On 19th January Pakistan’s Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) carried out an operation on a highway near Sahiwal city of Pakistan where a white car was stopped by CTD officials, which according to their information at the time, was carrying Islamic State members. What followed was a botched police encounter which resulted in the death of a couple, their teenage daughter and the driver. The victims were identified as grocery store owner Mohammad Khalil, his wife Nabila, their 13-year-old daughter Areeba and their friend, Zeeshan Javed. Their son Umair Khalil sustained bullet wounds while his sister Muniba’s hand was injured due to broken glass of car while Hadiba, their daughter, remained unhurt.
On January 19, the CTD claimed in a statement that they signalled a Suzuki Alto car and a motorcycle to stop near Sahiwal Toll Plaza on GT Road, but they did not pull over and instead opened fire on the police. The CTD officials retaliated and four people, including two women, were killed by the “firing of their own accomplices” in the ensuing firefight, according to the CTD. However, later it transpired that except for Zeeshan, all other occupants of the car were an innocent family.
The incident triggered a nationwide outrage and calls for the government to come clean on the shady operation. A joint investigation team formed to probe into the incident confirmed that the family was innocent and that the CTD officials were responsible for their killing. Subsequently, the government in Punjab removed some top CTD officials and suspended others, while announcing to try five CTD officials responsible for the killings on terrorism and murder charges.
It was clear from the beginning that it was a botched operation and the CTD officials who carried it out were squarely blamed for the deaths of the passengers of the car. Earlier this week an in-camera briefing was held for the media by Pakistani government officials to explain the proceedings in the case, in an attempt to throw cold water on public anger. But not much was clarified publicly, in or after the media briefing. Pakistani media ran some stories but without any solid evidence, and those stories did little to convince the general public what exactly led to that botched operation on Jan 19.
Now ITCT Newsdesk has obtained new evidence that suggests that the story behind the incident was much more complex than what has been told to the Pakistani public by the media or government officials.
It all started with Operation Zulfiqar, which was launched in 2017 by CTD, backed up by Pakistani intelligence agencies. The main focus of the operation was the presence of Islamic State members in Pakistan, and in particular Punjab province. After initially denying IS presence in Pakistan, Pakistani intelligence agencies finally admitted that over the years IS has recruited several people in Pakistan who in turn created a strong IS network, which needed to be dismantled.
While following the trail of IS recruits in Pakistan, CTD officials identified at least nine people who they believed were a significant part of IS network in Punjab province.
As per their intelligence, CTD officials believed that these nine men were involved in the following incidents:
It is important to note here that some of these suspects may have been a part of Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) at one point, before joining Islamic State.
On 14th January 2019, just four days before the Sahiwal incident, Pakistani special commandos killed Adeel Hafeez, one of the top members of IS in Pakistan, as well as Usman Haroon in a secret operation in Faisalabad. In the same operation, eight other IS members, including the deputy emir of IS in Punjab province Umar Hayat alias Master Imran, managed to escape unharmed.
In the above photo, Adeel Hafeez can be seen alongside a silver Honda City car with license plate number LE 7039. Same car with the same plate was used in terrorist attacks which targeted Inspector Umar, Inspector Yasir as well as other law enforcement officials. Both Inspector Umar and Inspector Yasir were killed in 2017. Additionally, both Adeel Hafeez and Usman Haroon were tracked to Faisalabad in the same silver Honda City car.
When CTD officials seized the silver Honda City car following the 14 Jan operation in Faisalabad, they found the following items in the vehicle:
On 15 Jan, after seizing the vehicle, Pakistani CTD officials back-tracked the movement of the vehicle up to November 2018 through CCTV cameras installed in the Punjab province as part of government’s Safe City project. And then through various toll plaza footage the vehicle was tracked back to Lahore city.
By 17th Jan, the car was spotted by Lahore Safe City cameras that revealed the following:-
This white Suzuki Alto was the same vehicle which was intercepted by CTD officials on the highway near Sahiwal city on 19 Jan.
The suspicious movement of the Honda City car and the Suzuki Alto between Lahore and Sahiwal led the CTD officials to open an investigation into the white Alto.
On 18 Jan 2019 at about 0930 hours, the white Suzuki Alto was spotted at Manga Mandi moving southwards. Footage indicated only two males sitting in the front along with heavy luggage in the rear.
Given the history, CTD officials feared that after the 14 Jan counter-terrorism operation in Faisalabad which killed Adeel Hafeez and Usman Haroon, the remaining IS terrorists might be re-locating their hideout along with their weapons and suicide jackets.
Keeping in view the urgency of the situation, all field teams of CTD near the area were alerted and advised to intercept the white Alto vehicle with caution, due to likely presence of suicide jackets and weapons. A team of CTD Sahiwal identified and intercepted the vehicle on National Highway near Qadirabad, leading to the unfortunate incident on 19 Jan.
In a related incident, CTD officials were informed by a source that two IS terrorists wearing suicide jackets were moving in a car from Sheran Wala Gate, Gujranwala. As soon as the vehicle was out of the populated area, both the terrorists were neutralized by CTD officials, backed up by special commandos, before they could detonate their jackets.
These two terrorists were later identified as Abdul Rehman, emir of IS in Punjab, and his close accomplice Kashif Choto.
CTD officials also gathered enough evidence linking the white Alto car, which was being used by Zeeshan Javed, the family friend of the couple killed in the Sahiwal incident, with IS terrorists. The white Suzuki Alto car LE 6683 in use of Zeeshan Javed was in reality the property of terrorist Adeel Hafeez, which Zeeshan apparently borrowed from him for some time, oblivious of the fact that it was being monitored by CTD officials.
