The "Time" magazine of the US (August 31, 2003) has carried a commentary on a book written by Gerald Posner titled "Why America Slept".
2.The commentary says: "Most of his new book is a lean, lucid retelling of how the CIA, FBI and U.S. leaders missed a decade's worth of clues and opportunities that if heeded, Posner argues, might have forestalled the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Posner is an old hand at revisiting conspiracy theories. He wrote controversial assessments dismissing those surrounding the J.F.K. and Martin Luther King Jr. assassinations. And the Berkeley-educated lawyer is adept at marshaling an unwieldy mass of information—most of his sources are other books and news stories—into a pattern made tidy and linear by hindsight. His indictment of U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement agencies covers well-trodden ground, though sometimes the might-have-beens and could-have-seens are stretched thin. The stuff that is going to spark hot debate is Chapter 19, an account—based on Zubaydah's claims as told to Posner by "two government sources" who are unnamed but "in a position to know"—of what two countries (Pakistan and Saudi Arabia) allied to the U.S. did to build up al-Qaeda and what they knew before that September day."
3. The reference is to Abu Zubaidah, then projected by the US intelligence agencies as the No.3 to Osama bin Laden in the Al Qaeda. He was arrested by the Pakistani authorities, at the instance of the US intelligence, from the house of an office-bearer of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET), a member of bin Laden's International Islamic Front (IIF), at Faislabad in Pakistani Punjab on March 28 last year and flown by the FBI to the US naval base on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia for interrogation. It is not known where he is kept presently.
4. The book, according to the commentary, refers to a 1996 meeting in Pakistan between bin Laden and Mushaf Ali Mir, a high-ranking officer of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) who subsequently became the Chief of the Air Staff in November 2000 and died in a mysterious plane crash in February last. The book, according to the "Time", cites Abu Zubaidah as having claimed that he was present at the meeting during which "bin Laden struck a deal with Mir, then in the military but tied closely to Islamists in Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), to get protection, arms and supplies for al-Qaeda. Zubaydah told interrogators bin Laden said the arrangement was blessed by the Saudis."
5. The mention of Mushaf Ali Mir by Abu Zubaidah as the ISI's contact man with bin Laden is surprising for the following reasons. First, the Pakistani Army, which always controls the ISI, never associates officers of the Air Force and the Navy with its sensitive covert operations. Second, it generally does not allow officers of the Air Force and the Navy to head the ISI or to occupy sensitive positions in it.
6. Since 1988, when the Pakistan Army used bin Laden and his tribal hordes for brutally suppressing a Shia revolt in Gilgit, the contacts with bin Laden had always been handled by senior officers of the Army. Amongst those who had handled bin Laden (in the order of importance) are Gen. Mohammad Aziz, a Kashmiri from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK) belonging to the Sudan tribe, who is now Chairman, the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Gen. Mehmood Ahmed, Director-General of the ISI from October,1999, to October 2001, when he was reportedly removed under US pressure because of his links with the Al Qaeda, and Lt.Gen.Ehsanul Haq, the present DG of the ISI since October,2001, who was before that the Corps Commander at Peshawar, the capital of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP).
7. Gen. Aziz was Deputy-Director-General of the ISI as a Major-General till November,1998, when Musharraf appointed him as his Chief of the General Staff (CGS) after his promotion as a Lt.General. Since Musharraf did not trust Lt.Gen. Ziauddin, whom Nawaz Sharif, the then Prime Minister, had appointed as the DG of the ISI, he ordered the transfer of all files relating to the Taliban, the Al Qaeda and terrorist operations in India from the ISI to the office of the CGS. Aziz continued handling these operations.
8.There were four phases in the ISI's relations with bin Laden. In the first phase before 1990, the ISI did not feel the need to keep the relations secret from the USA's Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The two were operating him jointly. In fact, it was the CIA which brought him from Saudi Arabia initially for making use of his civil engineering skills for the construction of tunnels in difficult terrain in Afghanistan. He subsequently became the head and mentor of the Arab mercenaries who had been brought by the Western intelligence agencies to Afghanistan for helping the Afghan mujahideen in their jehad against the Soviet troops.
