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The Guilty Men of 9/11

By B Raman
September 10, 2003 17:34 IST
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Time magazine (August 31, 2003) has carried a commentary on Gerald Posner's book Why America Slept.

The commentary says: 'Most of his new book is a lean, lucid retelling of how the CIA, FBI and US 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 JFK 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 US 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 US did to build up Al Qaeda and what they knew before that September day.'

The reference is to Abu Zubaidah, then projected by the US intelligence agencies as the No 3 to Osama bin Laden in  Al Qaeda. He was arrested by the Pakistani authorities, at the instance of US intelligence, from the house of an office-bearer of the Lashkar-e-Tayiba, a member of bin Laden's International Islamic Front 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.

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 who subsequently became chief of  the air staff in November 2000 and died in a mysterious plane crash last February. The book, according to 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, to get protection, arms and supplies for Al Qaeda. Zubaydah told interrogators bin Laden said the arrangement was blessed by the Saudis.'

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.

Since 1988, when the Pakistani 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 army officers. Amongst those who had handled bin Laden (in order of importance) are General Mohammad Aziz, a Kashmiri from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir belonging to the Sudan tribe, who is now Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, General Pervez Musharraf, General Mahmood 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 Al Qaeda, and Lieutenant General Ehsanul Haq, DG of the ISI since  October 2001, who was corps commander at Peshawar, capital of the North-West Frontier Province before his current appointment.

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 after his promotion as a lieutentant general. Since Musharraf did not trust Lieutenant General Ziauddin, whom Nawaz Sharif, the then prime minister, had appointed as DG of the ISI, he ordered the transfer of all files relating to the Taliban, Al Qaeda and terrorist operations in India from the ISI to the CGS' office. Aziz continued handling these operations.

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 Central Intelligence Agency. The two were operating him jointly. In fact, the CIA 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 Western intelligence agencies to Afghanistan to help the Afghan mujahideen in their jihad against Soviet troops.

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 jihadi leaders such as Maulana Masood Azhar, then of the Harkat-ul-Ansar and now of the Jaish-e-Mohammad, Fazlur Rahman Khalil, then of the Harkat-ul-Ansar and now of the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, and Professor Hafeez Mohammad Sayeed, the Amir of the Markaz Dawa Al Irshad, the Lashkar's political wing, used to visit bin Laden, initially in Saudi Arabia and then in the Sudan. Since all these jihadi leaders had close contacts with the ISI, it was very likely they kept the ISI informed of their discussions with bin Laden and of Al Qaeda's activities in Somalia and Saudi Arabia.

The third phase was between 1996 and October 7, 2001. At the beginning of 1996, the Sudanese government asked bin Laden to leave Khartoum. Through Pakistani jihadi 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 bin Laden and his entourage to shift to Kandahar where the Taliban had set up its religious headquarters.

A number of serving and retired officers of the Pakistan army and the ISI such as Mohammad Aziz, Lieutenant General (retired) Hamid Gul, former DG of the ISI, and Lieutenant General (retired) Javed Nasir, another former DG of the ISI, called on bin Laden at Jalalabad and then in Kandahar and remained in touch with him. Aziz organised periodic medical check-ups at a Pakistani military hospital in Peshawar for bin Laden. None of the reports received during this period mentioned the presence of either Mushaf Ali Mir or Abu Zubaidah at any of these meetings.

The US was aware of bin Laden and his entourage moving to Afghanistan. Though 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 Taliban's approval for its oil and gas pipeline project. US officials like Robin Raphael, then assistant secretary of state for South Asian Affairs, interacted with the Taliban on this issue. There were no reports of the Americans ever having raised the issue of bin Laden with the Taliban.

It was only after bin Laden had formed his International Islamic Front in February 1998 and called for a jihad against the US and Israel that the US 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 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 events, Mohammad Aziz and Hamid Gul kept in regular touch with bin Laden and Mullah Omar. The Taliban allowed the Harkat to set up training camps in its territory with Arab and Chechen instructors from Al Qaeda. These were amongst the camps destroyed by US Cruise missiles in retaliation for the explosions in Kenya and Tanzania.