Following the 19 Jan incident, CTD officials found CDR (Call Detail Record) locations and Voice messages from Zeeshan’s cell phone (sent between Zeeshan in Alto and Adeel Hafeez and Usman Haroon in Honda City) from 13 Jan, which they sent each other during their journey from Lahore to Sahiwal.
Screenshots taken from Zeeshan’s cell phone show that on 28 Oct 18 and 3 Nov 2018, Zeeshan discussed use of a suicide bomber against an unknown target and also discussed the motivation level of the suicide bomber.
Following the 14 Jan operation in Faisalabad, CTD officials also found a USB with Adeel Hafeez. Inside the USB, they found an image showing another IS terrorist named Rizwan Akram shooting Inspector Umar Mubeen, who can be seen in an orange jumpsuit, on a street in an unknown location. Later, following the 19 Jan Sahiwal incident, CTD officials found the image of the same terrorist Rizwan in the cell phone of Zeeshan. Rizwan was one of the nine terrorists identified as an important part of IS network in Punjab.
What we know so far:
The evidence presented above, as well as other evidence that ITCT Newsdesk has seen but decided not to publish due to the sensitivity of the situation, establishes beyond doubt that Zeeshan, the friend of the family killed in the unfortunate incident on 19 Jan in Sahiwal, was involved in terrorist activities with high profile members of the Islamic State group.
To get more insight on the issue, ITCT Newsdesk talked to ITCT Deputy Director and Head of South Asia Desk, Faran Jeffery, who said:
“The 19 Jan incident in Sahiwal was an unfortunate incident which shouldn’t have happened. But new details that have emerged since then highlight that the back story of that incident is way more complex than any of us initially thought. It is clear that on 19 Jan when the white Suzuki Alto was intercepted on the highway by CTD officials, the main person of interest in the car was Zeeshan Javed, who CTD officials believed to be a close associate of Adeel Hafeez and other high profile IS terrorists. CTD officials also assumed, perhaps based on faulty intelligence, that Zeeshan was wearing a suicide jacket and may be armed. In the past we have seen IS recruiting women such as in the case of Naureen Laghari. That would explain why the presence of women and children in the car did not stop the CTD officials from engaging Zeeshan in gunfire, since they may have assumed that he was traveling with other IS members. But turns out, CTD officials were wrong, and what likely happened was that Zeeshan used the family, who were also his neighbors, to try to make sure that he will not attract much attention. But he didn’t know that the white Suzuki Alto, which he was traveling in on that fateful day, was already under surveillance by CTD. In short, he put the lives of innocent people at risk to save his own. Of course, this does not mean that the CTD officials who carried out the operation did not mismanage the operation. Indeed, it was a botched operation and CTD officials shouldn’t have engaged Zeeshan unless they had reliable intelligence that he was wearing a suicide jacket, which he was not. So yes, it was definitely a botched operation, and I suspect that this will lead Pakistani government to introduce mass reforms in the police force, which is a good thing. But at the same time, I think we need to be a little less harsh on CTD officials and a little more considerate about the context, since we now have many more facts than we did at that time. Therefore, the illogical calls by some for public hangings of the CTD officials involved in the botched operation are counter-productive and simply do not help. I’m not saying that those officials shouldn’t be reprimanded in some way; they definitely should be, but they’re not the only ones responsible for this tragedy. The larger portion of the blame lies with terrorist Zeeshan, who endangered the lives of innocent people to try to save his own. One of the major dilemmas of war on terrorism is that sometimes there is faulty intelligence, and sometimes grave mistakes happen by counter-terrorism officials. This is true in almost every country’s context. It was also necessary to publish this evidence, for which ITCT takes full responsibility, because it is important for Pakistani public to know about these details before they judge their security forces. Pakistani security forces are not out to intentionally kill innocent civilians but instead to protect them from barbaric terrorists. One more thing, the image we are seeing of Inspector Umar just before being executed is likely edited. It appears that he was killed somewhere else and later the images of the executioner and the victim were superimposed by some IS techie on a different background, which appears to be a street somewhere in Pakistan.”
ITCT Newsdesk also talked to ITCT Executive Director, Noor Dahri, about the 19 Jan Sahiwal incident, who said:
“I am very much sure that the Sahiwal operation was a successful operation, however it was mishandled by the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) officers at the scene, which is unfortunately why some innocent causalities happened. One of the people who was shot dead along with the family was named as Zeeshan Javed, who was a terrorist and affiliated with ISKP (Daesh). He knew that his ring leader Adeel has been shot dead and at another point, two other IS suicide bombers were also eliminated by the CTD. He also knew that he could be next, therefore he decided to use his neighbors, Mr Khalil and his family, as human shield in order to escape from being arrested or being killed by the CTD. It was he who endangered his neighbors’ lives deliberately and he is the one who deserves the blame of this incident. I also condemn the fact that innocent lives have been lost mistakenly in this operation due to mishandling by the CTD officers but the Pakistani nation needs to recognise that Pakistani security forces are fighting with their lives to eliminate cross-border terrorism from Afghanistan in the country in order to protect the nation. The Pakistani nation needs to look at things in perspective instead of flatly blaming security forces and counter-terrorism officials. We all can use some perspective.”
This story will be updated in case of new information.
ITCT Newsdesk thanks Pakistan Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) for sharing important details about the Sahiwal case.