Did the KGB kill Zia?

Published: August 17, 2012

Zia, due to the geopolitical circumstances, was afforded a long list of possible enmities. To put things in perspective, he had been targeted on at least six previous occasions. PHOTO: FILE

This year marks the 24th death anniversary of General Ziaul Haq. His airplane called PAK-1 (Model C-130 Hercules) crashed on August 17, 1988 about five minutes after taking off from Bahawalpur (Zia had flown there to witness a US M1 Abram’s tank demonstration).

Zia, due to the geopolitical circumstances, was afforded a long list of possible enmities. To put things in perspective, he had been targeted on at least six previous occasions including an especially close save form a missile fired at his plane. The broad spectrum of his enemies ranged from the Bhutto family domestically to the Red Army fighting in Afghanistan.

In his book “Ghost”, Fred Burton (now Vice President for Counter Intelligence and Corporate Security at Stratfor) provides a compelling insight into the investigations jointly carried out by the Pakistanis and the Americans, to which he was a part of  as the senior investigator on behalf of Diplomatic Security Service (DSS). Two Americans diplomats (American ambassador to Pakistan Arnold Lewis Raphel and Brigadier General Herbert M Wassom, the head of the US military aid mission to Pakistan) had also lost their lives in the crash.

A common misconception is that the two Americans were persuaded by Zia to accompany him. This can’t be any less true as Mel Harrison (US embassy’s Regional Security Officer), admitted to Burton that the American ambassador had swapped places with him on the final minute as he wanted an opportunity to discuss with General Zia an attack on an American nun.

The investigation team started ruling out the different causes one by one. The weather was hot and clear and any chance of lightning striking the airplane was ruled out. The aircraft was fuelled at Chaklala Airbase and any possible contamination was checked for with the remaining fuel at the base and that was ruled out too. Two crates of mangoes and couple of model aircraft were brought on board all of which were visually screened only. A bomb aboard, however, was also eliminated as an option due to the lack of any signature damage found in cases of a bomb explosion and also because of the small wreckage radius. Moreover, the autopsy of Brigadier Wassom showed that he had not inhaled any smoke which proved the absence of any large fire or an on board explosive.

Methuselah, witness to the final minutes before the crash, told the team that the plane had started moving up and down mimicking the movement of a roller coaster until the crash. This meant the crash was not deliberate. He also stated nothing from outside had hit the plane. Based on this testimony and lack of any other credible evidence at the crash site, a missile hit was also crossed out as an option.

Strangely, a cockpit voice recorder wasn’t installed on the plane but the communication tower testified that the correspondence with them was routine and the pilots had not issued a Mayday. However, the Cessna security plane flying ahead of PAK-1 did hear a momentary transmission from PAK-1 just before it crashed. Someone inside the aircraft had shouted ‘Mash’hood! Mash’hood!’. The commanding pilot’s name was ‘Wing Commander Mash’hood Hussain’ and was handpicked by General Zia himself. The Wing Commander and the co-pilot were in top mental and physical condition to fly the  so pilot error was not possible either. The tower reported, however, that it was not the co-pilot but someone from inside of the VIP suit had screamed the commanding pilot’s name.

So it boiled down to one of the two things; either there was some sort of a mechanical disaster or someone had taken out both the pilots before they could even manage a distress call. The auxiliary systems made into the Hercules can allow for very rough circumstances and an absolute loss of control due to the failure of one of the systems was rather implausible. Plus, the airplane had only flown less than 50 hours since a major overhaul. In contrast, incapacitation of both pilots would explain the absence of the distress call which would have certainly been made had it only been some sort of technical failure giving the pilots ample time to react and make that call.

Several chunks of the debris were sent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for further examination in the US. The striking conclusion the results led to was that the plane had not crashed of a mechanical mishap. Most importantly, their tests revealed traces of several sinister elements namely antimony, chlorine and phosphorous in the cockpit. I quote Fred Burton here:

“Antimony. Phosphorous. Chlorine. All are ingredients in various types of nerve gas… Somebody planted nerve gas in the cockpit. This can only mean one thing: President Zia and his staff were assassinated.

… During their own investigation, the Pakistanis conclude that a small detonator had been aboard the plane. Attached either to a timer or a barometric pressure device, the detonator touched off a very-small-yield explosion, perhaps just big enough to blow the top of a Coke can placed on the flight deck. The interior of the C-130 is so loud I doubt anyone would have heard such a small pop.

