When the RAW put the ISI in a spot after 9/11
Adrian Levy Cathy Scott-Clark | 20 Aug, 2021
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
IN THE FALLOUT from the Kargil War, in October 1999, Army Chief General Pervez Musharraf seized power from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whom he accused of running to the U.S. to seek sanctuary for his entire family, instead of remaining resolute over the incursions. Musharraf would elevate himself to chief executive and later president, moving General Mahmud Ahmed, a trusted confidant, into the I.S.I. as its chief. Musharraf wanted a battle-hardened war veteran—“a trustee”—to watch his back.
General Ahmed, like Musharraf, had been a child at Partition and witnessed the killings and violence close-up. Born in Ludhiana, in the Punjab, he was religious and conservative and having fought in the wars of 1965 and 1971 became deeply anti-Indian. When he joined the I.S.I., Lt Gen Hamid Gul, a former I.S.I. chief, was a mentor. But in this new posting at the spy agency, Ahmed was unlucky. He was in Washington, D.C. on 9/11, meeting future C.I.A. director Porter Goss for breakfast, when the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center. “I knew he liked military history and I’d brought him a book,” Goss told us. “I was going to give it to him when we got to my office. But it never happened. He had to rush off. The book is still on my shelf, all wrapped up.”
As Ahmed struggled to find a way out of the U.S., he experienced the full force of America’s wrath. On September 12, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told him that Pakistan had to make a choice: “You are either one hundred per cent with us or one hundred per cent against us—there is no grey area.” That afternoon, he also met George Tenet, the C.I.A. director, who later told us he was “lobbying hard” to drop a C.I.A. hit squad into Afghanistan to take out Osama bin Laden and the Taliban leadership.
Ahmed recalled that he advised Tenet that Mullah Omar, the Taliban chief, was a religious man, and not a violent one. It was a vital distinction. The cleric did not support what bin Laden had done and had not assisted the “planes operation,” which he despised. The best way to get to al Qaeda was to befriend the Taliban and use Mullah Omar as the intermediary, Ahmed believed.
As Pakistan struggled to realign itself with America, the permanent war with India got in the way. R.A.W., still livid over Kargil, and dismayed by the U.S. decision to back Pakistan, hoped to use the fallout from 9/11 to flag India as a preferential client
As a blood lust and real fear gripped America and George Tenet struggled for political survival at the C.I.A., this was not what he or the Bush administration wanted to hear or were ready to accept. It looked like appeasement, Tenet told us, while for Ahmed it was pragmatism.
Musharraf, back in Rawalpindi, had been galvanized by the crisis and had had a vision of a new Pakistan. The country needed a “drastic course-correction” and there could be no more back-room manoeuvring, he told us. Instead, a “controlled democracy” had to flourish. He called for a fresh strategic outlook, including, unusually, peace with India. The president’s ideas were put down in a classified briefing note: “Can we survive a U.S.-led Backlash against al Qaeda and Taliban?”
Stamped “Secret,” the briefing expressed itself with the kind of frankness that deep classification is intended to elicit. “Pakistan cannot win a military conflict with the U.S. and yet we are heading for one,” it concluded.
We must change, while 1. guarding our sovereignty and 2. protecting strategic interests.
The U.S. will go to war over al Qaeda at some point, and the Taliban will become casualties for shielding them, unless we can persuade them otherwise—which is doubtful. Then, Pakistan will have to choose. And if Pakistan chooses Taliban, while this decision will be popular, it will also be disastrous.
Let us consider: 1. Taliban are mostly beyond I.S.I. influence. 2. If we cannot get their attention, how do we protect our interests in Afghanistan? The task is capturing their attention and maintaining influence over the U.S. But also reaching out to India. War on every border is not desirable and, critically, unsustainable.
The briefing tells a radically different version of events to that voiced in Washington, where the I.S.I. was projected as practically running the Taliban and colluding with al Qaeda.
Walking Musharraf’s tightrope, spy chief Ahmed worried about Pakistan’s failure to voice its national interest, and to develop a robust public voice. The military way was to work quietly and in secret without ever creating a public consensus. He was sent on a mission to see the Taliban, hoping to re-engage the movement and safeguard it from a U.S. air war, while Rawalpindi tried to win them a deal.
The overworked Ahmed was then dispatched back to Washington, D.C., carrying a message of change (in Pakistan) and continuity (in Afghanistan). Ahmed was “stoic, honest and loyal,” Musharraf said. He could be “relied on for straight talk.”
With the intel chief gone, more reports that Musharraf commissioned landed on his desk. One, entitled “The Role of the Gun,” stated that after so many years of being a front-line state and a launch pad for jihad, Pakistan was bent out of shape. “Weapons are everywhere. They are currency,” the brief concluded. Development would not happen without firearm amnesties. “This should be a priority.”
