It was a 9mm gun, probably a Stoeger. Before Saad Aziz got this “samaan” through an associate, by his own admission, he had already plotted a murder. On the evening of Friday, April 24, 2015, he met four other young men, all well-educated like him, somewhere on Karachi’s Tariq Road to finalise and carry out the plot. As dusk deepened into night, they set off towards Defence Housing Society Phase II Extension on three motorcycles. Their destination: a café-cum-communal space – The Second Floor or T2F – where an event, Unsilencing Balochistan: take two, was under way. Their target: Sabeen Mahmud, 40, the founder and director of T2F.
Two of Aziz’s associates, he says, “were just roaming around in the vicinity of T2F”. A third was keeping an eye on the street outside. Aziz himself was riding a motorcycle driven by one Aliur Rehman, also mentioned as Tony in the police record. When he received the message that Mahmud had left T2F, he says, he followed her. “Suzuki Swift, AWH 541,” he repeats her car’s make and registration number.
As the car stopped at a signal less than 500 metres to the north of T2F, “Tony rode up alongside it.” Mahmud was in the driving seat, Aziz says. “Next to her was her mother, I think. That is what we found out from the news later. There was a man sitting in the back. I fired the gun four or five times at her.”
Sitting in a sparsely furnished room within Karachi Police’s Crime Investigation Department (CID), Aziz appears at ease even in blindfold. Recounting the events of that evening, he never sounds hurried or under duress.
After shooting Mahmud, he says he and Tony turned left from the signal towards Punjab Chowrangi and reached Sharae-e-Faisal, crossing Teen Talwar in Clifton on their way. While still on the motorcycle, he messaged others to get back to Tariq Road. Once there, he just picked up his motorcycle and they all dispersed. “We only got confirmation of her death later from the news,” he says. “At that moment [of shooting], there is no way of confirming if the person is dead. You just do it and get out of there.”
It was on February 13, 2015, when he says he decided that Mahmud had to die. That evening, he was at T2F, attending an event, The Karachi “Situation”: Exploring Responses. “It was something she said during the talk,” he recalls. “That we shouldn’t be afraid of the Taliban, we should stand up to them, demonstrate against them, something like that. That is when we made up our minds.” Later in the conversation, though, he adds, “There wasn’t one particular reason to target her: she was generally promoting liberal, secular values. There were those campaigns of hers, the demonstration outside Lal Masjid [in Islamabad], Pyaar ho jaane do (let there be love) on Valentine’s Day and so on.” He laughs softly, almost bashfully, as he mentions the last.
Aziz remembers visiting The Karachi “Situation” seminar with Tony who, the police say, remains on the run. Pictures and video footage of the event show Aziz sitting at the end of a row, close to the entrance. Next to him is Tony, a round-faced young man with a dark complexion. The police say he is an engineering graduate from the National University of Sciences and Technology, Rawalpindi campus. “Tony had a Twitter account under a fake name and he used to follow Sabeen’s tweets very closely,” says Aziz. He also mentions another source of information. “About four weeks [after the discussion on Karachi], when I got emails about events being held there, I sent Tony there a few times to check if her car was there. It wasn’t.”
On April 24, 2015, Aziz says, he told Tony to go there again. “When he confirmed her car was there, we made the plan there and then.”
"There wasn’t one particular reason to target her; she was generally promoting liberal, secular values. There were those campaigns of hers, the demonstration outside Lal Masjid [in Islamabad], Pyaar ho jaane do (let there be love) on Valentine’s Day and so on."
By that time, he confesses, he had taken part in 20 major and minor “operations” in Karachi. These include an attack – just eight days before Mahmud’s assassination – on American academic Debra Lobo, who taught at a college in Karachi, bank heists to put together money for their hit-and-run activities, multiple attempts to target the police and the Rangers and grenade attacks on co-education schools in Gulshan-e-Iqbal (on February 3, 2015) and North Nazimabad (on March 18, 2015).
