Journalism in the Public Interest

Pakistan’s Terror Ties at Center of Upcoming Chicago Trial

Federal prosecutors have quietly charged a suspected Pakistani intelligence officer with helping to plot the murders of six Americans in the 2008 terror Mumbai attacks. The trial of a defendant in the case begins this month in Chicago.


It may be years, if ever, before the world learns whether Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) helped hide Osama bin Laden.

But detailed allegations of ISI involvement in terrorism will soon be made public in a federal courtroom in Chicago, where prosecutors last week quietly charged a suspected ISI major with helping to plot the murders of six Americans in the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

The indictment has explosive implications because Washington and Islamabad are struggling to preserve their fragile relationship. The ISI has long been suspected of secretly aiding terrorist groups while serving as a U.S. ally in the fight against terror. The discovery that bin Laden spent years in a fortress-like compound surrounded by military facilities in Abbottabad has heightened those suspicions and reinforced the accusations that the ISI was involved in the Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people.

“It’s very, very troubling,” said Congressman Frank Wolf, R-Va., chairman of the House Appropriations sub-committee that oversees funding of the Justice Department. Wolf has closely followed the Mumbai case and wants an independent study group to review South Asia policy top-to-bottom.

“Keep in mind that we’ve given billions of dollars to the Pakistani government,” he said. “In light of what’s taken place with bin Laden, the whole issue raises serious problems and questions.”

Three chiefs of Lashkar-i-Taiba, the Pakistani terrorist group, were also indicted in Chicago. They include Sajid Mir, a suspected Mumbai mastermind whose voice was caught on tape directing the three-day slaughter by phone from Pakistan. Mir, too, has links to the ISI. He remains at large along with the suspected ISI major and half-a-dozen other top suspects.

Despite the unprecedented terrorism charges implicating a Pakistani officer, the Justice Department and other agencies did not issue press releases, hold a news conference or make any comments when the indictment was issued last week. The 33-page document names the suspect only as “Major Iqbal.” It does not mention the ISI, although Iqbal’s affiliation to the spy agency has been detailed in U.S. and Indian case files and by anti-terror officials in interviews with ProPublica over the past year.

“Obviously there has been a push to be low-key,” said an Obama Administration official who spoke in an interview last week and requested anonymity because of the pending trial. “There is a desire to make sure the handling of the case doesn’t mess up the relationship” with Pakistan.

The first public airing of the ISI’s alleged involvement in the Mumbai attack will begin on May 16 with the trial of Tahawwur Rana, owner of a Chicago immigration consulting firm. Rana was arrested in 2009 and charged with material support of terrorism in the same case in which the four suspects were indicted last week. The star witness will be David Coleman Headley, a Pakistani-American businessman-turned-militant who has pleaded guilty to scouting targets in India and Denmark. Rana allegedly helped Headley use his firm as a cover for reconnaissance.

Rana’s attorney, Charles Swift, contends that Rana is not a terrorist because he thought he was assisting the ISI with an espionage operation. Swift said the U.S. indictment omits the ISI in hopes of mitigating tensions.

“The U.S. is attempting to walk a fine line between disclosure and non-disclosure,” Swift said. “What’s unusual is that the reason is to protect diplomatic relations... This indictment answers a few questions, but like everything else in this case, it raises even more.”

Even before the bin Laden slaying, the Obama Administration had taken a tougher tone about the ISI’s alleged links to militants. But a U.S. official said this week that U.S. counter-terror agencies still think that any involvement in the Mumbai attacks was limited to rogue officers.

“No one is saying we can’t work with the ISI—people are just pointing out the problems that exist,” said the official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “I think the problems are largely with individual officers as opposed to the institution.”

Pakistani officials deny that the security forces were involved in Mumbai. A senior Pakistani official questioned the credibility of Headley, who was an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration when he began training with Lashkar in 2002.

“When somebody is a double agent, whatever he says in a U.S. court is not credible from our perspective,” said the official, who requested anonymity because of the pending trial. “There is no Major Iqbal serving in the ISI who has been involved in the Mumbai attacks.”

Headley has opened a door into an underworld in which spies, soldiers and terrorists converge. Although most of the prosecution's documents in the voluminous Chicago court file remain sealed, a recent judge’s ruling in the Rana case says Headley admitted to working for the ISI as well as for Lashkar and al Qaeda. 

