The Isi: Still Terrorism’s Ally?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 3

The arrest near Islamabad earlier this year of the alleged number three man in al Qaeda’s hierarchy, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, is worthy of note for two reasons. First, the capture took place on Pakistani territory with the help of local bodies of investigation and anti-terror units. Second, it highlights the fact that Pakistan has become the new headquarters for al Qaeda and likely even for Osama bin Laden himself. Relatively recent rumors indicate that the fugitive ex-Saudi may be hiding in Karachi. At the end of March President Pervez Musharraf expressed the view that bin Laden could be somewhere in Pakistan, in contrast to his previous assertions that the main culprit was either dead or out of the country.

A Nation Divided

Pakistan is a peculiar state indeed. Since 9/11, when the war on terrorism attained its broad dimensions, Islamabad has found itself in a dubious position. On the one hand, it supported the military campaign that the Americans and their allies waged against the Taliban. On the other, the government felt unease when confronted with the continued backing of the Taliban by sizable numbers of Pakistanis. Popular sentiment ran counter to official policy: Opinion polls in Pakistan taken in September and October of 2001 showed overwhelming disagreement with U.S. actions in Afghanistan. Opposition was particularly strong in the western and northwestern regions of the country, which are populated predominantly by Pashtuns, the same ethnic group as the Pushto-speaking Afghans.

The ambiguity does not end there. The ruling establishment itself appears to remain divided between groups subscribing to the policy of the U.S.-led worldwide anti-terrorist coalition and those vehemently if not always openly opposed to the domination of the West and its determined actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. This division is deep-seated and can be traced back to the roots of Pakistan itself. It correlates neatly with the now proverbial three “A’s” that rule the country: Allah, the Army, and America.

The element in the middle is the military-cum-civil bureaucracy and the autocratic political system that opposes the two other influences while balancing their extreme manifestations. In practice, the government is divided into visible and invisible factions, and the split often cuts through the hearts and minds of generals and high officials.

At the end of September 2001, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates severed ties with the Taliban; Pakistan continued to recognize the regime until November. On October 7–just one day before the American military operation began in Afghanistan–President Musharraf dismissed the chief of the Inter Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), General Ahmed, who had proven too radical in his views, and particularly in his sympathy for the Taliban. When the President sent him to Kandahar six days after September 11 with the purpose of persuading Mullah Omar to hand over bin Laden, the General is believed to have secretly told the Taliban chief to resist (see: Tim McGirk. Has Pakistan Tamed its Spies? April 28, 2002, at

Mixed results

The ISI’s new boss, Lt. Gen. Ehsan ul-Haq, a former head of military intelligence, has since proven loyal to the policy line adopted by Musharraf after the 9/11 terrorist acts. He reshuffled the top officers of the 10,000-strong agency and tried to weed out Islamic extremists. Since the end of 2001, when the campaign against the Taliban and al Qaeda had passed into a postwar stage, the CIA and the FBI have cooperated closely with Pakistani intelligence and security forces–and primarily the ISI–in trying to apprehend the elusive leaders of the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Although U.S. officials and diplomats express their belief that the ISI under the present arrangement has been cooperative and highly useful, the results of the nearly two year hunt are not especially impressive. Bin Laden and Mullah Omar are still at large, and no major Taliban leader has been arrested in Pakistan. The recent upsurge in activities by extremists in Afghanistan results from this inadequacy in rounding them up.

More successes have been achieved on the al Qaeda front. The ISI has reportedly captured more than 400 hundred bin Laden agents, mostly Yemenis, Saudis, and Palestinians. The foreigners apprehended by the ISI and other Pakistani agencies generally have been handed over to U.S. authorities. Among the major triumphs was the capture of bin Laden’s key lieutenant, Abu Zubaydah, in March 2002. This was followed by the arrest in Karachi of a group of al Qaeda activists that included the Yemeni, Ramzi bin al-Sheib. His capture led ultimately to the aforementioned seizure of his boss, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, this past March. With two of his close companions taken into custody, Osama bin Laden is losing ground. Yet it is also estimated that about 5,000 al Qaeda operatives are still hiding in Pakistan. The number of Taliban agents working underground inside Pakistan is considered to be at least twice that.


Against the background of these facts, Pakistani intelligence is still suspected of playing a double game and remaining at least in part a “state within a state.” The ISI presumably does not want to completely cut its ties with Islamic radicals, anticipating a possible turn of the tide. Moreover, the present government of Pakistan seems to be continuing a policy of support to militant groups in Kashmir. Recent attacks on civilians in that disputed territory are proof of a continuing terrorist campaign. An obvious contradiction exists between Islamabad’s moves against al Qaeda on its Afghan flank and its backing of the Islamic extremists’ struggle in Kashmir. This controversy allows the ISI to pursue a double-edged strategy.

It is not by chance that the Kashmir issue is attracting the serious attention of the United States and other countries, including Russia and China. It could easily destabilize the region, leading to yet another international crisis. Islamabad’s Kashmir policy can be viewed also as a threat to the present political setup in Pakistan itself, as it can exacerbate differences between moderates and radicals in the ranks of the country’s ruling elite. For Musharraf personally, Kashmir presents a definite menace because it gives his opponents and rivals a chance to play the Islamist card. The role of the ISI in the future might well become crucial. The less controversial it is now on the issues surrounding the war on terrorism, the better for the reform-oriented system of government that is currently trying to emerge in Pakistan.