda had staged an attack against the Mehran naval base in Karachi in retaliation for the arrest of two pro-Al-Qaeda naval officers.
I pray for his wife who was always polite even when I called too early in the morning or much too late at night. His kids too, who played noisily as we tried to have a conversation about his interviews with high-ranking commanders of the Pakistan or Afghan Taliban.
Saleem was always concerned about his security. When we met in Kabul in 2008, the last time I saw him, he told me Pakistani authorities were nervous about whom he was going off to interview this time. Little did they know that he was hopping on a plane to Kabul to be interviewed by a CBC documentary team.
In the days that we spent together at a guest house in Kabul, the Sareena hotel was attacked by three suicide bombers. Several guards, hotel guests and workers were killed. The loss of life would have been higher except one suicide vest failed to detonate. Members of the Canadian team, all of whom had received extensive AKE training to report from war zones, knew we had to change our routine. Saleem was curious about the training and although he had received none, his surpassed ours on account of his real life experiences.
With his characteristic shy smile he spared no detail telling me how he wormed his way into Waziristan to interview Sirajuddin Haqqani, son of the notorious warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani, and the many hurdles he overcame getting back safely into Pakistan.
Saleem came on the radar of my colleague Julian Sher because he wrote in a style that was highly visual and descriptive. He described a scene as a radio reporter would, painting a picture in words. In 2007 Julian asked me to get in touch with Saleem and to assess how reliable he was and whether I would peg him as pro-Taliban or pro-ISI, Pakistan’s corrupt Inter-Service Intelligence. After reading nearly a year of his articles and talking to him for extensive periods I concluded that he wasn’t pro anything. He was pro the truth and he was determined to tell it in a way that was compelling and thought provoking.
I last spoke with Saleem shortly after the U.S. killed Osama bin Laden. I asked him what he was hearing. He said it was indeed the Al Qaeda leader that was killed, but while Pakistani authorities were told about the strike by the Americans they had no idea who the target was.
Saleem Bhai, whoever did this to you are the worst and most despicable human beings on this earth. They’ll get what they deserve. I pray that your new book – Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Osama bin Laden and 9/11″ – will do well and the hundreds of reports that you authored will inspire a new cadre of journalists to blossom in a country where the powerful seek to suppress the truth with bullets. Rest well my friend. Our journey continues.