Just two days after the gunmen's siege in Mumbai ended, Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari went on CNN's Larry King Live to plead his case. Even before the Indian authorities had brought the rampage to an end, they were laying blame on their neighbor to the north. And Zardari wanted the world to know they were wrong. "This is not the time to point fingers," Zardari protested. "The state of Pakistan is in no way responsible."
Instead, Zardari said, "I think these are stateless actors who have been operating all throughout the region. . . . The gunmen plus the planners, whoever they are, [are] stateless actors who have been holding hostage the whole world."
Zardari was partly right. In all likelihood, neither he nor his supporters had anything to do with the attacks. So, if you define the "state of Pakistan" as the president and his immediate cohorts, his words ring true. Of course, there is more to Pakistan's government, including its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the powerful military intelligence organization over which Zardari exerts little control. And there are good reasons to suspect that the ISI had a hand in the Mumbai attacks, which killed more than 180 people and wounded nearly 300.
The United States and India have named the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET) terror organization as the main perpetrator of the attacks. Indian authorities captured the lone gunman to survive the assault, and he reportedly admitted being trained by the LET. India also claims to have intercepted phone conversations between the Mumbai attackers and one of the LET's leaders in Pakistan. The full investigation will take some time to unfold, so it is too early to name all of those responsible. It is, however, a safe bet that the LET was heavily involved.
Contrary to President Zardari's claims, the LET is no "stateless actor." In fact, the LET is and always was a creature of the ISI.
Throughout the war against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United States, as well as other states, all sponsored the Afghan resistance fighters or mujahedeen. But Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were principally responsible for creating and sponsoring the most radical Islamic terrorist groups within the mujahedeen's ranks. This nexus is what first gave us Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda and, later, Mullah Omar's Taliban.
The same nexus also gave us the LET. In fact, bin Laden and his spiritual mentor, Abdullah Azzam, reportedly played instrumental roles in the LET's founding. In the late 1980s, they met with members of the Markaz-ud-Dawa-wal-Irshad (MDI), an Islamist political party in Pakistan, and convinced its leaders to create a militant wing responsible for waging jihad in Kashmir. The result was the LET. And the struggle for control of Jammu and Kashmir, territory sandwiched between China, India, and Pakistan that had been disputed since the partition of 1947, would never be the same.
As the war in Afghanistan came to an end, the ISI began to reallocate its resources. The jihadists had proven their merit as guerrilla fighters, and the ISI found it convenient to use them elsewhere. Veterans of the Afghan conflict formed the LET's first cadres, and, using Saudi cash, the ISI quickly expanded the LET's operations. By the early 1990s, the LET emerged as one of the ISI's primary instruments for waging its proxy war against Indian forces in Jammu and Kashmir.
The consequences of the ISI's decision are plain to see. The conflict over Kashmir was relatively terror-free in the late 1980s, but just a few years later Islamist terrorist groups were launching thousands of attacks. As Praveen Swami, a reporter for Frontline magazine in New Delhi, explains in his book India, Pakistan, and the Secret Jihad, there were only 7 terrorist attacks in Jammu and Kashmir in 1988. In 1992, there were 3,920. The total number of civilians killed per year, including Muslims, increased from less than 30 in 1988 to more than 1,000 in 1993. Data on the number of attacks and total casualties vary by source. But according to Swami's estimates, which we find to be conservative, more than 41,000 people, including Indian forces, terrorists, and civilians, died between 1988 and 2005.
India has played its part in the violence in Jammu and Kashmir, but the prime mover has been the ISI and its jihadist proxies, including the LET. The ISI not only gives these groups safe haven and trains and supplies them, it also frequently coordinates their movements. Consider one telling example. In 1999, conventional Pakistani and Indian forces fought for control of Kargil, a mountainous district in northern Kashmir. During the coldest weeks of the conflict, the Indians ceded the highest ridges for warmer ground below. After the Indians left their positions, LET members moved in. The LET held this strategic battleground until their replacements--regulars in Pakistan's army--arrived. Such is the depth of cooperation between the LET and Pakistan's military establishment.
