The Sabeen Mahmud Killing – Conspiracy and Consequences

The brutal killing of Sabeen Mahmud, a social media campaigner and human rights activist who founded the social forum The Second Floor (T2F), is a great loss for Pakistan. The killing has once again exposed the government’s inability to protect the lives of journalists, human rights activists, or any other ordinary citizen of Pakistan. Sabeen Mahmud’s death has sent a shock wave throughout Pakistan and has been condemned by every segment of society. The nation is once again divided in its opinion on the culprits responsible for this heinous crime – instead of focusing on the heinous nature of the attack. People have pointed fingers according to their rationale, bias, worldview, and experiences. Most people are divided over the possible involvement of the ISI and the MQM.

The killing of Sabeen Mahmud occurred right after the end of an interactive discussion called “Unsilencing Balochistan Take 2” which was organized by Mahmud and attended by journalists and rights activists, including the founder leader of the Voice for Baloch Missing Persons, Abdul Qadeer Baloch. The seminar was held in the wake of the recent cancellation of a discussion on the Balochistan issue at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. It is widely believed that the talk was cancelled due to extreme pressure from the ISI. The cancellation of the discussion was condemned vigorously in print and social media, and the role of military fell under scrutiny due to its effort to control the debate on the Balochistan issue.

In the backdrop of the aforementioned developments, speculation has emerged as to four forces potentially involved in the murder: the ISI, the MQM, the TTP, and India. The ISI has repeatedly been linked to and accused of the manhandling and killing of journalists, human right activists, and other vocal members of society. The manhandling of journalist Umar Cheema, the attack on veteran journalist Hamid Mir, the killing of journalist Saleem Shahzad, and the issue of missing persons in Balochistan are some cases in point. The reasons for these killings could be to deter people from being too vocal. But even an ordinary citizen in Pakistan can assess the outcome of such incidents, which is that it would lead to a further increase in criticism and hostility towards the military and the ISI in Pakistan. Therefore, to hold the ISI responsible for this attack makes little sense (unless there are rogue elements acting on their own).

The involvement of the MQM in this incident cannot be ruled out either. The MQM is widely believed in Pakistan to be involved in targeted killings, kidnappings, and extortion in Karachi. The recent raid of rangers on MQM headquarters “Nine-Zero” surprised many in Pakistan – and was taken to signal a government and Army shift away from tolerance of the MQM in Karachi. The subsequent video message confession of a condemned former MQM member about his terrorist activities and the instructions of MQM leadership further cemented this assumption. MQM leader Altaf Hussain’s following criticism of the Army confirmed that the MQM believes in the Army’s role in curtailing its activities. The MQM has years of experience in pity politics and everyone in Pakistan is aware of its brutal activities. Thus the killing a human rights activist in the wake of the sensitive Balochistan issue could have been a perfect opportunity for the MQM to malign the Army.

A similar objective could suggest the TTP’s involvement. The recent operation in North Waziristan and the difficulty in finding easy targets for terrorist attacks due to extra security measures from the government demands innovation in TTP’s strategy and tactics. Therefore, in the backdrop of the aforementioned scenario, the TTP could have also exploited the situation.

A final possible force behind the killing could be Indian intelligence agencies – due to the strong link between the killing and the Balochistan issue, and subsequent international criticism of the military and Pakistan. The argument goes that it would be in India’s interest to portray the Balochistan problem as a genuine issue and to malign the Pakistani military’s involvement in carrying out suppressive activities in the region. The weak standing of the military in Pakistan and at international fora would benefit India as it would strengthen the Indian argument that Pakistan’s military is mainly responsible for the volatile relationship between the neighboring states. Pakistan has overplayed the card of Indian involvement in its problems over the years without addressing the root causes of such issues by articulating effective policy. The “India card” has lost credibility, and now even people in Pakistan do not take it seriously. This provides India an ideal situation to fulfill its policy goals – allowing Pakistan to be portrayed as a dangerous, military-controlled nuclear weapons state.