But that’s what killed the pilots.

…The pilots never knew what hit them. The crash team determined that the pilots were not wearing their oxygen masks at the time of the crash… That rules out a poisoned oxygen system and lends much more weight to the Coke can theory…

… Now all that’s left is to figure out who did it.”

He argues that at the time only three intelligence agencies had the capability to carry out such a sophisticated assassination; CIA, Mossad and the KGB. RAW was not deemed to have the competence to carry this out.

Since Zia was America’s biggest Cold War ally after Britain, the lack of motive gets CIA off the list of suspects. Due to the nuclear program, there was considerable tension between Zia and the Israelis, who had also taken out Iraq’s nuclear program in 1981 with a stunning air raid that signalled to the rest of the Muslim world that Israel was prepared to go to any length to ensure that an Islamic country did not get the bomb. However, since Pakistan had already acquired full nuclear capability much before August 1988 (mainly due to the blind eye US had towards the Pakistanis), killing Zia belatedly made little sense; so Mossad was struck of the list too. That left the KGB on the suspect list.

The KGB had a history of using special chemicals for killing (Georgi Markov assassination), it also had the  operational capability, coupled with the possible  help of Indian intelligence, aided with a very casual security at Bahawalpur or elsewhere (the plant at Chaklala gave access to C-130s for maintenance routinely this puts forth the idea of a bear trap) gave them the golden opportunity to carry an assassination out.

Much about the intelligence agency responsible for carrying out this assassination would have been left at only speculation had it not been for Colonel Sergei Tretyakov. He was the highest ranked officer to defect the SVR (ex-KGB) to the United States. In one of the most interesting leaks by Wikileaks of Stratfor emails shows that Colonel Tretyakov confirmed to none other than Fred Burton himself, that KGB had indeed assassinated  Ziaul Haq. Not only that, this assassination is taught as a case study at their intelligence academy.

Case closed.


Shabie Iqbal

The author is an IT guy with a lot of interest in international politics and workings of intelligence agencies.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Ali

    Intersting , with facts and figures …Recommend

  • Nobody

    The article is very informative and revealing specially the connection with Wikileaks.Recommend

  • http://yahoo.com shihab hamza

    The whole world Knows the Kgb was behind the assasination of Zia,
    India a part of that ploy was dismissed by Cia, Mr. Branzig has given a detailed and lengthy
    Details of this , Some Pakistani military personals were also included Recommend

  • muzammil

    There has always been a misconception about Zia’s crash! When i asked other people about his plane crash the people use to say that CIA was behind this crash and others point their finger on India and Israel. Thats a very detailed and informative article and now after reading this article it seems that KGB was the main culprit behind his assasination! thanks for sharing this piece of information!!!Recommend

  • G. Din

    “RAW was not deemed to have the competence to carry this out.”
    Phew!!!! “Incompetence” has its compensations! Yet RAW got dragged in for “the possible help of Indian intelligence”. Can’t help yourself, can you? “Aadatan majboor” (Force of habit).

    ” In one of the most interesting leaks by Wikileaks of Stratfor emails shows that Colonel Tretyakov confirmed to none other than Fred Burton himself, that KGB had indeed assassinated Ziaul Haq. “
    Now, if the author knew about this and considered it as “clinching” evidence of what he intended to prove, where was the need of beating around the bush? ET probably pays by the number of words!Recommend

  • Noman Ansari

    In other news, Shabie Iqbal has now applied for asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy. Recommend

  • Sohail Anwer

    Who cares who killed Zia Ul Haq, he died like the filthy dog he was, and i believe that Zia got what he deserved for killing democracy and tolerance in Pakistan. Recommend

  • salman

    The bigger question is why wasn’t he killed earlier? Recommend

  • Hasan

    I hope everyone is going through the WIkileaks links (click “Confirmed” and “Taught as a Case Study”) before coming to a conclusion. Not clicking it greatly undermines the position of the author!Recommend

  • Den

    Thank you KGB! we owe you one :)Recommend

  • Baqar

    well KGB we thank you for that…but too little too lateRecommend

  • san

    Zai was and is cruse to Pakistani nation. I am celebrating his death with three crates mangoes. He was roasted alive like chicken and will be roasted in hell. Recommend

