The ISI is So Powerful, It's Been Called A State Within A State, With Thousands Of Officers And Staff

And some analysts say it's rife with Islamic radicalism

February 27, 2002


GEN. PERVEZ MUSHARRAF, PRESIDENT OF PAKISTAN (through translator): What direction are we being led in by these extremists? Pakistan has been a weak state. This situation cannot be tolerated anymore.

COLLEEN MCEDWARDS, HOST (voice-over): Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf cracks down on religious extremists. The crackdown may have prompted them to strike back, kidnapping and killing journalist Daniel Pearl.

MUSHARRAF: I can assure my countrymen that we will not leave any stone unturned to bring all these people involved in this murder to justice.

MCEDWARDS: Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI, has tight historical ties to the Taliban and some of these Muslim extremist groups.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think that you will find, as the investigation goes on, that there were perhaps elements in the Pakistani government that may have had some direct links with Omar Sheikh himself.

MAJ. GEN. GHULAM UMAR (RET.), POLITICAL ANALYST: ISI had gone into fields which are not, strictly speaking, which are not their concern.

MCEDWARDS: Musharraf makes moves to reorganize the intelligence service.

MUSHARRAF: ISI will have to be altered and historical baggage will have to be dumped.

MCEDWARDS: On Q&A, a closer look at Pakistan's influential intelligence service.


Hello and welcome to Q&A. I'm Colleen McEdwards. Zain is off.

Pakistan's president is taking on the ISI. It's a risky move, because it could drive Islamic militants and their contacts in the intelligence service underground.

Will it lead to a dangerous power struggle, or is it the best way for Pakistan to get at the problem of organized religious extremism?

Well, so much of this work is done in secret, it's hard to get a real good fix on it. But consider this: the ISI is so powerful, it's been called a state within a state, with thousands of officers and staff. And some analysts say it's rife with Islamic radicalism.

For more on this, let's go to CNN's Chris Burns, who is in Karachi, Pakistan -- Chris.

CHRIS BURNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Colleen, the operation that Gen. Musharraf wants to conduct here is two-pronged. It is to go after not only the Muslim militant's but also the ISI. Trying to go after both at the same time is a delicate operation.


BURNS (voice-over): Pakistan launched its new crackdown on militant groups last month, rounding up more than 2,000 suspects, police say. A crackdown President Pervez Musharraf announced in a speech to the nation, banning five groups linked to militant activity.

It followed the December attack by militants on the Indian parliament, an incident that brought the two nuclear-armed nations to the brink of war.

One banned group, Jaish e-Mohammad, operated out of this Karachi office, heavily damaged by a mysterious bomb-blast last year.

Despite the bomb damage, Jaish e-Mohammad continued operating out of this office until the government shut it down this year. But many militants have since regrouped, renamed their organizations, or simply gone underground, making it even harder for officials to track them.

What could be even more difficult is the government's reported decision to cut ties between the militants and elements within Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence Agency, or ISI, by reassigning many ISI agents back to their military jobs.

A government spokesman declines to comment on the reports.

Some analysts say the decision is a fundamental change in policy.

UMAR: ISI had gone into fields which are not, strictly speaking, which are not their concern.

BURNS (on camera): Such as?

UMAR: Such as political things within the country or, for that matter, going and deciding things in relation to activities in relation to Afghanistan or some other countries, and all that.

BURNS: Or to Kashmir.

UMAR: Kashmir, for that matter. The point is, the policy now has to be taken over by the government itself.

BURNS (voice-over): Some analysts see dangers in Musharraf's double- barreled efforts, cracking down on militants and reorganizing the ISI.

SHAHEEM AKHTAR, POLITICAL ANALYST: On the one hand, he'll antagonize, or at least alienate, the extremist militant elements of the ISI. On the other, he will be antagonizing the civilian politicians and the public opinion.

BURNS: Antagonizing, he says, by cracking down on political groups the government perceives as extremists. The militants, Akhtar says, may only rear their heads again, unless Gen. Musharraf's regime gives way to democracy.

AKHTAR: The only way to exercise the demon of sectarianism and fundamentalism is to allow, and forgive me for repeating it, the political process to continue.

BURNS: That's a process that could take some time.

In the meantime, the government has apparently opted to take quick action, despite the perceived risks.


Now, in the wake of this report, in the wake of reports linking the ISI to groups, perhaps linked to the murder of Daniel Pearl, the interior minister responds, saying that allegations linking kidnappers and the ISI are malicious and wrong propaganda.

That is something that up until now, we have been unable to really prove a direct link. This is something that remains to be seen in the coming days and weeks -- Colleen.

MCEDWARDS: All right, Chris. In the broader sense, then, help us understand how many groups the ISI is believed to be linked to and how deep those links go.

BURNS: Colleen, those links run deep and far through perhaps decades, actually.

In fact, some Pakistani sources we have spoken to are very quick to point out that United States policy back in the 1980's was to support Pakistan and the militant groups it was supporting in Afghanistan in that proxy conflict against the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. And they say that this has come back to bite us.

