They are called “angels,” sarcastically, in Pakistan, because they indulge in dirty acts but come out clean in the end. They play the keystrokes, albeit discreetly, in politics, both domestic and regional, as well as international – as recent events have proved. An invisible government – a state within a state – if one may. They have traditionally worked as the eyes and ears for the Pakistan army – the world’s sixth largest. They are one of the world’s most dreaded secret service: Inter Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s CIA more infamous by its acronym ISI.
Successfully convincing the entire world they had no idea where bin Laden and Mullah Omar had gone, ISI spooks have had a long history of political assassinations and executions. Thousands of skeletons line their cupboards. It’s almost an open secret, none dare to speak about in Pakistan.
One of the first to fall prey was the country’s first premier Liauqat Ali Khan. The mysterious death of the sister of Pakistan’s founder, Fatima Jinnah, suffocation to death of yet another former premier, Hussein Shaheed Suhrawardy, at his Beirut hotel room, hanging of one of the most popular premiers Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, shooting to death of his son Murtaza Bhutto like a wild dog outside his home and killing of his daughter, twice-premier Benazir Bhutto herself. These are just a few.
All this comes to my mind in my musings on the macabre, cloak-and-dagger assassination of prominent U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl.
Pakistan’s master spy agency Inter Services Intelligence – the angels – had feigned innocence over the dastardly murder, circumstantial evidence surrounding Pearl’s Gestapo-style execution told a different story.
Intriguingly, most of the world’s premier media blamed only “rogue” elements within the ISI, as if the hands of the “real” ISI were clean. For instance, Newsweek had reported, the president at the time coup leader Gen Pervez Musharraf– America’s favorite dictator at the time– was “unpopular in some quarters – including, ominously, among certain officials of Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI – for backing the Americans against al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan and trying to crack down on extremist groups in his own country.”
As Pearl’s executioners had demanded release of the F-16s, even that Newsweek story made it pointedly clear that there was more to it than meets the eye: “If the kidnappers were standard-issue Islamic extremists, the demand for the F-16s didn’t seem to make much sense. Warplanes for the Pakistani Air Force are useless to guerrilla jihadists.” Aptly, the Newsweek story highlighted the role of a former aide and pilot of bin Laden, Khalid Khawaja, who was later killed by the very snakes the ISI helped nurture over the years.
The American public, mostly focused on things that happen within U.S. borders, seems to have acquiesced. For the people in the U.S. and rest of the civilized world, Pearl was a respected journalist from a top U.S. newspaper, the Wall Street Journal. Period. But not in Pakistan, a nation held hostage even today under the shadow of bayonets; army generals are the real rulers, the dismissal of premier Nawaz Sharif shows, while Pearl was an enemy agent for his investigative journalism.
For the ISI, especially, Pearl’s profile matched that of an “enemy agent.” As a journalist from Pakistan, I can reasonably assure the world that Pearl’s first major “sin” was that he was Jewish. His second major “sin” was he was stationed in Mumbai, commercial capital of Pakistan’s arch-foe India. These two factors themselves would have made the security managers – the angels – work overtime and keep a close tab on his itinerary.
But, of course, the cardinal sin was that he was trailing al-Qaida’s links in Pakistan. In other words, Pearl was knocking at ISI doors. It would be naivete bordering on absurdity, to believe that the ISI was not monitoring each and every move of Pearl from the very moment he landed on Pakistan soil. Any intelligence outfit worth its salt would have done just the same, considering an “enemy agent” was in the fields.
As a journalist myself, who has written on sensitive issues many years ago in Pakistan, those in the know of how the “system” works had warned me to be careful “otherwise you would vanish into thin air, traceless.” I was wise to lucky to have escaped to U.S. safety in year 2000, much before enforced disappearances of thousands of Baloch and now Sindhis began.
In fact, in my US asylum petition in 2000, I had said those who write objectively out of Pakistan are dubbed either an American or an Indian or an Israeli agent. Those words, my own, rang in my ears when Pearl’s captors first called him a CIA agent, then a Mossad agent. Beyond an iota of doubt, Pakistan’s angels had “marked” Pearl. That’s how they work.
To those angels, the man convicted of Pearl’s murder – the “mastermind” – was not a stranger either. Rather one of their own. Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who according to a CNN October report had bankrolled $100,000 to main 9-11 terrorist Mohammed Atta on ISI instructions. That bankrolling led to the ouster of the then ISI chief Lt. Gen. Mehmud Ahmed, the key general who brought Musharraf into power – and regarded by many as more powerful than Musharraf himself in the army hierarchy.
While the FBI and police in the Southeastern province were feverishly working to track down the suspects, convicted killer Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh was comfortably in the “protective custody” of the highest security official of Pakistan’s governing province of Punjab, home secretary Brigadier Ijaz Shah. That home secretary was Omar’s mentor and was in charge of ISI’s Kashmir desk a few years earlier. Brigadier Shah was accused by slain premier Benazir Bhutto publicly that she feared he was going to kill her, but still he never got arrested. Ijaz Shah was also accused of helping hide bin Laden. However, all these allegations against Shah did not stop ISI’s pampered cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan– aka as Taliban Khan for his support to the Taliban– from inducting him into the core team of his Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf party in spring this year.
Omar Sheikh was a soldier sans frontier, who had participated in the jihad in Bosnia and Kashmir, where he was specifically assigned to kidnap foreigners – ideally Americans – but was arrested and sentenced after a shootout in India. Omar, was deemed important enough to be one of the three militants to be freed from India’s maximum security Tihar jail in exchange for over 155 passengers aboard an Air India plane that was hijacked to Kandahar – coincidentally, headquarters of the disbanded Taliban and safest sanctuary of al-Qaida until a month after 9-11 – on the eve of the new millennium.
Intriguingly, the methods employed by those hijackers were repeated by the 9-11 terrorists. The penultimate jihad of Sheikh Omar, prior to Daniel’s kidnap-slaying, was his role in the storming of the Indian parliament in December 2001, allegedly on ISI instructions. With the angels good wishes, Omar played a key role in this operation despite the fact that the U.S. authorities had more than a month earlier, requested Omar’s extradition to the United States.
But this was just the tip of the iceberg. ISI sleuths pressured Pakistan’s largest selling English newspaper, The News, to stop the editor Shaheen Sehbai from publishing Omar’s confessions. The report was filed by Kamran Khan, who is noted for his solid sources within the spy establishment, and who also used to report for the Washington Post. After the report was published, all government ads to The News were frozen.
Those who were doing it to Editor Sehbai were not certain “rogue elements,” but highest ISI officials loyal to Gen Musharraf. “Physically threatened,” Sehbai flew to U.S. safety just three days after Pearl’s slaying videotapes made international headlines.