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VIEW: SPOOKS in the Dog House

(Published in SHE Magazine June 2011)

7 years ago, Tim McGirk of TIME wondered if ISI could help find Bin Laden. In a way they did.

Pakistan’s decision to share a critical piece of information sealed Osama bin Laden’s fate. But the hand that dealt the fatal blow was American. The Inter-Services Intelligence – (ISI), never popular to begin with, has seen its credibility plummet since 2nd May 2011. Other services have come into their share of criticism but trying to ascertain Pakistan’s top spy agency’s role in this fiasco can be a daunting challenge. In one day they were checkmated by an ally, became suspects in a crime, forced to be spectators of their own show and put on public trial.

Over the years, visiting American scholars have expressed incredulity at ISI’s inability to locate bin Laden given the agencies reach (deep) and reputation (fearsome). While they may be convinced in their minds of ISI’s duplicity, its head, Lieutenant General Shuja Pasha has pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of incompetence. Still bad!

That Osama had been ‘discovered’ hiding in plain sight in Abbottabad came as a great surprise. That the audacious raid was conducted by US Navy SEALS and not by Pakistani authorities was a source of greater consternation. While the air space violation did not sit well with the masses, bin Laden’s proximity to Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point academy sent military men into a paroxysm.

The world rejoiced. Pakistan, however, was mortified. Since then ISI is in the doghouse. And everyone has been busy trading theories. ‘ISI knew all along’ tops the list while ‘they were caught napping’ is a close second. A third postulates that they were in on it with the Americans the whole time.

The stigma of a spectacular intelligence failure is hard to bear but the alternative is worse. This piece takes apart the complicity theory while examining ‘incompetence’ & ‘collusion’ charges on the side.

Finding Osama, who had been eluding capture for close on ten years, was not a ‘one agency’ show. President Obama has hinted as much when he touched upon the help extended by Pakistani Intelligence in nabbing the object of a decade long man-hunt. Osama bin Laden had gone off the digital grid…no cell phones, no internet, and no chatter.

He was a ghost.

The old trail had gone cold and the first bread crumb of the new trail was handed over to the CIA by the ISI. This valuable clue ultimately led them away from the tribal belt along the Pak-Afghan border straight to bin Laden’s lair.

It started a year ago when ISI intercepted a phone call made from a cell phone in Nowshera. The first red flag, for them was that it was in Arabic; an even bigger flag was that it was coded. ISI, which operates without a voice data-bank for most wanted al Qaeda members, is concerned more with containing the spread of local Taliban. Without an army of code breakers and analysts at their beck and call, their analysts are at a serious advantage. CIA’s primary concern, on the other hand remains the annihilation of Al-Qaeda.

It was the CIA then who found one of Osama bin Laden’s trusted couriers at the other end. From that moment onwards, all suspicious calls intercepted by ISI from the same source were shared with their American counterparts. The last call originated from the compound in Abbottabad, which is how the place came on CIA’s radar. According to one report, their ‘advanced voice matching apparatus’ helped them reach bin Laden’s compound.

And so, CIA took the lead employing a combination of humint (human intelligence), electronic surveillance and satellite imagery. ISI was kept in the dark. Perhaps, a fear that Al Qaeda sympathizers within the agency might tip off Osama thus compromising the mission prompted them to cut out their principal ally. ISI’s reputation as a double dealing agency is enmeshed in American psyche. Or maybe they wanted all the glory. Who knows?

Was Pakistan aiding and abetting a terrorist mastermind when CIA had eyes on the compound for months? If so, it is pretty sloppy work for a premier intelligence agency. One analyst argues that if Osama bin Laden was in ISI’s custody, his safe house would have been at a more secure location. Abbottabad may be regarded as a virtual garrison town albeit one without strong ground and air defence network and its vulnerable points have become embarrassingly obvious.

Many reason that ISI may have deliberately let CIA and Obama’s administration take full credit in the hope that it will receive financial windfall and support from a grateful Obama administration in the process. Others wonder if fear of retaliation from Al Qaeda made them cave in to their allies demands. The collusion theory which suggests that ‘Operation Neptune Spear’ carried out by CIA with full knowledge of ISI has glaring flaws. Whatever their motivation, ‘discovering’ Osama in the remote areas of the tribal belt would have been more sensible - and far less embarrassing. That and the fact that Pakistani media (allegedly with ISI’s blessings) ‘outed’ the local CIA station chief points to a breakdown of cooperation.

ISI has been called many things, (most of them unflattering) but should suicidal be added to this list? By opting to take a back seat in this operation, it has gained even more notoriety. A unilateral strike inside a sovereign territory has set a dangerous precedent whereby neighboring states with real or imaginary grievances might seek to emulate the American model. Pakistan has been busy sending clear signals that the repercussions of a similar transgression by an enemy state would be severe.

ISI does not get off easy, however, and have been hauled up in Parliament to explain how this Al Qaeda leader spent 5 years under their very nose. Osama could not have survived for as long as he did without a support network in Pakistan including secret Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives, their sympathizers or even some renegade ex intelligence officers and men.

Of course, some insist that this ‘cave to million dollar compound’ journey never happened and that bin Laden was killed years ago. And that the Americans saved this scoop for a rainy day. This does not explain why Osama’s family members, and Al Qaeda, verify the kill now. Or why Bush, handed Obama a victory for that matter.

There may have been collusion – in the beginning, complicity at the lower end and incompetence all around. But there was also betrayal.

ISI Image taken from:
Compound Image from:


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