The Bhutto Assassination: A Tough Case for Scotland Yard
By Fred Burton and Scott Stewart
The Pakistani government is committed to finding and bringing to justice those responsible for the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, a spokesman for President Pervez Musharraf told the media Jan. 8. The spokesman also said he hopes Scotland Yard's technological expertise will help Pakistani investigators solve the case.
A team of five investigators from London's Metropolitan Police -- Scotland Yard -- arrived in Pakistan on Jan. 4, more than a week after the Dec. 27 assassination. The British have some of the best investigators, forensic technicians and laboratories in the world. Moreover, after decades of investigating Irish Republican Army attacks and, more recently, attacks by jihadist operatives in London, they not only are extremely proficient, but highly experienced. However, the investigators sent to Pakistan face a daunting task.
Following an attack such as the Bhutto assassination, the crime scene investigation would need to proceed on two fronts, one focusing on the shooting and the other on the bombing.
The shooting investigation would be concerned with determining the number of shots fired and from where they came. The investigators also would conduct a forensic examination of the evidence to match any recovered slugs and shell casings to any recovered weapons. The recovered weapons and shell casings would be examined for latent fingerprints in an effort to determine who handled them.
Even in the best of times and in a location where the crime scene is able to be secured and carefully preserved for investigators, bullets can pass through a victim and never be recovered, or they can deform or fragment -- making a forensic comparison difficult. It also can be very difficult to recover identifiable latent fingerprints from a weapon after it has been handled by police or other first responders at the crime scene. This difficulty will be magnified in the Bhutto case because the prints could have been smudged or obliterated as a result of the subsequent bombing, or the gun could have been touched by others during the ensuing chaos. To complicate matters even further, the crime scene was quickly cleaned up and hosed down after the attack, which might have washed away valuable evidence such as bullet fragments and shell casings.
In Pakistan, particularly in the town of Darra Adamkhel near Peshawar, there are many skilled artisans who specialize in making guns from scratch, and some of their products are of high quality. Because of this cottage gun industry, the country is literally awash in weapons that cannot be tracked to a specific maker or by serial number to a specific gun dealer or owner. This means the manufacturer of the gun involved in the Bhutto assassination might never be identified. Moreover, even if the maker were found, the lack of firearms sales records would prevent him from identifying the owner, even if he were willing to do so. Additionally, the gun could have changed hands several times since it was first acquired.
As for the bombing crime scene, the investigators would want to recover pieces of the improvised explosive device (IED) in hopes of determining the components used and the construction technique. This combination of components and construction technique, often referred to as the bombmaker's "signature," would then be compared to devices used in other attacks or unexploded IEDs that had been recovered in an effort to determine who made the device. (It most likely was not constructed by the bomber himself).
Although it is hard to believe, most components of an IED survive the detonation rather than simply vaporizing. They might be shattered -- and scattered -- but quite often things such as batteries, switches and even pieces of the timer, tape and wires can be recovered after an explosion. One very good place to find such evidence is in the bodies of those killed, as the force of the blast can hurl small pieces of the device into the victims. Although it is a morbid process, X-ray examinations of the victims can result in the recovery of important evidence. In countries with few refrigerated morgues, or where religious customs call for a speedy burial, victims often are interred without having been X-rayed.
Another obstacle for investigators is the difficulty of identifying a suicide bomber after the explosion, especially one who was not carrying identification or was carrying false identification, something that is easy to procure in Pakistan. However, two factors could aid the investigators in this case. First, Pakistan requires fingerprints for its national ID cards. Second, the bomber's hands might have survived the blast. It is possible, then, that the bomber's fingerprints can be compared to the fingerprints of potential suspects.
Even if that were the case, though, another problem arises. There is a phenomenon in explosions in which body extremities are ripped from the torso of those in close proximity to the blast. This phenomenon, called sudden traumatic amputation, is the reason the heads of suicide bombers frequently are recovered in good shape. Because of this effect, it is not uncommon to find dismembered hands and especially feet at a bombing scene. However, it often is difficult to connect these hands and feet to specific bodies, so even if the bomber's hands survived the blast, they could have been buried with someone else's body.