Nineteen days after Mahmud’s murder, Aziz says he took part in an attack that elicited worldwide shock and condemnation: the assassination of 43 members of the Ismaili Shia community, including women and children, travelling in a bus in the Safoora Goth area on the outskirts of Karachi.
Aziz appears as a mild-mannered young man of medium height and build, with a trimmed beard. He makes a little joke about how he can instantly tell which law enforcement or intelligence agency the person asking him questions belongs to. “The first thing the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] want to know is whether there are any links with RAW [the Indian intelligence agency]; CID is interested in the funding aspect; and the police keep hammering on about what other wardaat (hits) we’ve been involved in.”
Aziz calls himself a Salafi, though his father says the family follows Sunni, not Salafi, Islam. When an interrogator asks him why he and his associates targeted Ismaili Shias, he cites their sectarian affiliation as the reason. “It is perfectly acceptable to take the lives of women and children for that reason.”
Aziz’s radicalisation began in 2009, following a visit to Saudi Arabia for umrah with his family. Upon his return to Pakistan, he decided to read translations of the Quran. “Until then I had only read it once in Arabic.” (One investigator, however, reports that Aziz could not recite certain Quranic verses that every practising Muslim recites at least once a day during Isha prayers.)
For a while, he joined the Tableeghi Jamaat. Then, he took to attending lectures by a scholar, Shaykh Kamaluddin Ahmed, a professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (Lums) at the time, whose Sufi interpretation of Islam is distinct from what the Tableeghi Jamaat stands for. “But neither [Ahmed] nor Tableeghi Jamaat even discussed jihad,” he says. “It was over time, primarily through reading the Quran, that I developed an inclination towards jihad.”
Aziz then met Tony, whom he suspected had contacts with militants. Tony made him wait for some time before introducing him to one Haris, an al-Qaeda operative. “[Haris] was heading al-Qaeda’s daawati (recruitment) wing for Pakistan at the time. I joined this wing at the end of 2010,” says Aziz.
In September 2013, Haris, whose real name is said to be Abu Zar, was arrested from a hostel of the Punjab University in Lahore, along with two others, for alleged links with al-Qaeda. In the last 22 months, the authorities have not produced him in any court of law for a trial. Police sources in Lahore say Haris and his associates are in ISI’s custody. This information, however, could not be confirmed through other sources.
In 2011, Aziz went to Waziristan for training where, he says, he was attached to a group headed by Ahmad Farooq, deputy head of al-Qaeda in the subcontinent and a former student of Punjab University. (Farooq was killed in an American drone strike in January 2015 in North Waziristan.)
By 2013, Aziz says he was disillusioned and frustrated. Instead of allowing him take part in terrorist operations, his handler Haris limited him to media duties — such as managing online jihadist publications. “In mid-2013, I met Haider Abbas,” says Aziz. Abbas introduced him to Tahir Minhas alias Saeen, identified by the police as a member of al-Qaeda.
As a senior, experienced commander, Minhas set the ground rules for the group that Aziz joined. “We all used aliases; I only know Tony by his real name,” says Aziz. He got his own alias — Tin Tin. “None of us would ask for the members’ real names, addresses or anything that could identify them in case one of us was arrested. That was on Minhas’s instructions.”
The cell had no designated ‘safe house’ to meet. Minhas often called its members for meetings to Jan Japan Motors, a car auction site on the Super Highway. He also selected the targets. The attack on Mahmud, though, was different. Aziz says it was on his own initiative. “Tahir wasn’t even there that day.”
In 2014, the sudden ascendancy of the Islamic State (IS) and its territorial gains in Iraq and Syria became a lightning rod for militants across the globe. In January this year, IS announced its expansion into Khorasan, a historical region comprising parts of present-day Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and some Central Asian countries. Several factions of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) immediately joined it.
“We just finished a 16-day joint investigation but we have not established any direct or indirect link between him and Daesh. Al-Qaeda’s tentacles, however, touch him in multiple ways. We are sure he is with al-Qaeda."