The ISI launched the full-scale jihad in Jammu and Kashmir, but it did not stop there. The LET and several sister organizations also backed by the ISI began attacking India proper long ago. Jaish-e-Mohammed (JEM), another ISI creation focused on Kashmir, has often been the LET's partner in crime. So has the Hizb-ul-Mujahedeen (HM), which was founded with the ISI's help in the late 1980s. And an Indian-based organization called the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), which is sponsored by the ISI and deeply connected to its Pakistani brethren, has been instrumental in launching attacks inside India. These four organizations have killed hundreds. According to the website satp.org (South Asia Terrorist Portal), these groups, along with other smaller allied jihadist organizations, are responsible for dozens of attacks inside India between September 2001 and October 2008.
Until this latest attack, the most devastating assault perpetrated by these groups in recent years occurred on July 11, 2006. On that day, terrorists detonated seven bombs on Mumbai's commuter rails. According to Indian officials, the LET and SIMI were responsible. The attack left more than 200 dead and 700 or so wounded.
It is in this context that 10 or more gunmen laid siege to hotels and other locales in Mumbai in late November. Far from being the work of "stateless actors," the attack was perfectly consistent with the ISI's longstanding policy of waging jihad against India and its interests. In fact, Indian authorities have reportedly found direct evidence of cooperation between the ISI and the LET in the latest attack. The ISI allegedly trained the LET terrorists responsible and provided other logistical support for the operation. Thus, when President Zardari went on CNN to proclaim Pakistan's innocence, he avoided any substantive discussion of the ISI's role.
Even so, Zardari's comments are not altogether meaningless. They touch upon a central fault line in this war on terror. The president of Pakistan has essentially admitted what we should all know by now: There is currently no political force inside Pakistan capable of reining in the ISI and its many jihadist allies. Zardari had hoped for improved relations with India, but he was powerless to stop the Mumbai attacks. The jihadist forces have become entrenched within Pakistani society, which is home to dozens of extremist and terrorist organizations.
Indeed, the extent of the radicalization of Pakistani society is deeply troubling. It is the direct result of decisions made by Pakistani administrations decades ago.
Itinerant preachers had made their way back and forth from the Arabian peninsula for centuries, carrying with them a form of Wahhabism, the official state religion of Saudi Arabia. In time, a Pakistani variant evolved into its own strain of radical Islam called Deobandism. While this made some inroads among Pakistanis, it was not until the late 1970s that Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq made it the official policy of the Pakistani state to support the Deobandis, and radical Islam blossomed.
As Charles Allen notes in his masterly work God's Terrorists, there were only 200 madrassas, or religious schools, on Pakistani soil at the time of the India-Pakistan partition in 1947. By 1972, this figure had grown to 893. Of these Pakistani madrassas, 354 (40 percent) openly espoused Deobandism. After President ul-Haq threw the full support of his military behind the movement and turned on the spigot of Saudi petrodollars, radical Islam really took off. In 2002, Allen notes, Pakistan's minister of religious affairs "put the total number of madrassas in Pakistan at ten thousand, of which . . . no fewer than seven thousand" are Deobandi. It was the proliferation of Deobandi madrassas that led directly to the birth of the Taliban, which follows the Deobandi creed and continues to find new recruits among students of Islam. The most radical madrassas instruct more than 1 million students each year and provide a comfortable abode for terrorists planning attacks.
One result is that today the president himself is not safe. The jihadist hydra nearly killed Zardari on September 20, when a truck bomb leveled the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad. Zardari had stopped off to chat with an old friend, narrowly avoiding death. The assassins were more successful with Zardari's wife, Benazir Bhutto, who was killed by jihadists in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, on December 27, 2007.
All of this has important ramifications not only for India and Pakistan, but also for the United States and the rest of the free world. There is no question that Pakistan has played an instrumental role in the war on terror. President Musharraf's regime, including friendly elements within the ISI, killed or captured hundreds of al Qaeda operatives in the wake of September 11. But it is now clear that the ISI's long-term strategy for seizing power throughout South and Central Asia by sponsoring jihadist proxies remains undeterred.
Moreover, this strategy conflicts directly with American interests. Just as the ISI created the LET and its sister organizations, the ISI has also been the primary benefactor of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Even as Pakistan gave the United States vital assistance in the war on terror, the ISI continued to sponsor America's enemies behind her back. There are numerous examples that can be cited.
