By Sanchita Bhattacharya
On September 17, 2012, Tamil Nadu State intelligence sleuths arrested an Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agent, identified as Thamim Ansari, from Tiruchi in the Tiruchirappalli District, when he was heading for the Airport to board a flight to Colombo (Sri Lanka). 25 CDs and photographs of various important installations in the state were reportedly seized from Ansari. Subsequent disclosures by Ansari revealed that a Pakistan High Commission diplomat in Sri Lanka, Amir Zubair Siddiqui, had tasked him to secure pictures of Naval and Coast Guard Stations, as well as Army installations in the State.
Unsurprisingly, the First Information Report (FIR) included the name of the Pakistani diplomat. The FIR noted that the diplomat, through contacts Haji and Shaji living in Colombo, had employed Ansari of Thanjavur District in Tamil Nadu to supply sensitive information on defence installations in India. Preliminary investigations indicate that a Pakistani espionage desk was operating from Colombo and was concentrating on South India. ISI agents were actively attempting to recruit Sri Lankan Tamil refugees, who had come to India during the course of the Eelam War, and have now returned to the island nation after the end of the conflict in May 2009.
Ansari’s arrest and subsequent disclosures are only the most recent evidence of a sustained effort by the ISI to encircle India with a network of subversive modules spread throughout the neighbourhood to engage in espionage, to recruit and support extremist and terrorist elements, and to engage in activities intended to destabilize the country from within.
According to the partial data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management (ICM), 133 ISI-related modules have been discovered and neutralised in India since 2004. 37 such modules were neutralised in New Delhi, followed by 18 in Punjab, 15 in Uttar Pradesh, 10 each in Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal, nine in Maharashtra, eight in Gujarat, six in Karnataka, five in Rajasthan, four in Madhya Pradesh, three in Uttaranchal, two each in Tripura and Haryana, one each in Goa, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and Assam.
Within the Indian neighbourhood, the ISI has been attempting to encircle India by sending and recruiting agents in countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. The interrogation of Mehrajuddin Wani alias Javed alias Daand, a militant arrested on September 12, 2012, for instance, revealed that the peripheries of Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, were fast becoming a hub of Pakistani and Kashmiri terrorists, backed by the ISI. Moreover, according to US cables released by WikiLeaks in 2011, ISI had created an anti-India terror outfit, Jammu and Kashmir Islamic Front (JKIF), with its main base in Kathmandu.
The ISI-Bangladesh linkages run deep, and, before the Sheikh Hasina Government cracked down of terrorist groupings operating against India from Bangladeshi soil, and fundamentally altered the relationship between the ISI and Bangladesh’s Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), intelligence and terrorist collaboration between the two countries was at the heart of a number of terrorist attacks executed across India. The ISI’s Bangladeshi linkages are now being examined anew, in the light of revelations made by the handler of the November 26, 2008, (26/11) Mumbai (Maharashtra) terrorist attacks, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) operative Syed Zabiuddin Ansari aka Abu Jundal. On July 19, 2012, Jundal revealed that Yasin Bhatkal, one of the most wanted terrorists in India and ‘chief’ of the Indian Mujahideen (IM), was hiding in Bangladesh with ISI support. He also provided details of e-mails and chat sites through which he communicated with Bhatkal on a regular basis. Indian agencies suspect that Bhatkal was constantly changing his location in Dhaka and Chittagong, with ISI operatives helping him with logistics.
Further, based on credible information developed over the past months by field operatives of intelligence agencies in the Indian Northeast, Bangladesh and Myanmar, it has been confirmed that Paresh Baruah, ‘commander’ of the Anti-Talks Faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA-ATF) and his trusted aides were being facilitated by two ISI agents, Khwaja Sultan Malik and Qalil Ahmed, who are operating out of Bangladesh. Both Malik and Ahmed were reported to have close links with drug cartels in Southeast Asia, and these were smuggling narcotics into India through the porous Indo-Bangladesh border with ULFA’s help.
During the course of the recent Bodo-Muslim clash in Assam, United Liberation Front of Asom- Pro Talks Faction (ULFA-PTF) leader, Mrinal Hazarika, claimed, on July 25, 2012, that groups such as the Muslim United Liberation Tigers of Assam (MULTA) and Pakistan’s ISI may have been involved in triggering ethnic-communal clashes in the Bodo Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD) area. Further, according to a media report dated August 12, 2012, an unnamed intelligence officer commented, “(ISI) have used the social networking sites and mobile phones to create panic in the community and, unfortunately, it has worked for them”.