“Among my acquaintances there was already a lot of discussion about the merits of al-Qaeda and Daesh [the Arabic acronym for IS]. Many of us felt that al-Qaeda was reduced to mainly talk and little action,” Aziz says. “We were in Waziristan when the creation of the [IS’s] Khorasan [chapter] was announced, and we pledged loyalty to its emir, [former TTP commander] Hafiz Saeed Khan.” (A senior official of the Intelligence Bureau in Peshawar says Khan was “in Tor Dara area in Khyber Agency’s Tirah valley in January 2015”, the time period to which Aziz refers.)
Subsequently, he says, some of his associates did pro-IS wall chalking and left propaganda pamphlets in parts of Karachi, especially at the scenes of some of the attacks they carried out. Some of the people working with him, he claims, have gone to Syria as part of an effort to strengthen their connection with the IS leadership there.
Weeks after Mahmud’s murder, Jaadu, her white Persian cat, would sit expectantly by the door of her house for hours every evening, waiting for a familiar footfall on the steps outside. Inside, her mother, Mahenaz Mahmud, sits on a chair looking like her daughter might have 20 years in the future — had she had that much time. The mother also exudes the same warmth, intelligence and artlessness as the daughter — and, since Mahmud’s death, a stoicism that would move a stone to tears.
“On April 24, Sabeen made breakfast for us (Mahenaz and Mahenaz’s mother) as usual. That was her routine. She would switch on the kettle, run to her computer, then she would put the bread in the toaster,” Mahenaz recalls with a chuckle. “She didn’t want me to have a cold slice, so she would toast the second slice only after I had finished the first.” They would usually chat away during breakfasts. “We would talk about all kinds of things.” Sometimes, Mahmud would seek her mother’s advice. “She would ask me what I thought of something being done at T2F. Sometimes we would flog some philosophical concept. We would share articles, then discuss them… there was lots that we talked about.”
That day, though, Mahenaz sensed something unusual. “I don’t know whether it was anxiety but there was some element about this Baloch missing people event, especially because of the talk that was cancelled at LUMS [under orders from the ISI],” she says. Mahmud was not moderating the session; she hadn’t even organised it. “Someone else wanted to do it and she had agreed to provide the space,” says Mahenaz. “But she talked to some people about it and then said to me “It’ll be ok, Amma””.
After breakfast, the mother went to work – she is an academic programmes advisor at a teacher training institute – but planned to attend the talk on the Baloch missing persons. “I hadn’t been to any event for a long time because I get quite exhausted by the evening but that day I had a very strong feeling that I must be around her.”
Following the event, around 9pm, Mahmud was planning to drop her mother home, pick up a friend and go to another friend’s place for dinner. “When Sabeen came out [of T2F], I remember she was in a hurry, and she told the driver to sit in the back. I got in the seat next to her and we drove off.”
A short distance away, the Sunset Boulevard traffic signal turned red and their car came to a stop. “It is impossible for me to process those five, 10 seconds,” Mahenaz says quietly. “I was talking to Sabeen, and my face was turned towards her. She was looking in front. A motorcycle came up along the side she was sitting, much too close for comfort. My eyes became riveted on a gun in someone’s hand. I said to Sabeen, “What do you think he wants? He’s got a gun.” I thought it was a mugging. All this must have taken only three or four seconds. Then the window shattered, and Sabeen’s head just tilted to one side; her eyes were open. There was not a moan, not a groan, not a whimper. Then pandemonium broke out around us.”
Mahmud was shot five times. Her mother also took two bullets: one in her back and another that, after going through Mahmud’s body, went into her arm and out again. She says she remembers feeling there was something “happening with my body but I wasn’t sure what.” She was too focussed on her daughter to be sure of anything else. “I was saying ‘Sabeen talk to me, give me some indication that you can hear what I am saying.’ Even though I knew that she had gone, somewhere there was a glimmer of hope.”
She herself was taken to the Aga Khan University Hospital for treatment. “Next morning, I started demanding that I wanted to go home. I was told that Sabeen’s body was being kept in a morgue and I thought she should be put on the way to her last journey immediately.” With a bullet still lodged in her back, she left the hospital to bury her only child.