Both NATO officers and Afghan officials have long maintained that the Taliban's Shura, or leadership council, is based in the Pakistani city of Quetta. In May 2006, Colonel Chris Vernon, then the chief of staff for Coalition forces in southern Afghanistan, told the Guardian that this was common knowledge. "The thinking piece of the Taliban is out of Quetta in Pakistan," Vernon said in an interview. "It's the major headquarters. They use it to run a series of networks in Afghanistan." Other anonymous U.S. and NATO officials backed up Vernon's statements.
Afghan president Hamid Karzai went so far as to say he knew the exact location of Taliban chieftain Mullah Omar and had passed on this information to the Pakistani government, only to have it ignored. "Mullah Omar is for sure in Quetta in Pakistan. And he knows that and I know that," Karzai told the Council on Foreign Relations in September 2006. "And we have given [President Musharraf] information. We have even given him the GPS numbers of his house, of Mullah Omar's house, and the telephone numbers."
Despite these warnings, the Taliban's leadership has remained free. The ISI has ensured their safety. But the ISI's complicity in the Taliban's and al Qaeda's terrorism goes far beyond the provision of safe haven.
Pakistani intelligence officers have been caught aiding America's foes inside Afghanistan. In December 2006, Afghan security forces captured Sayed Akbar, an ISI officer. Akbar had been tasked by Pakistani intelligence with serving as a conduit to al Qaeda, which was operating along the Afghan-Pakistani border in the Kunar region.
An aide to President Karzai told reporters that "evidence and documents [had] been seized with [Akbar] proving his destructive activities in Afghanistan." Afghan officials said Akbar confessed to conducting "illegal activities" in Afghanistan. According to Akbar, he had escorted Osama bin Laden as he traveled from Afghanistan's Nuristan province into the mountainous district of Chitral in northwestern Pakistan in 2005. While there have been numerous bin Laden sightings along the Afghan-Pakistani border, he was reported to have been sheltered in Chitral at this time. In fact, FBI agents visited Chitral in early 2006 to assess the reports.
Perhaps the most brazen example of the ISI's support for the Taliban and other terror groups operating in Afghanistan occurred in the mountainous Afghan border province of Nangarhar. Lieutenant Colonel Chris Nash, the commander of an embedded training team that advised Afghan border police, dropped a bombshell last September when his presentation on his time in Afghanistan from September 2006 to March 2007 made the rounds on the Internet.
A slide in the presentation claimed the ISI was supporting U.S. enemies fighting in Afghanistan. The slide read: "ISI involved in direct support to many enemy operations . . . classification prevents further discussion of this point." The support included "training, funding, [and] logistics."
Nash said multiple U.S. and Afghan intelligence reports indicated that the ISI "flew repeated helicopter missions into Afghanistan to resupply the Taliban during a fierce battle in June 2007," according to the Army Times. The ISI helicopters resupplied a "base camp" in the Tora Bora region in Nangarhar, where Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda fought pitched battles with the U.S. military and Afghan militias before retreating into Pakistan.
The camp was run by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami, an insurgent group long sponsored by the ISI, as well as the Taliban and al Qaeda. "A helo flew in the valley, went over to where we knew there was a base camp, landed, [and] 15 minutes later took off," Nash said. The helicopters made three separate flights to resupply the joint insurgent force. "From NDS [Afghan intelligence] sources that we had in the opposing camp, [we know] they were offloading supplies," Nash told the Army Times. Nash explained that the resupply efforts took place over the course of three months.
The most recent and damning allegation of ISI perfidy in Afghanistan was leveled by U.S. intelligence after a suicide bomber rammed a car packed with explosives into the outer wall of the Indian embassy in Kabul. Fifty-four people, including an Indian defense attaché, were killed in the July 7 bombing.
The Indian embassy bombing was carried out by the notorious Haqqani Network, run by former mujahedeen leader Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Siraj. Both Jalaluddin and Siraj have close ties with al Qaeda's leader, Osama bin Laden.
The Haqqanis have extensive links with al Qaeda and the Taliban, and their relationship with the ISI has allowed their network to survive and thrive in its fortress stronghold of North Waziristan. The Haqqanis control large swaths of the tribal area and run a parallel administration with courts, recruiting centers, tax offices, and security forces. They have established multiple training camps and safe houses used by al Qaeda leaders and operatives, as well as by Taliban foot soldiers preparing to fight in Afghanistan.