“I also told [Rana] about my meetings with Major Iqbal, and told him how I had been asked to perform espionage work for ISI,” Headley testified, according to the April 1 document. “I told [Defendant] about my assignment to conduct surveillance in Mumbai…I told him that Major Iqbal would be providing money to pay for the expenses.”

Headley described an almost symbiotic bond between Lashkar and the ISI, which helped create the group as a proxy army against India. His account has been corroborated through other testimony, communications intercepts, the contents of his computer and records of phone and e-mail contact with ISI officers, anti-terror officials say.

Senior ISI officers served as handlers for Lashkar chiefs and provided a boat, funds and technical expertise for the Mumbai strike, according to a 119-page report by India’s National Investigation Agency on its interrogation of Headley last year in Chicago.

Headley trained in Lashkar camps before being recruited in 2006 by an ISI officer, Major Samir Ali, who referred him to Iqbal in Lahore, the report says. Iqbal became Headley’s handler, introducing him to a Lt. Col. Shah and giving him months of spy training before deploying him to India, according to the Indian report, which officials say repeats Headley’s confessions to the FBI.

The U.S. indictment alleges that Iqbal gave the American $28,000 for the front company in Mumbai and other expenses. Iqbal and Mir directed Headley’s scouting of luxury hotels and other targets chosen to ensure that Americans and other Westerners would die. The two handlers met separately with Headley to discuss missions and receive his videos and reports, the indictment says. Iqbal took part in the decision to hit a Jewish center run by an American rabbi, who was killed along with his pregnant wife, according to the Indian report and U.S. investigators.

Headley also met at least twice with Iqbal in late 2008 to launch a Lashkar plot against a Danish newspaper that had printed cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed, according to the Indian report and investigators. Prosecutors charged Mir in the Denmark case but did not mention the suspected role of the major, who ended contact with Headley in early 2009 when Lashkar put the plot on hold, according to court documents.

But Headley stayed in touch with the other two ISI officers as he continued the Denmark plot for al Qaeda, according to investigators. His al Qaeda interlocutor was allegedly a well-connected former Pakistani Army major, Abdur-Rehman Syed, whose ISI handler was Col Shah and who had contacts with bin Laden, the report says.

“Rehman is directly in touch with the top...of al Qaida including Ilyas Kashmiri who is now the number 3 in the al Qaida hierarchy in Pakistan,” the report says. “Rehman has met Osama a number of times. [Rehman] once told Headley that his set up has been given the name...Army of Fidayeens by Osama bin Laden himself.” 

Sajjan Gohel of the Asia-Pacific Foundation, a London security consulting firm, pointed to another possible link between the Mumbai case and bin Laden. The spy agency’s director during the period that the Mumbai plot developed was Gen. Nadeem Taj. Two months before Lashkar struck Mumbai in November 2008, Taj stepped down, reportedly as the result of U.S. pressure.

Before taking leadership of the ISI, Taj was commandant of the military academy in Abbottabad, the city where bin Laden was found on Sunday. Taj has been sued in federal court in New York by families of the victims of Mumbai for his alleged role in their deaths.

Gohel said the United States and Pakistan are “moving from ‘frenemies’ to outright enemies.”

“If the ISI were involved in protecting bin Laden, that means they were capable of protecting any terrorist in Pakistan,” he said. “It also means US citizens were acceptable targets. It illustrates the fact that since 9/11 the ISI has been duplicitous, disingenuous and potentially allowed acts of terrorism to be exported from its territory.”

Despite the increasing tensions with Pakistan, the U.S. official credited the ISI with helping in the hunt for bin Laden.

“There are lots of pieces of evidence that got us to where we are today,” the official said. “Some of those pieces were facilitated by the ISI. We have to look at the full scope of our relationship.”

That relationship can survive, the Pakistani official said.

“Both countries are allies, and important allies,” he said. “I think our relationship is beyond Headley’s statements in court.”