When Mahenaz Mahmud learnt that the police had arrested some educated young men for carrying out the murder, it was a shock to her, almost a betrayal of some of her most closely held convictions. “I felt terrified. I am a person who teaches my students that we all have our biases and that we put people into boxes because we don’t have time to find out about each and every person.”
In the third week of June, T2F organised a qawwali session to celebrate her daughter’s birthday posthumously. While observing the audience from the back of the room, she couldn’t shake off a nagging thought. “I was looking at the young boys in the audience and wondering, ‘So what are they thinking? What is really going on in their head?’ Normally I wouldn’t have thought that about young people. I would be happy that all kinds of young people come to T2F. Now I am really scared about how these young men’s minds can be messed with.”
The senselessness of the murder is difficult for her to process. “I want to ask them, why? What happened to you? What was it that bothered you about Sabeen? Was it something she stood for? Did you just want to make an example out of her? Did you think that taking a human life is such a small matter? But then I realise that these people think very differently. Their paradigms are different. Their schemas are different.”
In another part of Karachi, sitting in her home studio, architect Marvi Mazhar, one of Mahmud’s closest friends, says: “I always knew. I always thought that if someone gets to her, it’ll be someone educated. Sabeen had to deal with a lot of hate speech, and from people who were all educated. They used to write, they used to tweet, they were all very tech-savvy. Every time she’d complain that these young bachas, I wish I could have chai with them, talk to them.”
Mazhar recalls an incident from last November. At the Creative Karachi Festival organised by T2F, the azan went unnoticed for a few moments in the hubbub and a young man angrily demanded that the music be stopped instantly. “Sabeen went up to the guy, took him aside and spoke to him for a while; a little later, he actually brought flowers for her by way of apology. There was this strange magic about her,” she says with a wistful smile.
In the days leading up to her death, Mahmud was particularly restless, says Mazhar. On Tuesday, April 21, there was a get-together of friends at Mazhar’s place where Mahmud was “a little agitated”. Mazhar heard her saying to someone on the phone, “If we are not going to do it now, then we won’t do it because after that I am leaving for London and I don’t have time.” She assumes this was about the talk on Baloch missing persons. “Her heart was not into this talk, mainly because she had so much going on otherwise. She believed in it, she believed that the Baloch must be given a platform. But, I felt, judging from the conversations I have had with her, she was waiting for a signal, waiting for someone to tell her not to do this.”
A sturdy metal barrier bars entry into a rough stretch at the end of Beaumont Road in Karachi’s Civil Lines. Only a few street lights illuminate the area; that, along with the dilapidated condition of the road, is perhaps deliberate, designed to make things a little more difficult for terrorists looking to target the CID headquarters that looms up on the right, after the barrier. They did exactly that on November 10, 2010, killing at least 17 people and injuring over 100 in a massive truck bombing. Access inside the CID premises now lies behind a raft of concrete barriers, designed to minimise the possibility of another attack.
Raja Umar Khattab, Senior Superintendent Police, strides into his office at around 10.30pm after taraweeh prayers. A stocky, barrel-chested man, he is wearing a bright yellow T-shirt with khaki pants, rolled up at the bottom and rubber slippers. He speaks in rapid-fire sentences; names of terrorists roll off his tongue like those of old acquaintances. Several phone calls interrupt conversation; a senior official has misplaced his cell phone and Khattab is trying to get it traced. “Sir, don’t worry. I’ll make sure it is back with you soon,” he says reassuringly.
As the CID’s lead investigator, Khattab is flushed with pride over the recent arrest of what he calls a major terrorist cell. He has no doubt the police under him have the men who killed Mahmud and committed the Safoora Goth massacre, apart from various other crimes.
Khattab believes it was a failed romantic relationship that sowed the seed for Aziz’s radicalisation.
