It may have been a single assassin who killed former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, but if so, he could have been working with any number of Islamic extremist groups, U.S. intelligence officials and South Asia analysts said Thursday.
Bhutto had returned from eight years of self-imposed exile with a pledge to reform Pakistan in ways that would upset entrenched political interests, powerful fundamentalist religious organizations, and Al Qaeda and the Taliban. She was aligned with the U.S., and vowed to crack down on the increasingly popular radicalism spreading through the country. And she had publicly accused the government's military and intelligence establishments of coddling terrorists.
As a result, the list of people and groups considered Bhutto's archenemies was a long one. But determining who killed her, and why, could be a complicated and confounding investigation, say current and former U.S. officials and analysts. They say it is not likely that someone working alone killed the daughter of a Pakistani political dynasty.
A more likely scenario, they say, is that Al Qaeda was ultimately responsible, because it has long targeted Bhutto and stands to gain the most from the political destabilization that is certain to follow her slaying. If that turns out to be the case, it is also likely that additional extremist organizations were involved, analysts say.
Within Pakistan, Osama bin Laden's global network group has worked closely with more than a dozen radical fundamentalist Islamic organizations in Pakistan that have grown in power and popularity.
Two of them, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad, changed their names to avoid U.S. and Pakistani sanctions after they were designated as terrorist organizations. Other groups include Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan. All are Sunni Muslim-based and oppose Bhutto in part because she was female and Shiite Muslim. Though they have links to Al Qaeda, such Sunni Muslim extremist groups have their own leaders and their own agendas, and potentially thousands of foot soldiers.
Another suspect is Baitullah Mahsud, a Taliban commander operating in Pakistan's tribal areas, who reportedly pledged before Bhutto returned to Pakistan in October to dispatch suicide bombers against her, say current and former U.S. intelligence and counter-terrorism officials. Mahsud has denied that.
Complicating the situation is the fact that many of the extremist groups have ties to Pakistan's political establishment, including elements of the government loyal to President Pervez Musharraf, as well as close ties to the military and its intelligence agencies. Bhutto had long criticized such links, and in the wake of her killing Thursday, some of her supporters accused the government of playing a role. One senior U.S. counter-terrorism official also said Washington suspected that rogue officials within the military or intelligence agencies could have been involved, noting that though there is no evidence, they have detested Bhutto for more than a decade.
U.S. intelligence and counter-terrorism agencies, and groups such as the Sept. 11 commission, have said that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency in particular has cultivated relationships with radical groups, using them as proxies to wage war against India while protecting Pakistan's interests in Afghanistan.
U.S. intelligence officials said they were investigating but could not confirm an initial claim of responsibility for the attack that reportedly came from an Al Qaeda leader. An Italian website said Mustafa Abu al Yazid, Al Qaeda's commander in Afghanistan, told its reporter in a phone call, "We terminated the most precious American asset which vowed to defeat [the] mujahedin."
The website also said the decision to assassinate Bhutto was made in October by Al Qaeda's No. 2 leader, Ayman Zawahiri.
Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for the Directorate of National Intelligence, said authorities were "obviously looking into" such reports but had not yet been able to confirm them.
Even if Al Qaeda does claim responsibility, current and former U.S. intelligence officials said they would be skeptical that it acted without help from Pakistan-based groups, whose members are less likely to stand out.
"We're still early on piecing it together," a U.S. intelligence official said. "There are any number of groups within Pakistan that could have mounted this attack."
In Pakistan, Musharraf blamed Islamic extremists and pledged to redouble efforts to fight them. "This is the work of those terrorists with whom we are engaged in war," he said in a nationally televised speech.
President Bush described the slaying as a "cowardly act by murderous extremists" trying to undermine Pakistan.
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel stopped short of accusing Al Qaeda or the Taliban, but said the attack used methods with which "Al Qaeda is very familiar."
"They have been trying to kill her for years," he said. "They had motive: Destabilize Pakistan further. And means: dozens of martyrs ready to die."
However, Al Qaeda has rarely, if ever, used gunmen in assassination attempts.
Some U.S. intelligence experts and analysts said that there are so many tangled alliances between the extremist groups and Pakistani government agencies that it would be virtually impossible to get to the bottom of who killed Bhutto unless the perpetrators came forward -- with proof. The FBI has offered to send investigators, but Pakistan has not responded, FBI spokesman Richard Kolko said.
"There are just too many different groups that both have the desire to do this and also . . . the capacity to do it to make any sense of it until one of them convincingly comes out and suggests that they did it," said Daniel Markey, who oversaw South Asia policy for the State Department until February.
Markey also wondered whether U.S. officials should trust Pakistan to aggressively investigate the slaying. "I have zero confidence that the Pakistan government will get to the bottom of this, if they want to or if they don't want to, no matter who is actually responsible for it," he said.
The extremist groups, Markey said, have "their tentacles already extended into the organs of the Pakistani state, which is what makes this so troubling."
Stanzel told reporters in Crawford, Texas, that it was "up to the Pakistani officials" to determine who killed Bhutto. He declined to say whether the Bush administration believed Pakistan was up to the task.
Bhutto had suggested that alliances between extremists and the government had put her country in a stranglehold, and that some combination of those forces might someday kill her.
"I have long claimed that the rise of extremism and militancy in Pakistan could not happen without support from elements within the current administration," Bhutto wrote in a commentary last month for CNN.
Before her return to Pakistan, Bhutto said she feared that retired army officers were plotting to assassinate her. In an interview with Britain's Guardian newspaper, she noted that Mahsud, the Taliban commander, had threatened to send suicide bombers against her. But she said real danger came from extremist elements within the country's military establishment that were opposed to her return.
"I'm not worried about Baitullah Mahsud, I'm worried about the threat within the government," she told the Guardian. "People like Baitullah Mahsud are just pawns. It is those forces behind him that have presided over the rise of extremism and militancy in my country."
Pakistani officials angrily denied such allegations. They did so again after Bhutto narrowly escaped injury Oct. 19, when suicide bombers attacked her homecoming parade, killing more than 140 people. No group has claimed responsibility for that attack.
But Bhutto described it as an attempt to silence her and her opposition candidacy, and called for international assistance in identifying the perpetrators. The Musharraf government declined to seek outside help, and the investigation appears to have made little progress.
On Thursday, Pakistani officials noted that radical extremists had also displayed an interest in going after Musharraf and his loyalists. The groups have launched several failed assassination attempts against Musharraf. And in recent weeks, suicide bombers have repeatedly targeted military and intelligence targets in Pakistan, including the military garrison in Rawalpindi where Musharraf stays.
Times staff writer James Gerstenzang in Crawford, Texas, contributed to this report.