Thirteen years after the deadly Mumbai terror attacks of November 26, 2008, there remains little doubt the attacks were carried out with the active support of the Pakistan Army and its Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). Even today, General Headquarters (GHQ) Rawalpindi continues to support ‘non-state actors’ like the Jaish-e-Mohammed and the Lashkar-e-Taiba for attacks against India.
“There is enough evidence to show that, given the sophistication and the military precision of the attack, it must have had the support of some official agencies in Pakistan,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said at a Chief Minister’s conclave in New Delhi on January 9, 2009, a month after the attack. It is a different matter that the then-PM overruled the retaliatory options against those non-state actors suggested by India’s NSA and Air Force chiefs. This fact has been ruefully highlighted by Congress MP Manish Tiwari in an upcoming book.
Today, the sophistication, scale and scope of the 26/11 attacks continue to boggle the mind. The attackers hijacked an Indian fishing trawler, launched a rubber boat from it like marine commandos would do for a naval forces raid, split into buddy pairs and used GPS equipment to navigate to their targets with the ‘military precision’ Prime Minister Singh spoke of, to murder innocents in cold blood. They carried out multiple assaults on civilian locations that developed into sieges—the Taj hotel, the Oberoi Towers and a Jewish centre. A fourth planned bloodbath at the iconic CST station fell apart because the attackers lost their way. All the terrorists were in contact with their handlers right until they fired their last bullets. For over two days, the handlers guided these operatives, motivated them and watched footage of the attacks broadcast live, to better direct them against Indian security forces. A carefully crafted deception plan—another military strategem—was meant to deceive Indian investigators. The terrorists carried fake identity cards from a Hyderabad-based college to make it look like Indians had carried out the attack. Despite the evidence, since 2008, Pakistan has resisted global pressure and being put on the FATF (Financial Action Task Force, an international agency set up to tackle terror financing, among other activities) ‘Grey List’ for its continued financing of terrorists. What New Delhi calls the ‘infrastructure of terror’, a metaphor for what the Pakistani Deep State does, remains intact.
Pakistan’s Deep State
While much of India’s ire has been aimed at bringing the LeT leadership to justice, the real perpetrators in Pakistan have escaped scrutiny. But what is the Deep State? The concept originated in Turkey in the 1990s—the term is a literal translation of the Turkish ‘Derin Devlet’. French scholar Jean-Pierre Filiu explains in his 2015 book From Deep State to Islamic State that it is ‘a murky cooperation between state intelligence, corrupt justice and organised crime [that] seems to ‘run’ the system behind the scenes’. This parallel state challenges the very legitimacy of the national administration, which is accused of being too ‘shallow’ to fulfil its missions. This could well be the case in Pakistan where the military has controlled all the levers of power ever since its first coup in 1958 and runs policies contrary to the elected civilian government.
In his authoritative 2016 book Faith, Unity and Discipline: The ISI of Pakistan, German researcher Hein G. Kiessling mentions three reasons why the Pakistan’s military might have attacked Mumbai—Afghanistan, Kashmir and nuclear weapons. President Zardari’s talk about a cooperative relationship with India ‘rang alarm bells in Rawalpindi’ which was running a covert war in Kashmir. India’s interest in Afghanistan challenged GHQ Rawalpindi’s strategic interests in Kabul, and the possible Pakistan-US cooperation could have exposed its nuclear weapon secrets. Kiessling calls 26/11 a simultaneous warning to Islamabad (the civilian government), New Delhi and Washington.
Evidence exists that Pakistani military officers set up the LeT control room and facilitated the VoIP (voice over internet protocol) communication with the terrorists. David Headley’s 2010 interrogation by Indian investigators pointed at ISI officers being in the loop on all the LeT’s activities. Headley, an American citizen who hid his Pakistani origins, extensively scouted the 26/11 targets while living undercover in Mumbai for two years before the attack. Every major LeT leader, including its chief Hafiz Saeed, had an ISI handler who carefully monitored their activities. A person who Headley believed to be a naval frogman, possibly from the Pakistan Navy’s Special Services Group, visited the LeT headquarters in Muzaffarabad and vetted their plans and advised them on the precise time and place to land the terrorists on the Mumbai coast.
Three generals were in charge of the ISI in the run up to the 26/11 attacks—General A.P. Kayani between 2004 and 2007 (when the attacks were being planned), General Nadeem Taj between 2007 and 2008 (he was moved out just a month before the attacks) and finally, Lt General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, from 2008 to 2012. Of the three, General Kayani’s role is the most dubious—he was the first DG ISI to become army chief, and so was the immediate superior to both Generals Taj and Pasha. (The ISI’s secret ‘Directorate S’ handles non-state actors and is headed by a Deputy Director General of the rank of Major General.)
‘An operation such as the Mumbai attacks, which needed expert technical assessment, money and time to prepare, could not have been carried out without the knowledge of the service’s leadership. Considering the political explosiveness of the event, the COAS [chief of army staff] as well would have to have been informed,’ Kiessling writes.
The only real attempt to bring the Pakistan Army’s ISI to justice failed in 2012. A suit filed in a US court by the families of US victims fell through after the US government told the court that ‘the former directors-general Pasha and Taj are immune because the plaintiffs’ allegations relate to acts that these defendants allegedly took in their official capacities as directors of an entity that is undeniably a fundamental part of the Government of Pakistan.’ This is precisely the reason the ISI maintains non-state actors—to carry out the operations it can deny.
Non state actors are trained, equipped and provided sanctuary. In 1993 for instance, the ISI co-opted Dawood Ibrahim’s crime syndicate to carry out 13 devastating bomb blasts in Mumbai. Ibrahim, a globally designated terrorist since 2003, remains in the protective custody of the Pakistan military. In 2006, the ISI raised a so-called ‘Indian Mujahideen’ which bombed commuter trains in Mumbai in 2006 killing over 200 persons.
Over the years the ISI has turned its mastery of covert warfare into an art. In her 2014 book, The Wrong Enemy, journalist Carlotta Gall describes how the Pakistan Army ran an elaborate deception since 2001—it was supposedly fighting the war on terror against the Taliban and al Qaeda alongside the US and its allies, but secretly, the ISI continued to provide sanctuary to both the Taliban and al Qaeda.
This first emerged in 2011 when US special forces killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. The world’s most wanted man had been hiding for six years in a three-storeyed house a stone’s throw away from the Pakistan Military Academy. Gall, who reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan for 12 years, writes that the ISI ran a special desk to handle the al Qaeda leader. ‘It was operated independently, headed by an officer who made his own decisions. He did not have to pass things by a superior. He handled only one person: bin Laden. What he did was of course wholly deniable by virtually everyone at the ISI.’
The Pakistan Army is yet to win a clear military victory in its nearly 75 years of existence. But its ISI can claim to have played a crucial role in two victories in Afghanistan–the humiliating exit of the Soviet Union in 1988 and the retreat by US forces in August 2021. Not without a touch of irony is the fact that it learned several tricks of the trade in the decade-long war against the Soviet Union in which the ISI and CIA operated alongside each other.
Gall’s expose saw its denoument this year. On September 4, 2021, barely a fortnight after the astonishing rout of the Afghan government by the Taliban, ISI chief Lt General Faiz Hameed surfaced in a Kabul hotel, smugly sipping tea. “Don’t worry, everything will be okay,” the spymaster told journalists in the lobby of the Serena Hotel. The Pakistan Army is in charge and not afraid of claiming credit for its second biggest victory yet.