  • ss

    KGB or CIA does it matter??? whoever did this really did us a favorRecommend

  • AA

    Interesting with facts, .. KGB might have spearheaded ,but involvement of others can`t be ruled out still !! .Recommend

  • AA

    Interesting with facts … KGB might have spearheaded , but still involvement of others can`t be ruled out ! . Zia had enemies mostly local Recommend

  • https://twitter.com/Usama_Hamayun Usama Hamayun

    Very interesting article replete with facts and figures.Recommend

  • http://www.ericmargolis.com eric margolis

    The above theory was all laid out in my book ‘War at the Top of the World,’ first published in the US, Canada, India and Pakistan in 1999-2000. There is nothing new about it. But having known President Zia and Gen. Akhtar, and followed the murder case carefully, I don’t think we have the final answer.
    KGB remains the most likely suspect, but not the only one. By the way, when I was the first western journalist to interview senior KGB generals at their Moscow headquarters, the KGB strongly denied any role – this is just for the record.
    Eric Margolis
    http://www.ericmargolis.com Recommend

  • S.A. Malik

    A well-written, informative piece.Recommend

  • Ben

    General Zia may be the most unpopular military dictator, if viewed from the prism of Pakistani democracy but historians can not deny the fact that he has left most indelible marks on Pakistan’s political, social and religious landscape. He fought Soviets, using Afghans, of course with American dollars and Wahhabi mercenaries and pushed the world into dreadful unipolar era. He gifts are drugs, Kalashnikovs, Wahhabi extremism and Afghan refugees, if we assess his achievements from the present-day standards. But those living in the world of 70s and 80s would shrug off this criticism saying he achieved a feat even the Americans could not dream of with their money and military might. Leaving aside the deeds or misdeeds of Zia, it is very unfortunate that he was killed in a mysterious air-crash along with 31 other passengers including members of his top-brass, air crew and American diplomats, right in a garrison town which he was visiting under the arrangements of the army he was commanding at that time. It was a clear case of killing by powerful political players in connivance with Zia’s own comrades. Read more at: http://passivevoices.wordpress.com/2012/08/17/bahawalpur-air-crash-who-killed-the-most-powerful-military-dictator/Recommend

  • Tanzeel

    That was really nice of the KGB considering Pakistan’s antagonistic role against their (former?)country. This has to be up there with Jinnah creating the nation and Saad Akbar Babrak taking out Zia’s spiritual predecessor, Liaquat Ali Khan in terms of service to the people of Pakistan.Recommend

  • Parvez

    ……….now tell us who killed Benazir Bhutto. Recommend

  • Hassan

    Oh, interesting facts. Seems like we are starting to have nice bloggers at ETRecommend

  • Riaz

    @ericmargolis Well it seems here that KGB may actually be the final answer if you go through the wikileak links where KGB’s guy confirms that it was their hit. Unless Fred Burton was trying to fool his colleagues about a 20 year old story he would like to brag about, I think it’s safe to assume that it was KGB.

    The thing I want to know is, if the Americans fuelled the Mujahiddeen war against the Russians, the Russians can no do the same since the Taliban are very much against US. So what level of involvement, if any, does KGB have in strengthening the Taliban? If it was possible then, it could be possible now…Recommend

  • Saad Shams

    From what I have interpreted after going through various summaries and articles the KGB indeed stood behind the murder of the great Zia Ul Haq with little or no help from so called Raw.
    Of course the involvement of so called Mossad can not be ruled out either since they are against humanity in general. But yeah in this case KGB is the main culprit.
    Fortunately after a few years following this incident KGB was disbanded and transformed to FSB. But even now they are as strong as ever and i wont be surprised if they are accused of more of such assassinations unless proved otherwise.

