November 4, 2022 - 5:30pm

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was shot four times in both legs yesterday as he took part in a protest march supposed to end in the capital, Islamabad, calling for new elections. One of two alleged shooters, who between them killed one person and wounded at least ten, soon appeared in a confession video released by police. In it, he said he was motivated to stop Khan, whom he regarded as insufficiently pious, “misguiding the people”. 

Khan’s camp dismissed the video as a “crude cover-up”. Asad Umar, secretary-general of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, relayed an accusation, ostensibly directly from his leader, that blamed Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah, and Major General Faisal Naseer, the director of the counter-intelligence division of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. Umar said there would be nationwide protests until these three individuals were removed. Khan himself said three people were behind the attack, but did not divulge their names.

This accusation from Khan has some plausibility, at least as regards the ISI. Khan was brought to power by the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment in 2018, but the compact soured and it was the military that deposed him in April of this year. A week ago, Lieutenant General Nadeem Anjum, the head of the ISI, an agency that works in the shadows at home and abroad, held an entirely unprecedented press conference lambasting Khan.

There is also the broader fact that the ISI controls a suite of religious terrorists’ assets within Pakistan and its neighbours. This includes the Taliban-Al-Qaeda coalition, which was behind the assassination of former premier Benazir Bhutto in 2007, an attack that resembles in some ways what happened to Khan. The military censoring Umar on Pakistani television has only exacerbated the situation. That said, while it is not beyond reason that the ISI sought to eliminate Khan as a nuisance, it would be unusually brazen. The reality is not going to matter much, though, because Khan’s camp and voters are convinced that this was a state-sponsored assassination attempt, and the theories of conspiracy only begin there.

Even among the former cricketer’s genuinely liberal opponents, who have condemned the attack and are taking the story of a couple of fanatics at face value, there is an irrepressible sense of schadenfreude. After all, Khan has previously courted extremists just like the alleged shooters to do his bidding. There is also the fact, as Pakistani journalist Atif Tauqeer put it, that had an opponent of the ex-Prime Minister been targeted, the pro-Khan forces “would have been justifying it”. Indeed, Khan directly blamed Bhutto for her own murder.

Across social media, less circumspect voices accuse Khan of orchestrating the attack on himself to gain popular sympathy for the next elections and to discredit the military. Others claim the attack was designed to gain sympathy for Khan, but believe he and the military were in it together, having overcome their differences. After the unexpectedly brusque dressing-down Sharif received in China from Xi Jinping, some Pakistanis are pointing to foreign interference. Really, the possibilities are endless. 

Widespread, mutually incompatible conspiracy theories in Pakistan are hardly a new phenomenon. What has been different is the scale and directness of some of the reaction against the Army and its symbols inside Pakistan. Army chief Qamar Bajwa is due to retire at the end of this month. Hopes that this might end military involvement in the country’s politics are, however, likely to be misplaced.

Kyle Orton is an independent terrorism analyst. He tweets at @KyleWOrton