9. In the second phase between 1990 and 1996, there were no reports of any contacts between the ISI and bin Laden. He was initially in Saudi Arabia and then the Sudan. During this period, Pakistani jehadi leaders such as Maulana Masood Azhar, then of the Harkat-ul-Ansar (HUA) and now of the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM), Fazlur Rahman Khalil, then of the HUA and now of the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM), and Prof. Hafeez Mohammad Sayeed, the Amir of the Markaz Dawa Al Irshad, the political wing of the LET, used to visit bin Laden, initially in Saudi Arabia and then in the Sudan. Since all these jehadi leaders had close contacts with the ISI, it was very likely that they had kept the ISI informed of their discussions with bin Laden and of the activities of the Al Qaeda in Somalia and Saudi Arabia.
10.The third phase was between 1996 and October 7, 2001. In the beginning of 1996, the Sudanese Government asked him to leave Khartoum. Through the Pakistani Jehadi leaders, he sought the permission of the Burhanuddin Rabbani Government, then in power in Kabul, to shift to Jalalabad in Afghanistan. After consulting the Benazir Bhutto Government, then in office in Islamabad, Rabbani allowed him and his entourage to shift to Jalalabad. Shortly thereafter, the Taliban captured Jalalabad and Kabul in September, 1996. Mulla Mohammad Omar, the Amir of the Taliban, ordered the shifting of bin Laden and his entourage to Kandahar where the Taliban had set up its religious headquarters.
11. A number of serving and retired officers of the Pakistan Army and the ISI such as Mohammad Aziz, Lt. Gen.(retd) Hamid Gul, former DG of the ISI, and Lt.Gen. (retd) Javed Nasir, another former DG of the ISI, called on bin Laden at Jalalabad and then Kandahar and used to remain in touch with him. Aziz used to organise his periodic medical check-up at a Pakistani military hospital at Peshawar. None of the reports received during this period mentioned about the presence of either Mushaf Ali Mir or Abu Zubaidah at any of these meetings.
12. The US was aware of the shifting of bin Laden and his entourage to Afghanistan. Though the Al Qaeda had been suspected in the attack on US troops in Somalia in 1993 and in the explosions in Saudi Arabia in 1996 targeting US troops, the US did not exercise pressure on the Taliban to hand over bin Laden to it. During this period, UNOCAL, the US oil company, was very hopeful of getting the approval of the Taliban Government for its oil and gas pipeline project and US officials such as Mrs. Robin Raphael, then Assistant Secretary of State, used to interact with the Taliban on this subject. There were no reports of their ever having raised the issue of bin Laden with the Taliban.
13. It was only after bin Laden had formed his International Islamic Front (IIF) in February 1998 and called for a jehad against the USA and Israel that the USA started pressurising the Nawaz Sharif Government to make the Taliban hand over bin Laden to the US for trial. The pressure increased after the explosions organised by the Al Qaeda outside the US Embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam in August 1998. By then, UNOCAL had also abandoned its pipeline project in collaboration with the Taliban following an outcry amongst women's groups in the West over the Taliban's anti-women policies. In the midst of all these happenings, Mohammad Aziz and Hamid Gul kept in regular touch with bin Laden and the Taliban Amir. The Taliban had allowed the HUM to set up training camps in its territory with Arab and Chechen instructors from the Al Qaeda. These were amongst the camps destroyed by the US Cruise missile strikes in retaliation for the explosions in Kenya and Tanzaniya.
14. As the US pressure increased, Musharraf and Mohammad Aziz presented to Nawaz in the beginning of 1999 a plan for shifting all the terrorists belonging to the Al Qaeda and its allied organisations from Afghanistan to the Kargil heights in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) and let them loose against the Indian Army. They argued that by doing so they would be able to escape US pressure and, at the same time, add to the difficulties of the Indian Army. It was this plan which Nawaz approved.
15. After the fighting in Kargil broke out, Nawaz was totally surprised to learn that Musharraf and Aziz had used regular Pakistani Army troops and not the terrorists for occupying the Kargil heights. Why Musharraf changed the plans is not clear. Some say that he and Aziz did shift some of the terrorists from Afghanistan to Skardu in Gilgit and sent them to occupy the Kargil heights. They were surprised by the ease with each they moved into the heights and by the reports received from the terrorists that there was no Indian Army on the other side. They then decided to send the Army in to replace the terrorists and occupy the area.
16. Others say that Musharraf and Aziz had from the beginning planned to send the troops and not the terrorists, but had told Nawaz that they would be using the terrorists since they felt that Nawaz would never approve the plan if they told him that they intended to use their troops.