As the US pressure increased, Musharraf and Mohammad Aziz presented to Nawaz Sharif at the beginning of 1999 a plan for shifting all the terrorists belonging to Al Qaeda and its allied organisations from Afghanistan to the Kargil heights in Jammu and Kashmir 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 Indian army's difficulties. It was this plan which Nawaz Sharif approved.

After the fighting in Kargil broke out, Nawaz Sharif was 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 he and Aziz did shift some terrorists from Afghanistan to Skardu in Gilgit and sent them to occupy the Kargil heights. They were surprised by the ease with which they moved into the heights and by reports from the terrorists that there were no Indian Army troops on the other side. They then decided to send in the army to replace the terrorists and occupy the area.

Others say Musharraf and Aziz had from the beginning planned to send the troops, and not the terrorists, but told Nawaz Sharif they would be using the terrorists since they felt he would not approve the plan if they told him they intended to use troops.

After the withdrawal of Pakistani troops from Kargil under US pressure, the US again took up with Nawaz Sharif the question of Pakistani help to get hold of bin Laden. This matter came up during Ziauddin's visit to Washington, DC. The US wanted Pakistan's help to organise a commando operation into Kandahar to catch hold of bin Laden and his entourage. Nawaz Sharif asked the US to be patient and sent Ziauddin to Kandahar to persuade Mullah Omar to hand over bin Laden to the US. He refused.

Nawaz Sharif and Ziauddin had not kept Musharraf and Aziz in the picture. On discovering Ziauddin's secret visit to Kandahar, Musharraf sent Aziz to Mullah Omar to tell him that he should not obey any instructions issued by Ziauddin. Sharif found out about this, and this was one factor which contributed to his decision to sack Musharraf on October 12, 1999, which in turn led to his overthrow and the general assuming power.

After Musharraf took over power, Aziz, who continued to be his CGS, and Lieutenant General Mahmood Ahmed, who had replaced Ziauddin as DG of the ISI, continued to remain in touch with bin Laden, who kept coming to Peshawar for medical check-ups at the local military hospital. In mid-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 event were bin Laden, Hamid Gul and Ehsanul Haq, then corps commander, Peshawar.

After 9/11, under US pressure, Musharraf sent a team of Pakistani mullahs headed by Mufti Nizamuddin Shamzai, chief of the Binori madrasa in Karachi, to Kandahar ostensibly to persuade the Taliban to hand over bin Laden to the US. Mahmood Ahmed accompanied them. Surprisingly, instead of asking Mullah Omar to hand over bin Laden, the mullahs, in Mahmood Ahmed's presence, complimented him for resisting US pressure.

It was reported the US somehow discovered this and it was under its pressure that Musharraf removed Aziz and Mahmood Ahmed from their posts when the US operations began in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001.

During his interrogation by the Karachi police, Omar Sheikh, principal accused in the Daniel Pearl murder case, was reported to have stated that during a visit to Kandahar in mid-2001 he had discovered 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. 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 Haq and most probably Musharraf himself, were aware of 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.

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 jihadi leaders. It was he who alerted Al Qaeda, the Harkat and Jaish of the impending freezing of their bank accounts last year and advised them to remove the bulk of their balances before instructions reached their banks.

It was Aziz, who reportedly persuaded Mufti Shamzai to give shelter to bin Laden at the Binori madrasa after an injured bin Laden escaped into Pakistan from Tora Bora. It was also reported that Aziz arranged for the treatment of bin Laden for a shrapnel injury by serving and retired Pakistan army doctors.

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 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 ghosts, he is only heard, but not seen.

Why did Abu Zubaidah mention to his FBI and CIA interrogators that Mushaf Ali Mir was in touch with bin Laden? One can only speculate. It was probably to draw suspicion away from Mohammad Aziz, Musharraf and Ehsanul Haq.

There is one intriguing aspect about Mushaf Ali Mir. He did not enjoy a great reputation in the PAF. He headed the military equipment manufacturing complex at Kamra. In November 2000, Musharraf, who liked Mushaf Ali Mir tremendously, superseded five highly distinguished PAF officers and appointed him chief of the air staff. The supersession of so many officers came in for strong criticism from a number of retired officers. 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.

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B Raman