The Sindh Rangers, too, have made a separate claim of arresting a mastermind of the attack on Ismaili Shias. “He has nothing to do with Safoora Goth incident; he never did,” says Khattab, shaking his head vigorously, when asked about the man arrested by the Rangers and reportedly linked to the detained office-bearers of the Fishermen’s Co-Operative Society. “When you go to a court to seek remand, you put in extra things. Otherwise it can get difficult to get a remand,” is how he explains the reason for the claim made by the Rangers.
More importantly, Aziz’s claim about his allegiance with IS meets with a similarly dismissive response. “We just finished a 16-day joint investigation but we have not established any direct or indirect link between him and Daesh. Al-Qaeda’s tentacles, however, touch him in multiple ways. We are sure he is with al-Qaeda,” says Khattab.
“And why should it be so surprising that these terrorists are so educated? There were always educated people in al-Qaeda. Educated people don’t join TTP. It is the madrasa-educated ones who join TTP. They have the desire for jihad but these [educated jihadis] are ideologues. They envision grander things,” he adds. And for that reason, Khattab states, they are far more dangerous: They can be anywhere — the shopping mall, the university, saying their prayers beside you.
Khattab believes it was a failed romantic relationship that sowed the seed for Aziz’s radicalisation. “He became disillusioned with worldly pursuits,” says the police officer. “When he joined Unilever for an internship [in the second half of 2010], he met Aliur Rehman – alias Tony – who was also working there.” Tony, a member of Dr Israr Ahmed’s Lahore-based Islamic movement, Tanzeem-e-Islami, was to play a vital role in Aziz’s radicalisation, inspiring him to fight for a Muslim caliphate, says the police officer.
But it was Minhas, the police claim, who turned Aziz into what he has become. In Khattab’s words: “Saad says Tahir motivated him so much that he no longer has any fear of killing people. His role in targeted killings was that of the shooter; by my reckoning, he has killed about 20 people.”
CID officials maintain that the terrorist group of which Aziz was a member had split from a larger al-Qaeda formation eight to 10 months ago. “While Tahir is its askari (militant) commander, he in turn answers to Abdullah Yousuf, who is in Helmand, Afghanistan. The other group formed by this rupture is led by Haji Sahib, Ramzi Yousef’s older brother,” says Khattab. He believes the crime spree by Aziz’s group, which hadn’t yet given itself a name, was aimed at raising its profile within the terrorist fraternity so that someone “owned” it.
Tracking down the group, he says, was not easy. They operated under aliases, did not use mobile phones and, instead, employed a Wi-Fi-based application called Talkray to communicate. The CID first picked up their trail sometime in 2014 through some men who were in prison, Khattab says. Based on the information obtained from them – he does not quite elaborate how but only says “we did some working on them” – the police picked up two former Karachi University students who had joined al-Qaeda through contacts at the campus and whose job was to maintain the organisation’s website. “We soon figured out that there is a network of educated al-Qaeda members in Gulistan-e-Jauhar, Gulshan-e-Iqbal and other areas around Karachi University,” he says.
The clues led the police to a sports teacher at Sir Syed University of Engineering and Technology, who had set up a laboratory in his house in Gulshan-e-Iqbal where, along with his son and nephew, he used to teach young men to assemble Improvised Explosive Devices. The police also found a lot of written material that led them to conclude that a large al-Qaeda group was active in Karachi. “We found out it had two wings — one askari and one daawati.” The police do not divulge whether or not they have arrested and interrogated the teacher or, for that matter, any other details about his identity and whereabouts.
While investigating the people arrested earlier, the police learnt that Minhas was the group’s commander. Born in a village in the Jhelum district of Punjab, Minhas is a resident of Kotri, near Hyderabad, and has been in and out of police’s hands since 2007. According to an official source, one looking very closely into the massacre of Ismaili Shias, Minhas, (a matriculate, according to this source), had a thriving poultry business in Kotri at one point. He is also, says the same source, rabidly anti-Shia and has been a member of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a banned organisation involved in hundreds of acts of sectarian and religious terrorism.
Khattab and his team of investigators describe Minhas as a highly sophisticated militant, with his own signature style. They claim to have discovered important similarities in the terrorist activities he has carried out: in all of these, silencer-fitted imported Glock, Caracal and Stoeger pistols are used; he and his associates always hit their targets in the head. “By the time the Safoora Goth massacre happened, we had gathered lots of little clues,” says Khattab.