17. After the withdrawal of the Pakistani troops from the Kargil area under US pressure, the US again took up with Nawaz the question of Pakistani help to get hold of bin Laden. This matter came up during a visit of Ziauddin to Washington DC. The US wanted Pakistan's help for organising a commando operation into Kandahar to catch hold of bin Laden and his entourage. Nawaz asked the US to be patient and sent Ziauddin to Kandahar to persuade the Taliban Amir to hand over bin Laden to the USA. He refused.
18. Nawaz and Ziauddin had not kept Musharraf and Aziz in the picture. On coming to know of Ziauddin's secret visit to Kandahar, Musharraf sent Aziz to the Amir to tell him that he should not obey any instructions of Ziauddin. Nawaz came to know of this and this was one of the factors, which contributed to his decision to sack Musharraf on October 12,1999, which in turn led to his overthrow and Musharraf assuming power.
19. After Musharraf took over power, Aziz, who continued to be his CGS, and Lt.Gen.Mahmood Ahmed, who had replaced Ziauddin as the DG of the ISI, continued to remain in touch with bin Laden, who kept coming to Peshawar for his medical check-ups at the local military hospital. In the middle of 2001, a function was held in Kabul at which the first group of Taliban officers trained by the Pakistan Army passed out. Amongst those who attended this function were bin Laden, Hamid Gul and Ehsanul Haq, then Corps Commander, Peshawar.
20. After 9/11, under US pressure, Musharraf sent a team of Pakistani Mullas headed by Mufti Nizamuddin Shamzai, the chief of the Binori madrasa of Karachi, to Kandahar ostensibly to persuade the Taliban Amir to hand over bin Laden to the US. Mahmood Ahmed accompanied them. Surprisingly, instead of asking the Amir to hand over bin Laden, the Mullas, in the presence of Mahmood Ahmed, complimented him for resisting the US pressure.
21. It was reported that the US somehow came to know of this and it was under its pressure that Musharraf had to remove Aziz and Mahmood Ahmed from their posts when the US operations began in Afghanistan on October,7, 2001.
22. During his interrogation by the Karachi Police, Omar Sheikh, the principal accused in the case relating to the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl, the US journalist, last year was reported to have stated that during a visit to Kandahar in the middle of 2001 he had come to know of the Al Qaeda's plans for the terrorist strikes in the US and had conveyed this to Ehsanul Haq at Peshawar on his return from Kandahar. Ehsanul Haq is a close personal friend of Musharraf and it is very unlikely that he would not have immediately informed Musharraf about it. Thus, definitely Ehsanul Haq and most probably Musharraf himself were aware of the Al Qaeda's plans for the terrorist strikes in the US, but for reasons not clear, they chose not to alert the US about it.
23. From his new post as Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee to which he had been transferred from his post as Corps Commander, Lahore, Aziz continued to keep in touch with bin Laden and other jehadi leaders. It was he who alerted the Al Qaeda, the HUM and the JEM of the impending freezing of their bank accounts last year and advised them to remove the bulk of their balances before the instructions for the freezing reached their banks.
24. It was Aziz, who also reportedly persuaded Mufti Shamzai to give shelter to bin Laden in the Binori madrasa after an injured bin Laden managed to escape into Pakistan from Tora Bora. It was also reported that Aziz also arranged for the treatment of bin Laden for a sharpnel injury by serving and retired doctors of the Pakistan Army.
25. Since August last year, bin Laden has disappeared from the Binori madrasa. One is no longer certain whether he is alive or dead and, if he is alive, where he is . Since a number of messages purported to be of his have been circulating, he is presumed to be alive unless proved to be dead. After August last year, there has not been a single reliable report of his being sighted anywhere in Pakistan or Afghanistan or elsewhere in the world. Like the proverbial ghosts, he is only heard, but not seen.
26.Why did Abu Zubaidah mention to his FBI and CIA interrogators that it was Mushaf Ali Mir who was in touch with bin Laden? One can only speculate. It was probably to draw suspicion away from Mohammad Aziz, Musharraf and Ehsanul Haq.
27. There is, however, one intriguing aspect about Mushaf Ali Mir. He did not enjoy a great reputation in the PAF. He was heading the military equipment manufacturing complex at Kamra. In November,2000, Musharraf, who liked Mushaf Ali Mir tremendously, superseded five highly distinguished officers of the PAF and appointed Mir as the Chief of the Air Staff. The supersession of so many officers came in for strong criticism from a number of retired officers of the Pakistani Armed Forces. Why did Musharraf feel obliged to promote this mediocre officer even at the risk of causing widespread unhappiness in the PAF? A question to which there has been no answer.
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-Mail: email@example.com )