Musharraf also tasked the I.S.I. with ending communalism—the wars between Islamic sects—and asked his staff to think about what kind of democracy Pakistan might become. In the frankest terms, the briefs explored whether the nation could become more like Thailand, or Singapore, where the military dropped their uniforms to sit in parliaments rather than invisibly puppeteering democracy. Musharraf mused and decided that a clear-out was needed to enable him to move quicker. He wanted a new team of deeper thinkers.
Musharraf had been galvanized by the 9/11 crisis and had had a vision of a new Pakistan. The country needed a ‘drastic course-correction’ and there could be no more back-room manoeuvring, he told us. Instead, a ‘controlled democracy’ had to flourish. He called for a fresh strategic outlook, including, unusually, peace with India
Almost one month after 9/11, on the night of October 7, Musharraf called General Ehsan ul-Haq at home. A specialist in anti-aircraft warfare, the quietly spoken Pakistan Air Force officer had been commissioned from the Army Air Defence Command. He was a clinical and forward-thinking family man, with a son in an American college, which made him, Musharraf believed, a pragmatist. “Mahmud’s gone,”
Musharraf told ul-Haq, who recalled it took him a minute to understand where this was leading.
Pakistan needed a suave, plain dealer to tackle Washington. UI-Haq was a former director general of Military Intelligence, and the outgoing XI Corps Commander based in Peshawar. He had graduated on a diet of noodles, engineering, and physics at the People’s Liberation Army Air Force Aviation University in Zhengzhou, China. Musharraf knew that he would understand the geometry of the new Pakistan-U.S. pact, with its multiple narratives.
Ul-Haq would be ruthless in dead-heading the I.S.I., pruning the time-servers, and weeding out the worst of Hamid Gul’s old protégés, those who would impede Musharraf or conspire against him as he manoeuvred closer to the U.S. to ensure his own political survival. Musharraf recalled that ul-Haq “was a crocodile,” a lethal submarine capable of terminal aggression—which to his way of thinking was a compliment. But the army, the largest and most powerful defence wing, traditionally ran the I.S.I. and u1-Haq’s elevation as an air man to D.G.-I.S.I. would also see him leapfrog army men of seniority, creating deep bitterness. Musharraf did not care. And ul-Haq gave the impression that neither did he.
Musharraf doubled down on General Ahmed, using his departure to play to a U.S. audience that was still uncertain about Pakistan. Mahmud had been “the wrong man,” Musharraf confided in U.S. officials, representing “old Islamist tendencies.” Ul-Haq told us this was not true. The Director General, Analysis (DGA), General Javed Alam Khan, a secular officer who counted Ahmed as a friend, described it as “poppycock.” But it was useful for the U.S. to report Ahmed’s ousting this way, ul-Haq recalled. “Back with your old enemy, Pakistan, you need a clean sheet, I guess,” he said. “As for the U.S. and Indian headlines: I.S.I. is deradicalized. What rot! Rubbish. We never deradicalized, de- Islamized, downsized. But if Washington wanted to project that Pakistan—now a major ally—had reformed, with Ahmed purged, let them! We did not lose a man and the I.S.I. was about to grow.”
As Pakistan struggled to realign itself with America, the permanent war with India got in the way. R.A.W., still livid over Kargil, and dismayed by the U.S. decision to back Pakistan, hoped to use the fallout from 9/11 to flag India as a preferential client.
MONISHA HAD REACHED a personal realization. Once you learned to step around the politics and the chauvinism inside R.A.W., the uncles and the lotharios, the mansplainers and the Brahminical zealots, the spying life was invigorating. She loved it more than a marriage, she told herself. More than having a mother. More than a fat salary, fancy apartment, a car. More than regular hours, vacations, and a family lunch at Kolkata’s Allen Kitchen, which had been a ritual. More even than public praise and recognition. She was starting to understand the seduction of the clandestine world, the pleasure of doing something that made history which would only ever be known by a handful of people. Right now, one of these R.A.W. deep plays unfolded, and she was on its coattails.
It began with the Press Trust of India scoop on October 7, 2001, at 23:08 I.S.T.:
While the Pakistani Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) claimed that former ISI Director-General Lt-Gen Mahmud Ahmed sought retirement after being superseded on Monday, the truth is more shocking. Top sources confirmed here on Tuesday, that the general lost his job because of the evidence India produced to show his links to one of the suicide bombers that wrecked the World Trade Center (WTC).
The U.S. authorities sought his removal after confirming the fact that$100,000 was wired to WTC hijacker Mohammed Atta from Pakistan by Ahmad Umar Sheikh at the instance of Gen Mahmud. Senior government sources have confirmed that India contributed significantly to establishing the link between the money transfer and the role played by the dismissed ISI chief. While they did not provide details, they said that Indian inputs, including Sheikh’s mobile phone number, helped the FBI in tracing and establishing the link.