Some other clues materialised in September 2014 after a suspect named Amir Abbas managed to escape during an encounter with the police but his wife was injured and arrested. “We found plenty of incriminating material at his house and worked on it quietly from September  to April , matching and cross matching the evidence,” says Khattab.
This finally led to the arrest of Minhas and his associates, including Aziz. “When we recovered their laptops, their browsing history helped us connect them to other cases. “Had we been even one day late, all these boys would have left Karachi for Quetta, Waziristan etc.”
The CID officers also show what they call a hit list. These are A-4 size prints, carrying no information about their senders and receivers, but complete with photos and addresses of the targets, which include naval officers, intelligence agency personnel, police officers, showbiz personalities, journalists, workers of non-government organisations and three fashion designers. In some cases, the prints also carry details of the targets’ daily routine. When asked why the group wanted to target fashion designers, Aziz is quoted by Khattab to have said, “You kill three. No one will design sleeveless clothes again.”
At a distance from the police’s neatly tied narration, events take a rather mysterious turn. A former academic at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA) who once taught Aziz, and who has since moved to Europe, recalls his student as “being extremely close to [an intelligence agency]”. In April 2014, this academic needed a police clearance report for some work. Having tried unsuccessfully for a week to obtain it, he asked Aziz for help. “He told me it was no problem, and that he could get it for me in 10 minutes. He was wrong; it took him an hour.” This alleged link, however, could not be verified through any other source.
Aziz’s purported reasons for having targeted Mahmud are also rather mystifying. Many Pakistanis, weary of having their lives held to ransom by rampant militancy, make anti-Taliban statements the way she made at the talk on the Karachi situation. And on February 14 this year, Aziz’s restaurant had a promotional offer targeted at customers and their “loved ones” — complete with the image of two hearts placed right next to each other. Isn’t this just another way of saying pyaar ho jaane do? His account of planning her murder also mixes up a few details. He states that Tony was unable to spot Mahmud’s car outside T2F between the February 13 talk on Karachi and the April 24 discussion on Baloch missing persons. (Mahmud did leave Karachi on February 19 for an overseas trip and returned on March 5. She briefly went out of the country again from March 25 to April 5.) Between her arrival from abroad and her assassination, there were at least five events at T2F and she was also attending to her office work at T2F every day during this period. Can, then, her murder precisely on the day of Unsilencing Balochistan: Take Two be seen as purely a coincidence?
Whatever the motivation behind his actions – whether he is serving the ends of as-yet unknown masters or assuaging his own desire to ‘right’ society’s moral compass – his confession suggests that he is part of a cell carrying out orders issued by a central command structure. This is particularly evident in the Safoora Goth incident: an attack of that size and precision cannot be carried out by a motley group of like-minded individuals.
While Aziz has been singing in police custody, his confession may not stand the test of a trial in a court of law. Confessions before the police or a JIT, or any executive authority for that matter, have no legal standing. “[Only] a confession before a judicial magistrate has legal sanctity because a judge is an independent authority,” says Karachi-based lawyer Faisal Siddiqi. “A judge is not part of the investigation so he has no vested interest [in its outcome].”
Without independently verifiable evidence, it is virtually impossible to successfully prosecute any accused on the basis of their confessions alone. Ajmal Pahari, an alleged target killer, for instance, was acquitted in 2011 notwithstanding his on-camera confession of having committed over 100 murders. (He was soon re-arrested on additional murder charges, however, and is currently behind bars.) Aziz shows little concern about his trial and punishment when asked about his future. “What are my plans now?” he says completely unfazed, and laughing slowly. “We’ll go to prison, but we’ll break out of there. Then, we’ll make plans.”
Continue reading our two-part cover story: Revisiting a confessional jigsaw: Is Saad Aziz guilty as charged?
This article was originally published in the Herald's July 2015 issue. To read more, subscribe to Herald's print edition.