By Sanchita Bhattacharya*
The US continues with its policy incoherent on tackling terrorism in Pakistan, and purportedly promoting regional stability in the AfPak and wider South Asian region. On March, 2017, “the Pakistan State Sponsor of Terrorism Act of 2017” (HR1449), was introduced in the House of Representatives proposing that Pakistan be declared a state-sponsor of terrorism. Ted Poe, who heads the House Sub-committee on Terrorism and Non-proliferation, observed, while introducing the Bill, “Not only is Pakistan an untrustworthy ally, Islamabad has also aided and abetted enemies of the United States for years.”
Earlier, in December, 2016, however, the US House of Representatives passed a Defence Bill, pledging USD 900 million to Pakistan. USD 743 million has already been approved as military and developmental aid for Pakistan in FY 2017.
It is well known that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) uses part of this aid, as well as a proportion of Pakistan’s defense budget, to support terrorist networks in the South Asian region, and that Pakistan’s footprint of terror is manifested across the world. As reported in June, 2015, ISI’s known budget was about PKR 169.7 billion [USD 1.62 billion].
Interestingly, in October 2016, the US warned the Pakistani establishment to act against terrorists, else Washington would act unilaterally to “disrupt and destroy” terrorist underpinnings in Pakistan backed by the country’s spy agency, ISI. Adam Szubin, the then US under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligences stated,
The problem is that there are forces within the Pakistani government – specifically in Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI – that refuse to take steps against all the terrorist groups active in Pakistan, tolerating some groups or even worse… This is a distinction we cannot stand for… We continue to urge our partners in Pakistan to go after all terrorist networks operating in their country. We stand ready to help them. But there should be no doubt that while we remain committed to working with Pakistan to confront ongoing terrorist financing and operations, the US will not hesitate to act alone, when necessary to disrupt and destroy these networks.
Astonishingly, in April, 2017, despite global misgivings regarding Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism, Russia, Pakistan and China came closer to seek an ‘Afghan Solution’, purportedly to stabilize the war-torn country and to destroy the growing influence of the Islamic State (IS). Pakistan is seeking to restore its influence over Afghanistan through its Taliban proxies, now with Russian and Chinese support, even as the US has relied repeatedly on Islamabad to secure a settlement with the Taliban.
This is despite the acknowledgement by all the involved external powers, and indeed, the global consensus, that ISI remains active in Afghanistan, seeking to establish its fiat through terrorist proxies, and disrupting the rebuilding process.
In April 2016, Rahmatullah Nabil, the former chief of the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS), released documents and evidence detailing the nexus between the ISI and terrorist organizations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to the documents, Pakistan was directing US aid to the banned Haqqani Network and other elements of the Taliban, and also used madrasas (Islamic Seminaries) in Pakistan for fresh recruitment to terrorist formations operating in Afghanistan. There are an estimated 150,000 madrassas in Pakistan and only 25,000 of these are registered. Incidentally, the chief of Police of Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province, General Abdul Raziq, claimed that the Haqqani Network, backed by ISI, was behind the January 10, 2017, bomb attack in the Kandahar. Another report in April 2016 claimed that ISI paid USD 200,000 to the Haqqani Network for a suicide attack on a CIA camp in Afghanistan in 2009. Seven American agents and contractors and three others, were killed according to a declassified State Department cable.
It is, by now, well known that ISI has been trying to set up bases in countries of South Asia not only to encircle India, but also to spread extremism in other parts of the world.