Significantly, former ISI Chief Asad Durrani admitted before the Pakistan Supreme Court, in March 2012, during proceedings relating to the Agency’s mandate, that the ISI had provided logistical support and funding to insurgent groupings in India’s Northeast in a campaign intended to destabilize India.
On October 18, 2012, West Bengal Director General of Police (DGP) Naparajit Mukherjee warned that the Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) had established links with the ISI. Mukherjee claimed that several pro-Maoist over-ground outfits had joined hands with some elements of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), which was closely connected with the ISI, and these elements had held several meetings jointly in four Districts of West Bengal – Murshidabad, West Midnapore, Purulia and Bankura. Significantly, the ISI had long sought to make common cause with the Maoists, but has largely been unsuccessful, as the Left Wing Extremists (LWE) have tended to believe that such an association would cut into their recruitment base. Nevertheless, the CPI-Maoist has repeatedly expressed its support for various ‘nationalist movements’, including the separatists in Jammu and Kashmir who are backed by the ISI.
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. Hein Kiessling, who represented the Munich (Germany)-based Hanns-Seidel-Foundation in Pakistan from 1989 to 2002, in a book titled ”Revisiting Contemporary South Asia” notes:
The (real) ISI budget is top secret, only a few people know the figure. In fact officially the ISI budget today is between $300 and 400 million… The personnel strength of ISI has also been a secret. During Zia-ul Haq’s tenure it was estimated to be 20,000 men. In the 1990s and in the new millennium there were drastic reductions in personnel. Therefore, it is now assumed that ISI’s base strength is approximately 4,000. About five percent of the ISI personnel are from the military on a contract basis. Approximately 45 percent are from the military. ISI has 50 percent of civilian staff members… It (ISI) is controlled and efficiently run — there is no ISI within the ISI. Although officially the Internal Cell was declared closed, it still exists. The ISI is the eyes and ears of the military. The military forces see themselves as guardians of Pakistan’s survival. Therefore, it is very unlikely that the Internal Cell was closed.
The ISI, headquartered, in the Pakistani capital city of Islamabad and currently headed by its Director General, Lieutenant General Zaheer ul-Islam (who assumed office on March 9, 2012), has acquired increasing notoriety even within Pakistan. Amidst growing concerns of political machinations, human rights violations, ‘disappearances’, and widespread intimidation, a Bill was introduced in July, 2012, by Farhatullah Babar, spokesman of President Asif Ali Zardari in the Senate (Upper House) to make the ISI more accountable to the Parliament and Government. It recommended internal accountability within the agency and a better discipline system to end enforced disappearances and victimisation of political parties. The bill was, however, withdrawn on the apparent grounds that Babar had not secured the prior approval of the Law Minister Farook H. Naek-headed Special Committee of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), of which President Asif Ali Zardari is the Co-Chairman. The development, however, is widely seen as evidence of the ISI’s clout within the political establishment. Past attempts at imposing a measure of accountability over the agency have also proven abortive.
On July 26, 2008, the Government had issued an order placing the ISI under the administrative, financial and operational control of the Interior Division. An official statement declared, “The Prime Minister (has) approved the placement of Intelligence Bureau and Inter Services Intelligence under the administrative, financial and operational control of the Interior Division with immediate effect,” Within hours, however, the order was reversed, and on July 27, 2008, the Government ‘clarified’ that, “The said notification [July 26] only re-emphasises more co-ordination between the Ministry of Interior and the ISI in relation to the war on terror and internal security.”
The ISI political mischief within Pakistan has been further established in the Supreme Court hearings on the 1996 petition filed by former Pakistan Air Force Chief Asghar Khan accusing ISI of financing politicians in the 1990 General elections by providing Pakistan PKR 140 million to them to create the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) and prevent Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) from winning the polls. However, on October 3, 2012, the Defence Ministry of Pakistan told the Supreme Court that there was ‘no political cell’ in the ISI. The Ministry, however, conceded that a political cell ‘might have’ existed in the past, but that no notification regarding its creation was found in the records. The three-judge bench led by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, on October 4, served notice to the secretary to the President, seeking records of the existence of any political cell in the ISI.