Of course the relationship with Pakistan “can survive”:  the US is literally terrified that, absent massive levels of economic and military assistance, the Pakistanis will become more of a rogue state than they already are.  In this case, the fear is that the entire state machinery, atomic weapons and all, will be used to extort even more from the American government than already provided.  In effect, the US is paying Pakistan “protection money”, as grubby and mendacious an arrangement as a frightened shopkeeper has with local street thugs.  It would be appalling if it were not so pathetic…

My, my what sordid webs we weave, only sometimes we forget where the the sticky parts are. Seems to me a lot of the sticky parts come under the guise of military aide and corrupt governments. It’s a shame we don’t do more humanitarian aide but even that, through a corrupt government turns nasty especially when the media in these places are controlled by the same gov. I guess I just stated above how tenacious these relations are. What a damn mess. I like, most of the people in the world just want a peaceful place to live, work and raise our families, but then power, greed, corruption and religious fanaticism sets in for a few and there goes the pot of stew.

James M Fitzsimmons

May 7, 2011, 11:39 a.m.

Seems to me that the Pakistani ISID and its agents need to be handled in a manner similar to the handling of confidential sources in the law enforcement world. Reference must always be made the ISID officer’s established reliability, if any, and whether his credibility in the instant matter exists. New information from the officer needs to be corroborated to the extent possible. Without a track record of reliability, the assumption must be that without leverage, an ISID officer will omit important information or “hide in the truth” of unimportant information. If we are not keeping a confidential chronological history file of each ISID officer’s history of reporting to us, we should start. The turnover of our own officers and diplomats makes us (USG) vulnerable to deception by manipulative foreign intelligence officers with dubious motives who exploit our lack of continuity.

Screw our relationship with Pakistan.  These ISI terrorists must be brought to justice, no matter the cost.

@ James M. Fitzsimmons, I agree with your assessment on how we should handle our relationship with ISI-D and it’s agents. Similar to handling a source in the Mob.

Take every piece of information provided and check it’s bona fides in multiple ways before acting on it, plus keep a ‘score’ card for every source so that you develop a historic view of their past intelligence input vs. reality.

One has to assume that in the best case, this individual is simply looking after their own skin for personal financial gains and in a worse case the source is feeding USG disinformation as part of the larger ISI-D plot to extort more $$ and arms out of the USG.

To assume that rogue officers in the ISI have been involved without keeping the military leadership in the know may be a convenient fiction for some to hold onto, but it ignores key features of all military organizations; heirarchy, clear chain-of-command, discipline. Besides, virtually all facets of Pakistani society invariably coalesce together in defending the undefendable, suggesting a deep complicity towards the mafia state. Rana’s attempted defence encapsulates this curious Pakistani mindset in its entirety. He had “thought” that he was working for the ISI and therefore he believes that it is perfectly OK to do what he’s being charged of doing; aiding and abeting a terrorist attack on civilians in a major metropolis. The manufactured outrage in Pakistan over the bin Laden operation instead of introspecting on how he received shelter in a military retirement enclave is another case in point.

Pakistan government knows how to wine and dine people in powerfull positions to keep getting FREE money. At one time I read a story how Pakistanis gave an American lady an honorary position and used her to connect with top army US boss during Afghanistan conflict with Russia. They may be playing similar games now. US knows a lot about how Pakistan has been playing a double game, but no one in the USG has courage to come forward and hold Pakistan responsible for its support of terrorism. Pakistani terrorists killed citizens of 12 countries in Bombay in 2008. Tweleve countries could not unite and take action against Pakistan. I hope US has enough evidence about Pakistan governement’s involvement with Osama Bin Laden as they have been watching Osama’s residence for many months before killing him. USG probably has pictures of people going in and out of Osama’s home. It is time to bring out the truth about Pakistan and its connections with terrorists groups and get UN to put some sanctions on PG.

For US authorities, ISI - terrorists nexus should not be a surprise. India has been tolerating Pakistan’s proxy war using bad boys for decades. Western world particularly US didn’t care since only Indians were being killed. 9/11 made a whole lot of difference and now Americans are talking about Pakistani army & ISI. The death of the few Americans in Mumbai attack compelled US authorities this far but even now they are trying to shield ISI to get Pakistani co-operation in war on terror. This is mind boggling.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:

Pakistan’s Terror Connections

The Mumbai terror attacks have revealed evidence of the extent of the ties of Pakistani intelligence to terrorist groups and the flaws in the U.S fight against Pakistan-based terror.

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