The military’s policies and political involvement in domestic and regional issues has not only created difficulties for Pakistan, but has also added vulnerabilities that are causing harm to the country in a big way. The widespread speculation about the possible ISI role in Sabeen Mahmud’s killing suggests growing discontent among the people of Pakistan regarding the Army’s policies in domestic affairs.


Image: Farooq Naeem-AFP, Getty

Posted in , Internal Security, Pakistan, Policy, Security

Mirza Muhammad Masood Akbar

Mirza Muhammad Masood Akbar

Mirza Muhammad Masood Akbar is a Research Fellow at the South Asian Strategic Stability Institute (SASSI) Islamabad, Pakistan. He is currently working as a visiting fellow at James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, MIIS California. He has M.Sc. and M.Phil degree from the department of Defence and Strategic Studies, Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad, Pakistan. His area of interest is Non-proliferation and Arms Control Issues in South Asia. He can be reached at masood645[at]

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5 thoughts on “The Sabeen Mahmud Killing – Conspiracy and Consequences

  1. @masood
    I respect your opinion, but there are certain things to be refrained. I think there are two three scenarios which are more plausible in SM killing.
    One is the suspected Baloach militants may be involved in her killing
    Second, Intelligence agencies may be involved.
    Third, foreign elements in support with local militants may be involved.
    Fourth, usual suspects target killers asking for extortion can also be involved.

    We have been making Karachi Watch (PIPS monthly report on incident of violence in Karachi) since 2007. Over the years, the trends shows that terrorist incidents have been manifolded.
    Here are some of the stats which will certainly give everyone a chance to dig deep into SM’ killing.
    Table 1: Terrorist Attacks in Karachi in March 2015

    Nature of Attack No. of attacks Killed Injured

    Terrorist attacks by militants 8 10 15

    Terrorist attacks [sectarian-related] 3 5 10

    Total 11 15 25

    Table 2: Targets of the Terrorists in Karachi

    Targets No. of attacks Killed Injured

    Security forces/law enforcement 5 9 7

    Educational institutions 2 0 0

    Civilians 1 1 8

    Shia religious scholars/community 1 1 0

    Sunni religious leaders/community 1 2 0

    Bohra community 1 2 10

    Total 11 15 25

  2. A very thorough analysis of the situation, good for anyone who wants to gain a perspective on the issue!

  3. @author your assessments seems to be too much generalized, and u assumption based. rather than blaming a state institution like ISI , there exist more proof that there are Indian involvement in such incidents. killing of journalists , being a citizen of karachi its perceived in the common talks and in streets of Karachi that who ever talk against MQM on electronic media , socially or in groups is harmed one way or the other by MQM’s criminal elements.there has been evidence taht indian RAW trains Pakistani citizens and use them against the Pakistani citizens (Recent saluta mirza statement, and Superintendent of Police Mr. Rao press conference ) the journalists were targeted because they were not siding MQM they tried to be neutral (wali babar murder and many others ) but the electronic media showed it against the state institutions. and give and impression in public , its genrally beleived that media is business and pro Indian media is dominated this time , even Indian funded commercial are run by them for money . so three factors target killings of all even common people by MQM ‘s trained raw fellows in a systematic way with the support of dominated media group shapes the perceptions. where as the reality is other way.

  4. It is indeed a good article as you have covered nearly all aspects that could have involvement in the SM assassination. Your analysis about ISI and MQM is also adorable because both of them could be the beneficiaries of the killing however, in the given sensitive atmosphere of Karachi, MQM could be held responsible but ISI could get clean chit, if the investigations are carried out. Discomfort with ISI & military role in political affairs is also a subject that you have tried to address in the article and has summarized in the last portion. The more people getting international exposure the more they are exposing feeble and vulnerable nature of intelligence agencies and their role in mainstream politics in Pakistan. Above all, it makes me happy that now many youngsters of my age have started to point out the glitches we have and you did a wonderful job by writing this write up. Keep going

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