    Long Live General Zia ! Recommend

  • Tahir Ali

    While the author may be right about the modus operandi, the reasoning to discard CIA as perpetrator is not logical. After Geneva accord Zia was worthless to the Americans and, in fact, becoming a threat to their long-term interests in the region. By then, CIA had already found a pliable leader in the shape of Benazir and for her ascent to power Junejo, under whom ML was emerging as a formidable force, and Zia were to be taken care of. Zia was used to remove Junejo by feeding him false info that the latter would announce his retirement during the NA session and thereafter Zia was eliminated. By August 1988, KGB had many other serious issues to tackle then Zia who was no more relevant for them. Recommend

  • Imad Uddin

    Well researched and well presented. But I have reservations on how you disregard involvement of some other agencies….without corroboration and lateral thinking merely on a superficial evaluation of motive. But it could be due to the style of the piece that u couldnt put a few important evaluations. Recommend

  • curious

    A. Zia was persuaded to go for the programme by people in the Army

    B. Everything loaded on the Aircraft, including nerve gas if any, was controlled and authorised by Pakistan Army.

    C. Another General who was supposed to be on the aircraft, preferred to board another.

    D. This General’s aircraft circled the accident site to ensure that there were no survivors and then it went off without summoning help or staying back to extend any.

    E. The General was a possible successor to Zia.

    The people who have the opportunity and the motive are usually the perpetrators.

    KGB,RAW,MOSSAD all may have had the motive, but not the opportunity.

    The rest is simple deduction. For help, read- A Case of Exploding Mangoes.Recommend

  • Ahmadi Muslim
  • Wasim

    The agency or state which killed Zia ul Haq, was a true friend of Pakistan. I salute those who killed this tower of hypocrisy. Recommend

  • Aziz

    Zia got what he deserved hats off to KGB and its agent. Recommend

  • zishan

    good one! :)Recommend

  • zishan

    Dear friends,

    I am doing some research on black September of Jordan and zia,s role. the information with plausible reference needed to address following questions
    1. how the permission to participate in black September was authorized by Pakistan military and what was the actual chain of command?
    2. what was the post black September relations of Pakistan government with Jordan ?
    3. who authorized the the operation from civil government of Pakistan ?

    zishan hyderRecommend

  • http://rest shahmeer

    very interesting …….but i don’t think that KGB was behind this.there are more chances that mosaad or CIA were behind thisRecommend

  • Tahir Ali

    @Wasim: We as a nation are hypocrites. We call ourselves an ideological state, yet curse Zia who was instrumental in independence of Central Asian Muslim states from Erstwhile USSR. At least give the devil his due.
    Another example of our double standards as a nation is that we ruled over Hindu majority in India for over 1000 years through brute force and there was no issue at all. As the system changed to majority rule, we demanded a separate state on grounds that Hindus and Muslims were two different nations who could not live together. I can give you many more examples of our hypocrisy as a nation, so don’t just blame Zia. Recommend

  • http://trollistan.com Sachin

    @shahmeer: I don’t get your point, why would CIA kill him, in fact he was a Pro American..
    @Tahir Ali: He was the one who messed up Pakistan with his idiotic policies..So he is to be blame for the present conditions of Pakistan…Recommend

  • Cynical

    @Tahir Ali

    @Wasim: We as a nation are hypocrites. We call ourselves an ideological state, yet curse Zia who was instrumental in independence of Central Asian Muslim states from Erstwhile USSR. At least give the devil his due.

    We can’t because of our south asian obsession with short cuts, looking for simple answers to complex issues.

    Another example of our double standards as a nation is that we ruled over Hindu majority in India for over 1000 years through brute force and there was no issue at all. As the system changed to majority rule, we demanded a separate state on grounds that Hindus and Muslims were two different nations who could not live together.

    To be fair you shouldn’t blame the current generation for this particular double standard, it’s an inheritance. From the start we were undemocratic. One who justified partition because ‘Hindus and Muslims were two different nations who couldn’t live together’ is the same one who was against partition of Punjab and Bengal. Talk about hipocracy! Recommend

  • Bilal

    @shahmeer it’s people like you who amaze me. Lots of evidence to support the claim in this article yet you just don’t get it!Recommend

  • bangash

    I will join the other commentators in praising KGB if they indeed eliminated Zia ul Haq.Recommend

  • http://www.ericmargolis.com eric margolis

    @Riaz: No KGB backing for Taliban, but a great deal for the Northern Alliance during and after Massoud – who was a KGB ‘asset.’
    eric margolis Recommend

  • Ben

    @Wasim: And the judges who convicted ZAB were most patriot Pakistanis.Recommend

  • Arshad

    @Ahmadi Muslim: this link not working, have another one?Recommend

  • Arshad

    @Sohail Anwer: Dear Sohail, What about those dogs/vultures who are exist & gifted by the current Rulers elected by democracy?!Recommend