Sunday, March 20, 2022

Book review: Spy Stories: Inside the Secret World of ISI and RAW


26/11, the attack on Mumbai by terrorists who came by boat from Pakistan, was widely seen as state-sponsored terrorism. The world was horrified by the loss of lives in a leading city of the world. India went on the diplomatic offensive and had some success in painting Pakistan as a rogue nation.

According to Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, authors of  superbly researched Spy Stories, 26/11 was the work of set of non-state actors who may not have had the sponsorship of the state of Pakistan. (The authors had earlier written an acclaimed book on 26/11, the attack on Mumbai).

The mastermind behind 26/11 was one Pasha, a former officer of the Pakistan military. Pasha had been sent to Afghanistan to fight the Al Qaeda. He refused to fight as he placed “his faith before his country”. He was demoted and he quit the Pakistan Army. He initially joined the Lashkar e Toiba (LeT) and then moved to 313 Brigade, a Kashmiri militant outfit that kept its distance from the ISI, Pakistan’s spy agency.

The authors believe it was Pasha who conceived of the daring idea of a raid across the sea to Mumbai instead of the usual trek across the mountains in Kashmir that militants were used to. The astonishing part of their narrative is this: the CIA had comprehensive details of the 26/11 plot, passed on by David Headley, an American of Pakistani descent. Headley had been a drugs trafficker who had defected to the CIA. The intelligence, the authors say, had been passed on to the Indian authorities. But the authorities failed to act on it.

The authors’ source is Monisha, an officer at RAW, India’s external intelligence agencies. Monisha wonders whether the lapse was intentional. She speculates whether the authorities in India allowed the raid to happen in the knowledge that it would help them paint Pakistan in the darkest of colours and break the cosy relationship between Pakistan and the US.

The authors say that 26/11 did break that relationship. It also forced on Pakistan the realisation that terrorism in Pakistan, if not reined in, would cause the collapse of the state. There followed a crackdown on a unit in ISI which was seek as creating trouble. Hafiz Saeed, the LeT chief, came to be placed under house arrest. Monisha, for her part, is disillusioned with the way India’s intelligence agencies are functioning and emigrates to the US.

26/11 is just one of many episodes in a riveting book. Parts of it seem like something out of a Robert Ludlum novel or even from Mission Impossible. The authors have talked to numerous individuals connected with the two agencies (in India, they had access to NSA Ajit Doval). One wonders about the risks the authors took in doing the book.

Apart from Monisha, another individual figures prominently, Major Iftikhar, an ex-operative of ISI who is on the run from his own country’s agencies and can be reached only in complicated ways.  The cast includes numerous militants and agents, some of whom are double agents.

In Kashmir, it is hard to tell who is working for whom. Militants turn law enforcers. Some law enforcers turn renegade. The ISI passes on information to Indian agencies about some of its former assets who have now become a headache for it. The Indian agencies make short of them. It is a crazy world, one in which accountability and the rule of law is notably absent.

After 9/11 and until 26/11 dynamited the relationship between Pakistan and the US, the two had been very intimate indeed. After 9/11, the US sought two important favours from Pakistan. One was the use of Pakistan’s air bases and air space for sending its drones across the border into Afghanistan to eliminate America’s enemies and for housing its Special Forces.  Another was information on various terrorists it was trying to hunt down and who were using Pakistan as a safe haven. The US paid generously for these services. By 2004, Pakistan was making $4.7 bn for its services. It used the money to improve its defence infrastructure and to beef up the operations of the ISI.

The authors have their own take on the attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001. India, they say, was quick to seize the opportunity to portray Pakistan in the worst possible light. They suggest that the “evidence” gathered in the case was cooked up. They write, “A special cell of Delhi Police officers with a reputation for staging fake encounters worked in record time, recovering mobile phones, SIM cards, receipts, and scribbled-down phone numbers- apparently left lying on the ground, critical identification brought on to a clandestine raid and then left undamaged after it”. The investigation was led by an officer, Rajbir Singh, notorious for fake encounters and with a distinctly shady past in the police force.

Two individuals who were incriminated were cousins Shaukat and Afzal Guru. Police claimed that the two had been intercepted while driving back to Kashmir. In their vehicle, investigators said, were recovered laptops, templates for counterfeit passes to enter Parliament and fake identity cards. Afzal Guru was said to have brought the terrorists to Delhi. Shaukat and Afzal gave the court signed statements saying that Jaish e Mohammed, the Pakistani terrorists organisation, had ordered the attack.

The authors say that Afzal Guru brought the terrorists to Delhi at the bidding of a police officer in Kashmir, Davinder Singh. The courts did not think it necessary to probe Singh’s role or his murky background. Singh was arrested in 2020 when found escorting a Hijbul Mujahideen Deputy Commander in a car in Kashmir. Singh was accused of “waging war on India”. Afzal Guru was hanged. But Western analysts and intelligence agencies, the authors say, remained sceptical of the official version on the Parliament attack. Pakistan, for its part, decided to crackdown on Jaish, believing that it had been infiltrated by RAW and IB! Talk of wheels within twisted wheels.

There is more in this vein in the book. What you hear or are told by the law enforcement agencies or the media often bears little relation to the reality. It is hard to tell who is friend or foe and whether an incident has been engineered by the intelligence agencies or not. It is best that read the book yourself and get a flavour of the diabolical games that underlie the official version of events that make newspaper headlines.



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