Pak ISI - Friend or Foe? US not sure

US has raised a stinging query: Did ISI know about Osama in Abbottabad? Answer is quite likely yes.

Updated: May 12, 2011, 18:55 PM IST

Islamabad: The twin towers in New York
were still smouldering in September 2001 when Pakistan spy
chief Gen Mahmood Ahmed went to Afghanistan with the task of
urging the Taliban to hand over al Qaeda leader Osama bin
Laden.

The message he actually gave Mullah Mohammed Omar was
quite different: "Protect Osama. Hide him. We will help you,"
according to former Taliban deputy interior minister Mullah
Mohammed Khaksar. His version has been confirmed by US
officials and former Pakistani spies.

A decade later, the US has raised a stinging question:
Did Pakistan`s premier spy agency, the ISI, know that bin
Laden had been living for at least five years near a military
garrison in Abbottabad?

The answer is quite likely yes, according to ex-ISI
agents, military men and analysts, but the issue is really who
knew and how close they might have been to the top.

A week after Navy SEALS killed bin Laden, the US has
demanded the names of ISI operatives from Pakistan to
investigate what dealings they may have had with al-Qaida.

An ISI official, who spoke on condition of anonymity,
said no formal inquiry was being held, and that it was "no
one`s concern" whether Pakistan investigated how bin Laden had
lived under the nose of the military without detection.

At the heart of the matter is the long, complicated
relationship between the ISI and various militant groups.
The ISI, which is part of Pakistan`s military, has a
history of spawning and funding jihadi groups to fight India,
in particular for the disputed territory of Kashmir.

Pakistan`s military relies heavily on these groups in
the absence of the conventional might to take on India, said
defence analyst Ayesha Siddiqua.

For example, Pakistan has hosted training camps for
militants and has sent them across the border into India,
according to US intelligence reports.

"How else do you fight?" Siddiqua asked.
"It is the Pakistan version of private security
guards."
However, some of these jihadi groups have links to
al Qaeda and share with it a militant Islamic philosophy.

Harakat-ul-jihad-Islam, the leader of the Illyas
Kashmiri group against India, is also believed by Western
intelligence to be al-Qaida`s operational chief in Pakistan.

And Lashkar e-Taiba, which the US calls a terrorist group, is
thought to have close funding and operational ties to
al-Qaida.

Former President Pervez Musharraf long ago promised to
cut off close ties with militants, but there is no evidence
that he followed through. Pakistan also claims that it has
purged religious extremists from the ISI over the past decade.

The ISI did drop Gen Ahmed soon after the 9/11
attacks, at the insistence of the United States, and Musharraf
has handed over senior al Qaeda operatives such as Khalid
Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubayda and Ramzi Binalshib to the United
States.

In a WikiLeaks diplomatic cable dating to May 12,
2008, a US delegation asked Musharraf for his views on reports
that the Pakistan army and ISI were complicit in allowing
militant activities to continue.

Musharraf did not give a direct response, but talked
instead about the job of catching militants. "Musharraf said
that it wasn`t as easy as it appeared," the cable notes.
"The mountainous terrain, poor communications, and
local supporters impeded efforts to capture and kill these
militants."

Despite his protests, experts say, Musharraf grew up
under a religious regime and understands the power of
religiously motivated uprisings.

If anything, the ISI may be as fundamentalist as ever,
partly because military personnel from a time when the army
was openly involved with militants still work in operations,
Siddiqua said.

The ISI also falls under suspicion because bin Laden
went undetected despite the many security guards and officers
in Abbottabad, a leafy city of 400,000 people close to
Islamabad.

Al Qaeda has a history in the area: Senior Indonesian
al Qaeda operative Umar Patek was arrested there in January,
based on information from a captured al Qaeda member, an
intelligence official said.

And in 2003, raids were conducted in Abbottabad
looking for al Qaeda senior lieutenant Abu Laith al-Libi, who
was eventually caught not far away in Mardan in 2005.

Retired military officer Lt Gen Talat Masood conceded
that some people within the establishment were likely
suspicious about the occupants of the whitewashed, three-story
house in a middle-class area of Abbottabad.

However, Masood said, most would not have considered
bin Laden their first suspect, and some may have been bribed
to keep prying eyes away. Security officers at airports and
border crossings in Pakistan are often bribed to ignore
suspicious movements.

"The most charitable explanation you can give is that
it was at the local level of the police, or some local
authority, or someone who carried a lot of weight and
influence in the area," Masood said. "He was paid handsomely
to ignore who was living there."

The least charitable version, Masood said, is that bin
Laden was given safe haven by former military ruler Musharraf,
who was waiting until the appropriate moment to announce his
capture.

Civilian critics in Pakistan accused Musharraf of
secretly aiding Taliban militants on both sides of the border,
even as militants routinely accused him of siding with the
West.

Some analysts and intelligence officials questioned
whether top ISI officials would have a good motive to hide bin
Laden. It would not in any way help Pakistan, said Brig. Asad
Munir, former ISI head for the frontier until 2003.

"You at least have to look at motive...what does bin
Laden have to offer?" Munir asked. "It doesn`t make sense."

Christine Fair, an academic expert who studies
Pakistan and militant groups, agreed that the top leadership
of the ISI was likely ignorant rather than complicit in the
hiding of bin Laden.

"I really don`t believe they knew," said Fair,
assistant professor at the Center for Peace and Strategic
Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, who has done
extensive research in the region.

However, lower-level ISI operatives may well have been
aware of bin Laden`s presence, Fair said.

She cited the example of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, in
which two junior ISI spies were disciplined for knowing about
and possibly being involved in the operation. There is no
evidence that knowledge of the attacks, which killed 166
people, extended higher up in the ranks.

Mosharraf Zaidi, a private consultant in Pakistan who
advises governments on public policy, said essentially the
same thing.

"I think there are people who would have known, but
did the leadership know? The prime minister, the president,
the army chief and intelligence chief?" he asked. "I don`t
believe so."

Bureau Report