The conclusion was stunning:
A direct link between the ISI and the WTC attack could have enormous repercussions. The U.S. cannot but suspect whether or not there were other senior Pakistani army commanders who were in the know of things. Evidence of a larger conspiracy could shake U.S. confidence in Pakistan’s ability to participate in the anti-terrorism coalition.
To stick the knife into General Ahmed, the I.S.I., and Pakistan in general, Indian intelligence bound truth and fiction, that A.R.K. was committed to terrorize India, and that the proceeds of his actions were wired via the I.S.I. to Al Qaeda hijackers
The report raised the bogie of IC 814 and Omar Sheikh, the British prisoner released after the hijacking, all of which projected the U.S. as suffering from Stockholm Syndrome by partnering with Pakistan (where Washington was the victim who empathized with its abductor, Islamabad):
Indian officials say they are vitally interested in the unravelling of the case since it could link the ISI directly to the hijacking of the Indian airlines Kathmandu-Delhi flight to Kandahar last December. Ahmad Umar Sayeed Sheikh is a British national and a London School of Economics graduate who was arrested by the police in Delhi following a bungled 1994 kidnapping of four westerners, including an American citizen.
Within hours, the story was in the Wall Street Journal.
“Our Friends the Pakistanis…”
Yesterday we noted a report from a Pakistani newspaper that Lt. Gen. Mahmud Ahmed had been fired as head of Islamabad’s Inter-Services Security agency after U.S. linked him to a militant allied with terrorists who hijacked an Indian Airlines plane in 1999. Now the Times oflndia says Ahmed is connected to the Sept. 11 attacks:
Top sources confirmed here on Tuesday that the general lost his job because of the “evidence” India produced to show his links to one of the suicide bombers that wrecked the World Trade Center. The U.S. authorities sought his removal after confirming the fact that $100,000 were wired to W.T.C. hijacker Mohammed Atta from Pakistan by Ahmad Umar Sheikh at the instance of Gen Mahmud.
Senior government sources have confirmed that India contributed significantly to establishing the link between the money transfer and the role played by the dismissed I.S.I. chief. While they did not provide details, they said that Indian inputs, including Sheikh’s mobile phone number, helped the F.B.I. in tracing and establishing the link.”
Back at Aabpara, senior I.S.I. officials were thrown into a panic by what they concluded was an I.B.-R.A.W. play. They knew that India had recently pounced on a real Islamist cell in West Bengal that had been remotely coached by the I.S.I. It was led by an Indian national, Asif Raza Khan (A.R.K.), jailed for the possession of explosives in 1994, the investigation revealing that he had flirted with insurgent groups in Pakistan that were heading for Kashmir.
In Delhi’s Tihar Jail, A.R.K. had mixed with others housed in the terrorist wing—including Briton Omar Sheikh and preacher Masood Azhar—who persuaded him that he should launch a war on his release in 1999. A.R.K. did just that, and R.A.W.’s Rana Banerji had dived into A.R.K.’s operations—which included a series of kidnappings the following year—deducing that these were carried out to finance attacks on India.
To stick the knife into General Ahmed, the I.S.I., and Pakistan in general, Indian intelligence bound truth and fiction, that A.R.K. was committed to terrorize India, and that the proceeds of his actions were wired via the I.S.I. to al Qaeda hijackers.
“This was inductive thinking at its best,” Monisha said, praising the way the intelligence community crafted a compelling false argument.
The suggestion that the 9/11 plotters had used a public figure like Ahmed to wire money to hijackers in Florida was patently unbelievable. In the month leading to the operation, Osama bin Laden had not even told his own shura about the brewing operation. The eleven hijackers were briefed a few hours before boarding the planes. Only those trained to fly knew some but not all of what was coming. It had been a highly compartmentalized plan, which was one of the main reasons for it succeeding. Another was the advice al Qaeda gave to all fighters and fieldworkers— “Never trust the I.S.I.”
According to subsequent inquiries, the C.I.A. did not call for Ahmed’s sacking or find him culpable. German intelligence did not find any links between the I.S.I., Ahmed, and the hijackers. And the only man who did know—and could reveal—where the money from the Kolkata crime wave went was A.R.K. He was shot dead by Indian cops in a contrived cold kill in Rajkot, Gujarat, in December 2001, which meant he could never take the stand.
General ul-Haq said ruefully: “Our enemy is smart. I would have done the same if I was them.” The story dragged on for years, even after the U.S. 9/11 Commission Report did not name General Ahmed or accuse the I.S.I. of culpability. But the I.S.I. would struggle to shake off the building suspicion in the West, one that was shot through with Islamophobia: that a nation of Muslims was in league with al Qaeda.
(This is an edited excerpt from Spy Stories: Inside the Secret World of the R.A.W. and the I.S.I. by Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark | Juggernaut | 360 pages | Rs 699).