On October 23, 2022, Pakistani journalist Arshad Sharif was killed in Kajiado, Kenya, when local police shot at the car Sharif was travelling in after the vehicle failed to stop at a police roadblock. In the weeks after the killing, Pakistani investigators began to describe the case as a “planned assassination” orchestrated by Pakistan’s military in retaliation for Sharif’s public criticism of their institution.
Despite these allegations, over a year on from the murder, neither the Pakistani nor Kenyan police have officially identified any suspects or been able to deliver a clear explanation of the events that led to Sharif’s murder. It is essential to note, however, that these failures are not so much a result of a lack of evidence, but rather seem to be an attempt to “protect their interests at the expense of the truth about Sharif’s death.” Back in October, Sharif’s widow and two unions of Kenyan journalists filed a case against the Kenyan General Services Unit for their involvement in Sharif’s shooting, but it remains to be seen whether sufficient evidence will be found to bring charges against the unit.
When analyzing the events that led to Sharif’s death, it is immediately clear that there are numerous holes in the story provided by the Kenyan police. They first maintained that Sharif’s killing was a case of “mistaken identity”; the police were tracking and attempting to stop a stolen vehicle that was being used to abduct a child, and they claimed they had mistaken Sharif’s vehicle for that of the abductor. Subsequent investigations revealed that the abductor’s car was a white Mercedes Sprinter 311 CDI, a utility van. Sharif’s car was a Toyota Land Cruiser, with a completely different number plate, and was heading in the opposite direction from the white van the police were meant to be tracking. It is hard to believe the police had enough reason to open fire on a vehicle that did not resemble the model, number plate, or even travel direction of their target vehicle.
Furthermore, the Kenyan police contradicted their original statement explaining how the incident took place. After originally claiming it as a case of mistaken identity, the police later asserted that shots were fired from Sharif’s car, and that their own shots were defensive retaliation. Such an inconsistency calls into question the credibility of the police’s testimony and raises concerns of a possible collaboration between the police and those who orchestrated Sharif’s assassination. Sharif’s widow cited the contradictions in filing her suit against the Kenyan security force.
The next question that must be asked is why an operation of this size would be orchestrated to see to the removal of a single journalist? Sharif originally had close relationships with Pakistan Army officials during his time as a journalist, but after the fall of Imran Khan’s government, he started to become suspicious and critical of the army’s influence over Pakistan’s political affairs. As a journalist, Sharif had a ready platform to vocalize his concerns. He had worked as a news anchor for Pakistan’s ARY news channel, but the channel was made to cut ties with Sharif after he conducted a controversial interview with Shahbaz Gill, a close ally of Imran Khan, in which Gill directly criticized the Pakistani military. Sharif also had a YouTube channel, which he started to use to criticize the military.
This transition from close military associate to strong opponent appears to mirror the case of journalist Saleem Shahzad. He was originally close with several Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agents, but started to observe connections between ISI officers, al-Qaeda, and its affiliate the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). He began to speak out about his concerns and was later kidnapped, tortured, and left dead in a canal in 2011. Shahzad seemed to have discovered an extensive network linking the ISI to terrorist groups, particularly after he looked in to the mysterious killing of Major General Ammer Faisal Alvi in 2008 and found Alvi had been threatening to expose military generals who were striking deals with the then-TTP chief, Baituallah Mehsud.
Shahzad’s death has eerie similarities with the Sharif case. Both journalists were originally close to the military, which likely made them both more of a threat as they were more familiar with military personnel than most other journalists. Sharif had also been interviewed for a documentary just before his death called “Behind Closed Doors,” in which he gave evidence of corruption in Pakistan.
Sharif began to receive threats from the ISI following his escalating criticism and was allegedly called in to the ISI HQ in Islamabad, where he was given a message from Major General Faisal Naseer that warned of consequences if he did not stop his criticism. It should be noted that Imran Khan has claimed that Naseer orchestrated two attempts on his life and was responsible for the severe torture of Senator Azam Swati, a member of Khan’s political party. Khan has also alleged that Naseer played a role in the murder of Sharif.
Sharif continued with his criticism of the military despite these warnings and as a result, multiple cases of sedition and treason were filed against him in a variety of cities. In total 16 First Information Reports (FIRs) were filed against him (which are significant as they initiate criminal investigations), and it has been noted that representatives of the ISI appeared to be present at the writing up of several of these FIRs. Despite 16 FIRs being filed originally, the fact-finding committee they were then presented to only received six.
Amid the filing of these charges, Sharif started receiving death threats and decided to leave the country. He fled to Dubai, but they refused to sign off on his visa and threatened to deport him back to Pakistan if he did not leave within 48 hours. This raises the prospect that the Pakistani military could have had a role in this decision and were able to exert their influence in the UAE to ensure Sharif could not seek refuge there.
A British Pakistani businessman in Dubai put Sharif in touch with a Pakistani living in Kenya, Waqar Ahmed, who invited Sharif to stay in an apartment building he owned with his brother, Khurram Ahmed. This sudden last-minute arrangement may have sealed Sharif’s fate in light of the allegations that Waqar and his brother worked for the ISI and were in contact with ISI commander Brigadier Faheem Raza – the same official who had called Sharif into the ISI HQ to receive a warning.
Further evidence to support the connection between the ISI and Kenyan intelligence through these brothers relates to the events leading up to Sharif’s death on October 23. Sharif had spent the last night before his death at the AmmoDump shooting range, which happens to also be owned by the Ahmed brothers. He then was driven home by Khurram Ahmed. Khurram was the driver of Sharif’s car when it supposedly sped past a police checkpoint, which the police said warranted the shooting. Khurram survived the incident; Sharif did not. It remains unclear why the police would have targeted a passenger in the car rather than the driver if they believed the vehicle was being used to abduct a child.
It is also important to note that the ISI has a longstanding connection to criminal activity in Kenya. Just prior to his death, Sharif was researching the connection between Indian drug lord Dawood Ibrahim and the ISI in Kenya, specifically. The ISI also has a history of sponsoring travel between Kenya and Pakistan for terrorists who are trying to escape detection. The ISI notably helped one of the perpetrators of the 1993 Mumbai attacks, Munaf Halari, get a passport through Dawood Ibrahim’s network. Halari had set up a rice business in Kenya called Magnum Africa Limited, which was used as a front for drug dealing operations.
It is clear the ISI has been operating within Kenya for decades through connections to criminal entities, but the murder of Sharif suggests the ISI may also have very influential connections within the Kenyan police service too. It is this latter connection that is particularly alarming. As Sharif’s case suggests that ISI was able to orchestrate an extrajudicial, extraterritorial killing and ensure that criminal investigations in both Pakistan and Kenya do not implicate them.
The case also may indicate the power and expanse of the ISI’s international network. The sequence of events suggests the ISI allegedly managed to ensure Sharif was forced out of his home country and his first-choice country of refuge, and then was killed in the third place he escaped to. It should also be noted that cases like Sharif’s are likely to deter journalists based in Pakistan, who have an incredibly valuable understanding of Pakistan and the inner workings of its military. This will make it increasingly difficult to both track the actions of the ISI and to work to prevent their most serious crimes.