The island nation of Sri Lanka has it’s own strategic importance in the Indian Ocean region and also in South Asia, with India and China establishing their presence in the Trincomalee and Hambantota ports, respectively. Pakistan, on the other hand, has sought to establish a jihadi outpost in the country on its own strategic calculus. It is now being assessed that the ISI’s primary and apparent objective in using Sri Lanka as an intelligence operations hub is aimed at encircling India from all sides, and specially have access to its southern parts, to possibly scout for terror networks as also to recruit fresh cadres. Also, an October 2016 report from Sri Lanka has exposed ISI’s use of the country as a staging post in this mission. ISI’s primary and apparent objective is to encircle India from all sides, and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and its charitable wing, the Idara Khidmat-e-Khalq (IKK), have been its principal proxies to radicalise Sri Lankan Muslims. In 2004, when the tsunami struck parts of Sri Lanka, LeT-IKK contingents visited Sri Lanka and the Maldives under the cover of a humanitarian charitable effort, but established networks to recruit potential Jihadis. The report revealed that many youth from these areas headed to Pakistan and were found in LeT training camps in the Punjab province and in the tribal areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Significantly, towards the end of 2014, Indian Intelligence officials had successfully managed to identify and neutralize a terrorist module and spy ring operating within the Pakistan High Commission in Sri Lanka. The job of creating a spy ring and then launching a 26/11 styled attack in Chennai had been handed over to the consular officer in Sri Lanka, Amir Zubair Siddiqui. Further investigation revealed that Siddiqui’s job was to set up a full-fledged terrorist module in South India. It was also learnt that he had brought in a charity outfit to open shop in Sri Lanka to help build a base for LeT. India had sought action against Siddiqui and had even moved to question him. However, Pakistan immediately extracted him from the Mission under diplomatic cover, and he returned home.
In a recent incident, however, cooperation among Sri Lankan, Chinese and Indian intelligence agencies led to the arrest of a Pakistani currency smuggler, Faiz Muhammad, in China’s Guangzhou province in October, 2016. Fake currency has been a critical instrument in Pakistan’s resourcing of terrorism in the region. This trilateral sharing of intelligence has left Pakistan, especially ISI, alarmed at the possibility of intelligence cooperation, particularly between its arch-enemy, India, and its ‘all weather friend’, China.
Pakistan has also established a dangerous footprint in the Maldives as well, contributing to a long process of Islamist radicalization and a ‘blooding’ trained cadres in the conflict in Afghanistan. Maldives has now contributed a major share in Islamic State (IS, also Daesh) recruitment, as a result of these protracted processes of radicalization. Some 200 Maldivian recruits had joined Daesh, as per 2016 estimates. Large numbers of Maldivians were provided free education in radicalized Pakistani madrassas, joined the jihad in Afghanistan and subsequently within Pakistan, and returned to propagate a hardline Islamism significantly at variance with indigenous practices. A July 2016 report suggested that Pakistan had sent about 200 doctors to the Maldives to extend ISI operations in the country. Cyber profiling of these doctors and inputs with intelligence agencies suggest they had been in regular touch with the ISI and also with LeT and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM). Pakistani agencies had trained these doctors on the cultural milieu of the island nation according to Maldives sources. The numerous islands in Maldives provide easy connect to South India through Sri Lanka and makes it an ideal destination to launch terror attacks on our coastal cities.
ISI’s Nepal connection was once again exposed when three operatives, Moti Paswan, Uma Shankar Patel and Mukesh Yadav, were arrested by the Bihar Police in the Adapur Police Station area, on January 17, 2017. The trio allegedly confessed to having worked for a Nepalese contact suspected to be connected to the ISI to target the railways. As a result, the role of the ISI in the November 20, 2016, train disaster in Kanpur was suspected. The three had been paid INR 300,000 by a Nepali, Brajesh Giri, who allegedly had connections with Shamsul Hoda of Dubai. Hoda is believed to be linked to ISI. The money was paid to them to plant a bomb on the railway tracks at Ghorasan in East Champaran District, bordering Nepal. Further, an Intelligence source disclosed the linkages between the ISI and international Street Daawah were also being probed for the case. Street Dawah has been linked to the Islamic State and terrorism in several location, is active in the Terai region of Nepal, and recruits non-Muslims for its terror agenda, including suicide bombings. In 2014, India had apprised Kathmandu of the issue of checking anti-India activities by religious schools funded and supported by Pakistan’s ISI.
The ISI-Bangladesh linkages run deep, and, before the Sheikh Hasina Government cracked down on terrorist groupings in the country, there had been numerous attacks in India mounted from, or with the assistance of, networks operating from Bangladeshi soil. In March, 2017, H.T. Imam, Advisor to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, observed, “There has long been the influence of ISI and Pakistan sympathisers in Bangladesh. So the first thing we decided was that we must get rid of ISI bases here, and their supporters.”
