Last week National Security Advisor MK Narayanan said the Indian government has good evidence linking Pakistan’s intelligence agency ISI to the 7 July embassy bomb in Kabul that killed 56 people. Narayanan refused to elaborate on the nature of the evidence but said “the ISI needs to be destroyed”. Pakistan Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gillani earlier denied his country's intelligence service had any involvement in the bombing. 'Why should Pakistan destabilize Afghanistan?” he said. “It is in our interest to have a stable Afghanistan.”
But whether or not the ISI was directly involved in the Kabul bombing, there is little doubt they have played an active role in Afghan affairs. ISI stands for the directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence. Very little happens in Pakistan or its proxy state Afghanistan without the knowledge of this powerful but shadowy group. The ISI has been crucial in maintaining order and sustaining military rule in an otherwise semi-anarchic state.
Critics now say the ISI is out of control answering to neither the president nor the Prime Minister. Mariane Pearl, writing about the murder of her husband Danny, described the ISI as a “kingdom within a state”. Many in the organisation are ideologically sympathetic to jihadi organisations. The Pearls were both journalists working in Karachi in 2002 when one Jihadi group kidnapped Danny and executed him. Mariane’s account of the incident reached a wider audience with Michael Winterbottom's film version of A Mighty Heart (starring Angelina Jolie). The Pearls had gotten an inkling of official Pakistani views when they interviewed Hamid Gul who accused the “Jews and Mossad” of carrying out the 9/11 attacks.
Hamid Gul was no ordinary conspiracy theorist. He was the director of the ISI from 1987 to 1989 and was considered the architect of the Afghan jihad. Gul masterminded the mujahideen war against the Soviets, financed by the CIA. In the nineties Gul was called “the Godfather of the Taliban”. Gul fell out of power but remains an important background voice. After the US invasion of Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, he told Robert Fisk he was not a Muslim extremist "but I support the implementation of Shari'a and we must be governed by the rules of Allah."
After the Afghan mujahideen war, Pakistan terrorists turned their attention to the “liberation” of Kashmir. By 1995, the ISI engaged the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeM) to raise a Taliban-type force of young Pakistani students to fight Indian forces in Kashmir. But now the Jihadi monster it created has gotten out of control. In 2003, JeM suicide bombers attempted to assassinate President Musharraf. A year earlier Pearl was killed by Sheikh Omar Saeed, a double agent of the ISI and JeM.
The ISI did not like journalists getting too close to their operations. As well as Pearl, they persecuted two Pakistani journalists who dared write about their activities. Ghulam Hasnain, whose work was syndicated to Time and CNN, was investigating Indian fugitive and smuggler Dawood Ebrahim when was arrested by the ISI a day before Pearl disappeared. He was so traumatised when released 36 hours later, he has refused to speak of it to anyone since. They also physically threatened Shaheen Sehbai, the editor of Islamabad’s The News, in a vain attempt to stop him from linking Pearl’s assassin, Sheik Omar Saeed, with the ISI.
Other leading Pakistani journalists such as Kamran Khan have struck a Faustian pact with the ISI in order to continually report freely. In order to maintain a relationship with them he writes as much to please them as about them. Khan freely admits the ISI have funded madrassas which have harboured Al Qaeda operatives. But he said that some of the Islamists are actually double-agents. He explained how it works to PBS Frontline: “the bottom line here is that, ‘Look. Whatever you are doing, whatever you do, we understand. But mind you, we cannot afford to harbour Arabs here. We cannot afford to harbour non-Pakistanis here. So please, please cooperate with us on that count.’ There is a very deep connection between the religious madrassas, and the key religious scholars, and the establishment.”
Given their power, Mariane Pearl could never understand why the ISI took an active interest in her husband’s disappearance. While the investigating police told Pearl that the ISI had been to her house on the day after the kidnap, she was unaware of their presence except the two occasions they sent a sullen, unhelpful and unsympathetic man who gave his name and rank, in possible homage to Catch-22, as “Major Major”. But if Major played dumb, others in the ISI definitely knew more about the killing than they were letting on.
When the Pakistani police finally tracked down Omar, they found he had already turned himself in to the custody of the home secretary of the Punjab state. Brigadier Ejaz Shah gave Omar sanctuary and kept his detention secret a week. Shah was a powerful figure behind the scenes. In the 1990s, he worked for the ISI and was the official “handler” for Bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Musharraf appointed him to the Punjab role on taking power in 1999. It is likely the ISI interrogated Omar during that week.
The Pakistanis weren’t the only people interested in Omar. In 2001, the FBI were tracing a link between Omar and 9/11 leader Mohammad Atta. Omar wired $100,000 to Atta in the month before the US attacks and the FBI wanted to know who authorised him to make the money transfer. It seemed the order had come from Omar’s boss: ISI head Lieutenant General Mahmood Ahmed. But while this might have shocked the FBI, it would have been no surprise to another well-known American agency. Wajid Shamsul Hasan, Former Pakistan High Commissioner to UK, told the South Asia Tribune in 2004 it has long been established, “the ISI has acted as go-between in intelligence operations on behalf of the CIA”. Yet this unpalatable truth remains hidden in a patchwork of Byzantine alliances. And as the Indian embassy bombing showed, it remains out of control.