Only Spies Can Stop the Chaos: Pakistan's Intelligence Service Used to Sponsor the Islamists. Now It Is Trying to Prevent Them Taking over the Country
Barnes, Hugh, New Statesman (1996)
The headquarters of the Pakistani secret services lie hidden behind towering, beige-coloured walls in the old British cantonment of Rawalpindi. Sweeping, arched roofs and sprawling verandas evoke memories of the Raj, as do the street urchins playing cricket outside the gate.
The languid appearance is deceptive. I have come behind the lines in the so-called "war on terror". One of the world's most sinister organisations, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is often seen as Pakistan's invisible government. It has long operated out of the public gaze. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan it funnelled CIA funds to the mujahedin fighters; in the 1990s it bankrolled the Taliban into power. Its links to Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda are a matter of record. Yet ISI chiefs now find themselves cast in an unlikely role as the west's policemen, hunting down jihadists in the lawless tribal areas of northern Pakistan.
The only modern nation founded on Islam, Pakistan is a homeland that has failed to work. Now it is teetering on the brink of chaos. The ISI is largely to blame. Late last month, Islamist militants in North Waziristan ambushed a convoy of ISI-led troops, killing seven soldiers and wounding 22. The attack was a reprisal for the killing in a nearby village of seven Qaeda suspects, including Mohsin Musa Matawalli Atwah, an Egyptian on the FBI's list of most-wanted terrorists for his alleged involvement in the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.
The figures at the top of the ISI are almost pathologically averse to the glare of the media, so it was with some trepidation that I accepted an invitation from Brigadier A--, head of the counter-terrorism section, to discuss a secret operation to stem the "two-way traffic" of terrorists between Pakistan and Britain in the wake of last July's bombings in London. Once, the only civilians permitted to enter this building were suspects, and not all of them made it out alive.
A dapper man in his late fifties, dressed in an immaculately tailored business suit in spite of the heat, the brigadier greeted me with sandwiches, cakes and tea. A bearer wearing a white waistcoat and black wool Jinnah cap served us from a table piled high with documents and newspaper cuttings, plus a stack of empty notepads and other pieces of stationery. (I am ashamed to say I took one of the ISI pencils as a trophy.) A laptop computer flickered with a PowerPoint slide show of images of the World Trade Center engulfed in flames on 11 September 2001.
The brigadier appeared troubled. Hours earlier, a suicide bomber had set off an explosion at a parade in Karachi, killing at least 57 people. The blast happened not far from the site of another bombing in March, in which a US diplomat was killed. Roughly 45 Islamist groups operate in Pakistan. The best-known are Harkat-e-Jihad-e-Islami (Movement for Islamic Jihad), Jaish-e-Mohammad (Army of Muhammad) and Jundullah (Army of God), but with ever-changing names, splits and overlapping ideologies, it is difficult to differentiate between them, let alone keep track of their attempts to replace Pakistan's leadership with a fundamentalist regime.
"There's a lot of work to be done in defeating al-Qaeda," said my host, slumping in his chair. As if to underline the point, helicopter gunships were busy strafing the village, a hundred miles away in North Waziristan, where several Qaeda members, possibly including Bin Laden, are said to be hiding out. Twenty years have passed since Bin Laden led a group of a few dozen men--Saudis, Egyptians, Algerians and Pakistanis, whom he had recruited and trained--out of a cluster of caves in the mountains on the Pakistani frontier. These were the men who would fight the Soviet infidel in Afghanistan.
The brigadier knew every ridge and mountain pass, every CIA trail. He gossiped about these mysterious strangers who have returned to North Waziristan, using a portfolio of disguises and pseudonyms. …