Meanwhile, On October 19, 2012, the Supreme Court ordered the Government to take legal action against former Army Chief General Mirza Aslam Beg and former ISI Chief Asad Durrani for distributing millions of rupees among politicians to rig the 1990 General Elections. The Supreme Court also said that any “political cell” operating in the Presidency, ISI, Military Intelligence (MI) or Intelligence Bureau (IB), should be shut down immediately as such an institution was unconstitutional.
The ISI officially has seven sections: Joint Intelligence X (JIX), Joint Intelligence Bureau (JIB), Joint Counter Intelligence Bureau (JCIB), Joint Intelligence/North (JIN), Joint Intelligence Miscellaneous (JIM), Joint Signal Intelligence Bureau (JSIB) and Joint Intelligence Technical Division (JIT). JIN concentrates on Jammu and Kashmir, conducting operations and supporting various terrorist proxies in the State, and also monitoring Indian forces in the region. JIX serves as the Agency’s secretariat; JIB monitors political intelligence; JCIB is responsible for oversees intelligence operations in Central Asia, South Asia, Afghanistan, the Middle East, Israel and Russia, and is also responsible for field surveillance of Pakistani diplomats stationed abroad; JIM is responsible for covert offensive intelligence operations and war time espionage; JSIB operates a chain of signals intelligence collection stations and provides communication support to its operatives; and JIT is a covert unit with a separate explosives section and a chemical warfare section.
Media reports also indicate that ISI has four “wings”: ‘A Wing’ directs analysis and is the bureaucratic department; ‘T Wing’ is the technical section and provides assistance to the other wings. ‘C Wing’ is the counterintelligence wing. The ‘S Wing’ oversees ‘external security’ and is responsible for state sponsorship of various terrorist formations, including al Qaeda, the Taliban, and anti-India jihadi groups. An unnamed former Indian intelligence official observes, “We have known about its (S Wing) existence for several years. It took shape probably in the 80s, and from then on it has grown in size and strength”. He further added that the entire operation of Kashmir militancy, over the past 20 years, had been handled by the ‘S Wing’. On July 9, 2012, the then acting Director General of Police (DGP), Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), K. Rajendra, noted, “…No terrorist activity can take place in our country without the support of the actors from across the border….There are state actors headed by the ISI”.
Crucially, on July 21, 2012, the arrested handler of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks Abu Jundal, provided first-hand evidence of the ‘Karachi Project’, an ISI backed terror scheme to mobilize and direct Indian terrorist fugitives in Pakistani safe havens. Abu Jundal’s disclosures confirmed earlier details relating to the Karachi Project and its role in the 26/11 attacks, provided by the Pakistani-American David Coleman Headley. The Karachi Project was set up by the ISI in collaboration with LeT, and sought to make use of Indian terrorist operatives trained in Pakistan to execute bomb blasts in Indian cities. According to sources, “The scheme is funded by ISI and Gulf investments”.
The ISI-IM nexus has also been re-established in the charge sheet filed by the Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) before a special Maharashtra Control of Organized Crime Act Court on May 25, 2012, regarding the July 13, 2011, Mumbai serial bombings case. It has been stated that the blasts were planned and coordinated by IM leaders from Pakistan. In its 4,478-page charge sheet, the ATS observed, “The IM has been expressly created by (the) ISI of Pakistan ostensibly to spread terror in this country through Indian front outfits.”
Despite apparent bans on the LeT and the Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), moreover, these groups continue to operate under a multiplicity of new identities, with their infrastructure intact. A Government of India dossier on ‘Anti-India Activities on Pakistan Soil’, passed on to the Pakistani authorities during the Home Secretary Level Talks of May 24-25, 2012, listed as many as 42 terrorist training camps in Pakistan and Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK).
Making a presentation at the Annual Conference of Directors General Police/Inspectors General of Police, held at New Delhi on September 7-8, 2012, the Delhi Police noted that IM “has Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) patronage”. This is regarded as the first official confirmation of ISI-IM link.
Additionally, ISI’s links with India’s most wanted terrorist and crime boss, Dawood Ibrahim, are also well documented. Ibrahim is on the US listing of “Specially Designated Global Terrorists”, but operates with impunity from Pakistan. Mumbai Police sources thus stated, in May 2012, “D-company [Ibrahim’s crime syndicate] aides holed up in Pakistan are provided security and shelter by Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s spy agency. Dawood and his aides can easily obtain bogus passports issued by Pakistan authorities and travel abroad”. During the May 24-25, 2012, secretary level talks in Islamabad (Pakistan), India handed over to Pakistan a list of four precise coordinates of Dawood Ibrahim’s location, with addresses. In Islamabad, Dawood stays in an ISI safe house on Bhoubhan Hill, 20 kilometres on the road to Muree.