American intelligence agencies confronted the Pakistani government with evidence of direct ISI involvement in the bombing of the Indian embassy, the New York Times reported in August. "The conclusion was based on intercepted communications between Pakistani intelligence officers and militants who carried out the attack, the officials said, providing the clearest evidence to date that Pakistani intelligence officers are actively undermining American efforts to combat militants in the region."
The ISI officers involved in the Kabul bombings were not "renegades," the New York Times reported, and the intercepts indicated that "their actions might have been authorized by superiors." U.S. intelligence officials also said "elements of Pakistan's government seemed to be directly aiding violence in Afghanistan that had included attacks on American troops" and were providing intelligence to Taliban and al Qaeda operatives on the U.S. covert air campaign targeting terror leaders in Pakistan's tribal areas. The Haqqani Network has been a prime target of these attacks; almost 60 percent of U.S. airstrikes this year have occurred in North Waziristan.
In the wake of the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul, the ISI reshuffled its leadership. But the changes were most likely cosmetic. As the attacks in Mumbai illustrate, the ISI continues to sponsor terrorism. Indeed, the attacks in Mumbai were yet another wake-up call for the United States and the West.
Decades ago the ISI made a pact with the devil. There is no evidence that it can be redeemed any time soon. Given the ISI's deep roots within Pakistan's culture and its capacity to drive policy even against the wishes of the elected officials, curtailing the power of this rogue agency will be difficult at best. Indeed, the ISI is now one of the principal backers of radical Islam in the world.
The allure of Islamist extremism runs deep in Pakistan's officer corps. For many, this is an ideological war. Consider what "retired" ISI general Hamid Gul, who still exerts much influence in Pakistan, said in 2003:
God will destroy the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan and wherever it will try to go from there. The Muslim world must stand united to confront the United States in its so-called War on Terrorism, which is in reality a war against Muslims. Let's destroy America wherever its troops are trapped.
The same mentality compels the ISI and its surrogates to claim territory in the name of Islam. Pakistan's jihad in India and Kashmir is not just the product of a decades-old geopolitical rivalry. For the ISI, it is part of a Manichaean struggle between the forces of Islam and the rest of the world. As Praveen Swami notes in his book, the LET's leadership has openly talked of conquering large swaths of India on behalf of Muslims. After the Kargil war of 1999, LET chieftain Hafiz Muhammad Saeed threatened, "The real war will be inside [India]." He swore his forces would "unfurl the Islamic flag on the Red Fort." As Swami explains, the Red Fort in New Delhi "has been a long-standing motif in Islamist Discourse, as old as Partition itself." It is no wonder that in the wake of the Mumbai attacks, the Indians have demanded that the Pakistanis turn Saeed over. But it is doubtful that the Pakistani military will comply.
In the current crisis, the military shows signs of closing ranks with extremist elements as fears of a conflict with India increase. Just days after the Mumbai attacks, an army corps commander described Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud as a "patriot" and said the conflict with the Taliban in the northwest was merely due to "misunderstandings." In turn, the Taliban-dominated tribes pledged to send three million fighters to the Indian frontier in the event of a conflict.
Past efforts to purge the military of officers sympathetic to or openly supportive of the extremist cause have had only limited success. Former President Pervez Musharraf conducted multiple purges of the ISI after the September 11 attacks and attempts on his own life, but they had limited effect. Recently, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, a Bhutto loyalist, tried to bring the ISI under government control, but met resistance. Within 24 hours, the announcement that the ISI would be placed under the office of the prime minister had been rescinded.
The United States is now faced with an awful truth. Pakistan is both an ally and an enemy. The attacks in Mumbai are only the latest demonstration of the tactics the ISI is willing to sponsor in its quest for power in the subcontinent and beyond. We should be mindful that ISI-sponsored terrorism is a central component of our enemies' worldwide designs. It should not come as a surprise if someday we find ISI-backed terrorists laying siege to New York or Washington, just as they lately brought carnage to Mumbai.
Bill Roggio is managing editor of the website Long War Journal and adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Thomas Joscelyn is the senior editor of the Long War Journal.