Terrorism Suspicion Hangs Over Pakistan's ISI

India has accused Pakistan's powerful intelligence agency, the ISI, of planning the Mumbai train bombings that killed almost 200 people this past summer. Meanwhile, a leaked British defense ministry memo alleges that the ISI has been indirectly helping al-Qaida.

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CIA: the CIA, Britain's MI6, Mossad in Israel, and you'll come to the ISI. This is Pakistan's revered and feared intelligence service. But ISI has been attracting unwanted attention lately, due to mounting suspicions that it actively supports terrorism.

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly is in Islamabad. She's been asking current and former ISI leaders whether there's any truth to the allegations.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: ISI has long stood accused of meddling in the affairs of its neighbors, but in recent weeks the charges have been unusually pointed and public. A memo by a researcher in Britain's defense ministry has made waves, charging that ISI is indirectly helping al-Qaida. And a new study from the Rand Corporation finds ISI is tipping off the Taliban about the movement of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, as well as training new Taliban fighters at camps inside Pakistan.

Xenia Dormandy, former director for South Asia at the National Security Council, says, no question, within ISI there are allegiances to the Taliban.

XENIA DORMANDY: You have to remember that the United States financially supported what was the Mujahadeen at the time - became the Taliban when the Soviets were in Afghanistan - and we did so through ISI. So essentially, we financed a decade plus of support for building relations between the ISI and the Taliban. It would be ludicrous for me to think that all of the people who had spent much of their careers building support are now going to turn around on the people that they used to work with. So I think there's clearly going to be support from some individuals in ISI. I think the interesting question is, how far does it go? So, is this an institutional support for the Taliban, or is this individual support for the Taliban?

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

LOUISE KELLY: To try to answer some of these questions, we're headed now to ISI headquarters in downtown Islamabad. We're just driving up now. It's a big, sprawling compound in the middle of the city. We're just pulling up to the gates. Behind the gates lies the manicured lawn and marble steps up to the building that houses many of the 10,000 employees of ISI. That's short for Inter-Services Intelligence.

ISI's leaders would not agree to be quoted by name or to speak on tape, but they did offer, over two hours, an account of ISI's track record in fighting terrorism. They confirm close cooperation between ISI and U.S. intelligence. For instance, they say both the CIA and the National Security Agency have people embedded with counterterrorism units of Pakistan's army. The teams are stationed in the border areas where top al-Qaida leaders may be hiding.

The officials also scoff at reports that ISI, which is part of the army, operates as a rogue agency outside the control of President Pervez Musharraf. That's no so, says Lieutenant General Javed Ashraf Qazi. He's a former head of ISI.

JAVED ASHRAF QAZI: ISI is very much a disciplined organ of the state. It cannot go against the state policy. It's a totally false perception that ISI is a state within a state and so on and so forth. It has never been. It is not.

LOUISE KELLY: Qazi ran the ISI from '93 to '95, just as the Taliban were coming to power in Afghanistan. He has a complicated history with that movement, and has been called the Taliban's founding father. But General Qazi is now back in government; he is Musharraf's education minister. And over tea one recent evening in his home high above the hills outside Islamabad, he was sounding a moderate note. Qazi denies that ISI has ever had a direct military alliance with the Taliban, and he snorts at recent accusations leveled by Pakistan's archenemy, India.

ASHRAF QAZI: Let me, at the outset, use the word nonsense.

LOUISE KELLY: The issue is whether ISI was behind the train bombings that killed almost 200 people in Mumbai, India, this summer. Some in India have said it was.

ASHRAF QAZI: And yet, no evidence was provided. The Indians said, we'll provide the evidence, and then they backed out. Let them provide the evidence if they feel that.

LOUISE KELLY: This is true, actually. India has since backed down and conceded the evidence implicating ISI is not, quote, "clinching."

And yet, President Musharraf himself admits there are problems. Musharraf told an interviewer last month that the Taliban might be receiving aid from retired ISI officers - among them, possibly this man.

HAMID GUL: Hello. Welcome, how are you?

LOUISE KELLY: General Gul.

GUL: Good morning. How are you?

LOUISE KELLY: Good morning. How do you do?

Lieutenant General Hamid Gul. Gul ran the ISI during the '80s, at the height of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. He retired 14 years ago, but he's still quoted regularly by newspapers here in Pakistan, usually promoting an anti-government, anti-American view. Gul avoids direct questions about whether he or current ISI officers support the Taliban today. But he does offer this view about ISI as an institution.

GUL: The institution and the military is an extension of the society. And if there is a dominating sentiment in the society, it is wrong to say that the institution will not be affected by that. And that sentiment is pro-Taliban; it is not against them.

LOUISE KELLY: Back at ISI headquarters, a senior official presented with this view shrugs. Then his eyes turn steely. If we were secretly helping the Taliban and al-Qaida, he asks, do you think we would get all the support we do from your CIA?

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Islamabad.

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