The ISI has been trying to strengthen its influence in the Indian state of West Bengal, and this has been emphasized by Bangladeshi officials on a number of occasions. In December, 2015 officials stated that, over the preceding years, the ISI had been as active in Bangladesh as it had been India. With operational difficulties mounting in Jammu and Kashmir, the ISI had apparently turned its attention to Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal. A senior Bangladeshi officer noted,
The ISI is exploiting efforts by the JMB (Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh) and other organisations to create unrest both in Bangladesh and the eastern States of India. West Bengal is primary in the scheme of things as there has been long-standing talk of jehadi outfits planning a Caliphate in Bangladesh after incorporating the districts of Malda, Murshidabad and Nadia of West Bengal. Pakistan and the ISI in particular has a lot to gain from the acts of violence perpetrated by the terror outfits… By creating trouble in this region, Pakistan can make both Bangladesh and India suffer as unlike in northern India, the borders in the east are more porous.
ISI has also been channelizing funds for several terrorist outfits operating from Bangladesh with an anti-India agenda. Farina Arshad, Second Secretary at the Pakistan High Commission in Dhaka, was charged by the Bangladeshi establishment of financial terrorism and hastily recalled in December 2015. Bangladeshi authorities asked the diplomat to leave for reportedly having “extended financial support to a suspected militant who faces spying charges.” The Police stated that a JMB operative, Idris Sheikh, alleged in a Dhaka court that he had links with Arshad and had received 30,000 taka (USD380) from him. Earlier, in January 2015, Mohammad Mazhar Khan, a Pakistani diplomat was expelled from Dhaka for allegedly funding various extremist formations. An intelligence report alleged that Mazhar Khan, in collaboration with some colleagues at the High Commission, used to channel money earned through the fake currency to Bangladeshi militant organisations such as Hizb-ut-Tahir, Ansarullah Bangla Team and affiliates of the Jamaat-e-Islami.
The ISI Directorate, formed in 1948 following the Indo-Pakistan war of 1947, has dramatically augmented its capacities, both within Pakistan, and across expanding theatres abroad. Backed by USA’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) through the anti-Soviet Campaigns in Afghanistan after 1979, the ISI came to control huge – often unaccounted – finances, executing a range of sustained covert operations, including the creation and support of a multiplicity of terrorist groupings, across the South Asian neighbourhood.
The ISI is also trying to launch anti-India missions from Myanmar, taking advantage of the ongoing Rohingya problem in the country. December 2016 reports indicated that ISI had been planning to open a new front in eastern India to launch attacks. Intelligence assessments suggest that ISI had made a tactical shift in its strategy for India and had set up a terror camp in Marisot (situated on Thailand-Myanmar border), using Taliban ‘fighters’ to train Rohingya Muslims. Intelligence sources indicate that ISI was channeling ‘huge funds’ and weapons for these activities and had also arranged a meeting between Maulana Abdul Kuddus (a Rohingya Muslim of Pakistani origin who heads the Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami Arkana: HuJI-A) and LeT founder Hafiz Saeed. Kuddus is also believed to be close to the Pakistan Taliban. In June 2015, a senior Indian intelligence official noted, “ISI-backed terror outfits like Lashker, Jamaat ud Dawah and Falah-I-Insaniyat Foundation (FiF) have been hobnobbing with Rohingya community leaders and organizing jehadi training along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border.”
With the incoherence of Western policy and continuing, albeit diminishing, financial and military support pouring into Islamabad, even as Pakistan is ascribed a lead role in the search for a ‘solution’ in Afghanistan, there has been no decisive disincentive to ISI’s continuing subversive activities across the region. Pakistan’s footprints of terror are visible across the world, but Islamabad continues to operate with complete impunity, and there are no signs of any dramatic change in strategy or orientation that could reverse this deleterious trend.
* Sanchita Bhattacharya
Visiting Scholar, Institute for Conflict Management