Much has been made in the media about the failure of the Pakistani government to preserve the crime scene. In our experience, however, the condition of the crime scene in the Bhutto case is not unique, nor is it an indication in and of itself of a cover-up attempt. Such crime scene contamination routinely occurs -- especially in the Third World. In many cases, crucial evidence walks off on the soles of people's shoes, is washed away with hoses and street sweepers or is collected and thrown away. In addition to clean-up efforts at the scene, time also works against investigators because weather and vehicle and pedestrian contact can all work to eliminate trace evidence such as explosive residue. Because of these factors, by the time a Western forensic team can get to a place such as Pakistan, much of the crucial evidence might have disappeared.
There are cases, however, in which forensic teams have been creative or have caught lucky breaks. For example, the American team that went to Buenos Aires in 1992 to assist the Argentine government in the investigation of the Israeli Embassy bombing there found that the crime scene had been completed cleaned up and hosed down, as was the Bhutto crime scene in Pakistan. However, the investigators discovered a bomb fragment that had penetrated a hollow light pole, and thus had been preserved. From that piece they were able to recover explosive residue that allowed them to identify the type of explosives used in the bomb.
The armored vehicle in which Bhutto was traveling was heavily hit by shrapnel from the IED. A careful examination of the vehicle will likely yield bomb fragments covered in explosive residue, which could allow forensic chemists to identify the explosive used in the device. The vehicle also could have been struck by one or more of the shots fired at Bhutto, and thus could also yield some useful ballistic evidence. In the end, the vehicle could prove to be the most valuable source of evidence for the forensic team.
The Major Obstacles
The biggest obstacles facing the Scotland Yard investigators in this case are not the shape and age of the crime scene, but the uncertainty over the exact cause of death and the fact that Bhutto was buried without an autopsy having been performed. The autopsy not only would have determined what killed her, but perhaps also would have resulted in the recovery of the bullet that struck her -- if indeed it was a bullet that caused her head wound and killed her. It is unlikely that Bhutto's body will be exhumed for an autopsy. From a forensic standpoint, the Scotland Yard team could be able to tie the shell casings recovered at the scene to the gun used by the shooter -- assuming the gun is ever recovered. However, since no bullet was recovered from Bhutto's body, it will be impossible to verify precisely which gun was used.
Without accurate documentation of the wound, it might also be difficult to determine the angle from which the gun was fired, meaning where the shooter was in relation to Bhutto. This will greatly add to the ambiguity surrounding this case, and could very well prevent the team from reaching any firm conclusions. Regardless of Scotland Yard's proficiency, experience and technical capabilities, the investigators simply cannot analyze evidence they do not have. Given the missing pieces, they will have to be extremely creative -- and perhaps a bit lucky -- to find evidence that will allow them to reach a conclusive determination.
However, given the historical context of political assassination in Pakistan -- some investigated by Scotland Yard -- it will come as no surprise if the investigation turns up little. In 1951, Scotland Yard was summoned to help in the investigation into the death of Pakistan's first prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, who was shot in the park that now bears his name, Liaquat Bagh Park. (This, incidentally, is where Bhutto attended a political rally just minutes before her death). Then, in 1996, Scotland Yard was again asked to provide investigatory assistance in the assassination of Bhutto's brother and political rival, Murtaza Bhutto. In both cases, the investigations were inconclusive -- as was the American-led investigation into the death of President Zia ul-Haq, who died in a mysterious plane crash that also killed U.S. Ambassador Arnold Raphel, U.S. Gen. Herbert Wassom and several Pakistani generals. Incidentally, Zia was buried without an autopsy.
Thick clouds of doubt have surrounded these past assassinations -- doubts that have lingered despite the involvement of outside investigators. The Bhutto case will likely turn out to be similarly shrouded in ambiguity.
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