In a sprawling compound called “Zero Point,” in the heart of the bustling Aabpara market area of Islamabad, lies the headquarters of Pakistan’s powerful military intelligence agency, a shadowy organization that has been variously called “a rogue agency” and “a state within a state.”
The Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence – or ISI as it is popularly known – is the invisible heart of the Pakistani military state, an institution whose exact size and budget is the subject of much speculation among international intelligence experts.
In the course of its controversial 59-year history, the ISI has been accused of arming and ushering the Taliban to power in neighboring Afghanistan, supporting violent Islamist groups in the disputed Kashmir region, meddling in domestic politics, crushing internal opposition and executing the unsavory subterranean work of the military state.
The unlikely ISI location, right beside the teeming Aabpara market, where vendors ply everything from fake designer goods to pirated music cassettes, is not lost on most Pakistanis.
But even more astonishing is the proximity of the Lal-e-Masjid, or Red Mosque, where hardline Islamist students – armed to the teeth -- staged a bloody showdown with Pakistani forces. The siege finally ended in a bloodbath in July 2007, in which more than 100 people were killed when Pakistani troops stormed the complex.
Located just a few blocks away from ISI headquarters, the Red Mosque was popularly called “the ISI mosque,” before the crackdown.
Grappling for explanations on how students at the Red Mosque could have acquired the sizeable arsenal -- not to mention the hardline indoctrination -- right under the nose of the ISI, Pakistanis have come up with various theories.
“The Red Mosque incident was a failure, a complete failure of the intelligence community,” says retired Pakistani Lieutenant-General Kamal Matinuddin. “I frankly cannot understand how the ISI and other intelligence agencies within the country did not know weapons were being smuggled into the complex.”
That’s a charitable view by a former serviceman. As with most anything surrounding the secretive ISI, ordinary Pakistanis are forced to refer to the overactive national rumor mill. These vary from the generous ‘inefficiency’ hypotheses to the conspiratorial ‘the ISI masterminded the Red Mosque crackdown’ theory.
A well-known little-known spy agency
Intelligence agencies are a necessary, if dubious, facet of modern nation states. But Pakistan’s ISI is particularly controversial, according to Hassan Abbas, a former senior Pakistani police officer and author of the book Pakistan’s Drift into Extremism, who is currently a fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
“In democratic countries, intelligence agencies are involved in counterintelligence and protecting the state’s outside interests,” says Abbas. “In Pakistan, the intelligence agency has an extensive internal role – creating instability, challenging political parties, infiltrating, co-opting and creating parties to support the army regime, crushing opposition and rigging elections.”
And unlike some of the world’s best-known spy agencies, such as the CIA, KGB and MI6, there’s precious little information available about the ISI, Abbas notes.
“Strangely, the ISI, despite its filthy reputation, is shrouded in secrecy,” he says. “There are no books, no information, nothing about the ISI.”
And yet some things are very well known.
In the 1980s, the ISI, fueled by considerable CIA funds, supported the Islamic mujahids -- or “freedom fighters” – in the fight against Soviet troops occupying Afghanistan. The ISI’s support of fundamentalist groups continued after the 1989 Soviet withdrawal, culminating in the backing of the Taliban.
After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, when President Pervez Musharraf signed up with the US “war on terror,” Pakistan’s colossal spy agency was forced into a policy U-turn. Senior ISI officials suspected of Taliban loyalty were booted, a new leadership was appointed and Musharraf was at pains to display a spruced up, cleaned up spy agency to the world.
But few were convinced.
In a British Ministry of Defence document leaked in Sept. 2006, British military officials accused the ISI of supporting the Taliban. “Indirectly Pakistan (through the ISI) has been supporting terrorism and extremism - whether in London on 7/7 or in Afghanistan or Iraq,” said the document before recommending that Pakistan’s infamous spy agency be dismantled.
But in an interview with the BBC, Musharraf angrily denied the allegations. “These aspersions against ISI are by vested interests,” he said. “I totally, 200 percent, reject it.”
Creating ‘Frankenstein monsters’
While it’s hard to say if the ISI as an institution is currently aiding the Taliban resurgence, Abbas believes senior ISI officials who were purged post-9/11 are certainly aiding the hardline Islamic movement. “When Musharraf threw out the Taliban loyalists, they simply went home and became independent consultants, using all their expertise and knowledge as private consultants for the insurgency,” he says.
If the ISI has a murky record along Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan, its eastern border operations are no less controversial. Most international experts agree that the ISI has been funding, recruiting and training Islamist militants to fight in the protracted fight for Kashmir between India and Pakistan.
Islamabad strongly denies these charges, but admits extending "moral, political and diplomatic support" to Kashmiris seeking independence from India.
Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Musharraf banned particularly hardline groups active in Kashmir, such as Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. But most experts believe they simply renamed themselves or moved underground.
And in a now disturbingly familiar pattern, some experts say the ISI has lost control of militant groups it once birthed and nurtured to maturity.
“Some of the militant groups have become Frankenstein monsters,” says Abbas, “My worry is that these underground militants can create serious law and order problems for the people of Pakistan.”
Coming home to roost
By all accounts, as the Red Mosque incident amply demonstrates, the ISI’s nefarious militant hatchlings are coming home to roost. Violence in Pakistan is at an unprecedented high, with suicide bombings plaguing not just the restive tribal regions, but major Pakistani cities as well.
For an international community weary of the bleak news on Pakistan’s political front, Musharraf’s Oct. 2 appointment of Lt. Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kiani as a likely replacement as military chief – should Musharraf win another term in office – raised eyebrows.
If nominated, Kiani would be the first former ISI chief to head the country’s powerful military. Abbas, however, is not necessarily alarmed by the prospect of a former ISI chief turning military head. “It could be significant if, as a military chief, Kiani is able to control the ISI from acting as a state within a state,” said Abbas.. “Because one thing’s for sure, as long as the ISI functions as it does now, democracy will not succeed in Pakistan.”