The ISI has also been patronising Sikh terror groups since 1984. On September 1, 2012, following the arrest of a Babbar Khalsa International (BKI) terrorist, Kulwant Singh alias Guddu, from Sahora village near Kharar in Mohali District of Punjab, an NIA official observed, “ISI is also reportedly keen on forging coordination between Khalistani terrorists, terrorists operating in J&K and some fundamentalist groups and in this process Jagtar Singh Tara who escaped from Burail Jail in 2004 is favoured by the ISI to revive the Khalistan movement.” Terror outfit BKI, among others, is actively supported by the ISI, and is believed to have received more than INR 800 million over just the last four years to fund its terrorist activities. On September 4, 2012, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Jitendra Singh told Lok Sabha (the Lower House of India’s Parliament) “Available inputs indicate the patronage and assistance provided by Pakistan’s ISI to leaders of various Sikh terrorist groups including BKI based in Pakistan. Interrogation of arrested Sikh militants revealed that short term modules are being run in Pakistan for training gullible Sikh youths from India and abroad.” During the May 24-25, 2012, Home Secretary Level Talks between India and Pakistan at Islamabad, India handed over a dossier on ‘Pakistan’s Support to Terrorism in Punjab’, which included details of recent attempts to organize terrorist actions in India, recruitment of extremists in India and win Western countries, as well as detailed listing of prominent Sikh terrorists sheltered in Pakistan. Details and locations in Pakistan of the top leadership of BKI, the Khalistan Zindabad Force, the International Sikh Youth Federation, Dal Khalsa International, Khalistan Commando Force (Panjwar), and the Khaistan Tiger Force were included in the dossier.
Meanwhile, in continuing with its policy of seeking to gain full control over the internal affairs of Afghanistan and to emerge as the sole decisive power in future Government formation in that country, in the aftermath of the withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in 2014, the ISI continues to support Afghan insurgent and terrorist formations in their fight against the Allied Forces. A May 2008 transcript given to Mike McConnell, the Director of US National Intelligence, stated that Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, referred to the Haqqani Network, one of the most active terrorist formations in Afghanistan, which has consistently targeted ISAF and Afghan National Security Force personnel, among others, as a “strategic asset”. Similarly, on September 21, 2011, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen described the Haqqani Network as ‘a veritable arm’ of the ISI. The Quetta Shura Taliban, headed by Mullah Omar, the former ‘Head of the Supreme Council’ of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, between 1996 and 2001, operates with impunity, and under the protection of the ISI, from Pakistani soil. A number of ISI-backed Pakistani terrorist groupings, including the LeT, are reported to have shifted focus and cadres to Afghanistan over the past years, to help the Afghan Taliban groupings in anticipation of the Western ‘withdrawal’. Further, in its attempt to deter India, which is helping Afghanistan in a multiplicity of nation building projects worth some USD two billion (since the year 2001), ISI-mentored terrorist groups have attacked Indian targets (in Afghanistan) on at least 15 occasions since 2003, according to partial data on the SATP database.
In addition to conventional patterns of terrorism, the ISI has also extended its mischief into cyber space. A highly-specialised cyber division in the ISI is reported to have been assigned the task of training operatives of terrorist outfits like the LeT, JeM and the IM, to train their cadre in the use of computers. A classified note circulated among participants of the DGPs/IGPs meet of September 2012, observed, “The ISI is now working on a bigger game plan in training terrorists in the use of cyber and computer technology as the Pakistani agency feels India is not fully equipped in dealing with incidents of cyber war or attack.’’
Pakistan continues to evade designation as a terrorist state by the skin of its teeth, despite overwhelming evidence of the ISI’s support and sponsorship of terrorism in a multiplicity of theatres. Erroneous western calculations of ‘strategic interests’ and an inability by the western powers to prevail effectively in Afghanistan have resulted in a policy of continuing ambivalence towards Pakistan’s visible support to terrorists and the country’s widening ‘footprint of terror’ across the world. There is, however, increasing awareness of, and a growing against, Pakistan’s sustained international criminality on this count, even as the bloody blowback of this deceit mounts within Pakistan. It remains to be seen if the country will ever find the sagacity and the capacity to pull itself back from the brink, and reverse the grave and intentional harm it has inflicted both domestically and internationally.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management