This is a Frankenstein that was built not only by Pakistan's ISI, but with the aid and support of the United States. So, not only there but also the Pakistani's have been supporting on their own some groups in Indian- controlled Kashmir as a way to support what they see as liberation groups, liberation groups that are militants. They're seen as terrorists by the Indian side.

So these links are seen as policy that is being carried out, whether or not the Pakistani government wants it to be carried out, and that this is a step, now, where Musharraf is trying to regain control, not only over the ISI, but over his foreign policy.

MCEDWARDS: Well, how risky is this for Mr. Musharraf?

BURNS: Well, it can very well be.

In fact, when I spoke to at least one diplomatic source, who tells me here in Pakistan that this could be a make or break effort by Musharraf, that the ISI is seen as being extremely powerful and that for him -- he is a general, so he does have very strong links to the military, and the military has strong links to the ISI, because it's made up of military people as well.

But at the same time, for him, as a moderate, to try to regain control, could be make or break for his presidency -- Colleen.

MCEDWARDS: And Chris, just real quick, if you would, have you got a sense, just from talking to people on the street, how they feel about his efforts to crack down on extremism?

BURNS: Well, the general feeling that we have had is that there is to a degree a support for some of there groups that wage jihad in Afghanistan, and even also in Kashmir as well. So it is a delicate thing for Musharraf to carry out.

However, it does appear -- there are no major protests by the mainstream against this crackdown.

On the other hand, keep in mind that as we saw in the piece that we have, that I just played, is that some people say, well, really, the solution is not an action by a military regime, but by more democracy. That once elections come, it will be much easier to carry out some kind of a housecleaning that the general population would support -- Colleen.

MCEDWARDS: Chris Burns, thanks so much -- appreciate it.

Coming up on Q&A, we're going to talk with a former ISI chief. That's next.

Stay with Q&A.


MCEDWARDS: Welcome back to Q&A.

We're talking about Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI, and joining us now on the telephone from Islamabad is former ISI chief, Lt. Gen. Javed Ashraf Qazi. He was head of intelligence from June '93 to July '95.

Mr. Qazi, tell us just what you did as intelligence head.

LT. GEN. JAVED ASHRAF QAZI, FORMER ISI CHIEF: What did I do as intelligence head? Well, I did what all intelligence services do; that is gathering intelligence about Pakistan's enemies and keeping the armed forces and the government informed about internal and external dangers to Pakistan.

MCEDWARDS: And to what extent did you have relationships with extremist groups?

QAZI: You see, we did not have the type of relationships I was hearing on your program, where it was implied that ISI sponsors or has direct links with the extremist groups and so on.

These groups were born because of the jihad in Afghanistan, where they were used to fight the Russians, some of them.

However, what happened was that subsequently the government in Pakistan felt too weak to basically confront them or handle them.

It is not as if ISI was sponsoring them, but it is the government's policy, whether the government cracks down on them or tolerates them. The ISI is an organ of the state and it has to follow the laid down policy by the government.

This government decided to crack down on these groups, and ISI has been following the orders of the government. Let me clarify that it is absolutely wrong to state that ISI is a state within a state or that there are some people having their own agendas.

ISI is composed of all armed forces elements who come for a fixed period from the armed forces and go back. The director general of ISI is appointed out of a panel given by the army chief.

So you could say that ISI is an extension of the armed forces. It is not an organ that exists on its own and does its own thing. This is...

MCEDWARDS: As some analysts have some though, is it rife with Islamic extremists?

QAZI: No, I would not say that, because there have been, firstly, you see the people change every two to three years, because they come for a fixed period, and they go back.

So to think that people who were involved in the Afghan jihad are still there and they are therefore having those links is incorrect. People do not understand the organization of ISI, even within Pakistan, because it's a secret agency. I am telling you the facts.

MCEDWARDS: So when Mr. Musharraf says that this has got to be part of his crackdown, and he wants to reassign people, he wants to move people around, do you think that's even necessary? What are you saying?

QAZI: Some people, you see, even within the army, even within foreign service, even within other places, people are free to have their own personal ideas, their own, let's say, personal preferences.

However, the reorganization of the ISI or -- I've heard some people say that Afghan (UNINTELLIGIBLE), Kashmir (UNINTELLIGIBLE), so on, have been (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and this and that. There have been certain changes. Some have been routine changes, and in some cases, because the army promotes people, so the new people come in, the old people go out.

But I'm not aware of any such policy that may have taken place or that may have been necessary, even.

I think the ISI has been loyal to Gen. Musharraf and will remain so.

MCEDWARDS: Understood.

If there is no policy, as you say, to support extremism, if there has been no policy, have there been rogue elements within the ISI, though, who have supported extremists groups?

QAZI: Well, to say that there are rogue elements within the ISI is an allegation, and there is no proof for this type of a thing. This is what our enemies have been propagating and some journalists have bought it without even bothering to question.

I mean, I have been over here in Islamabad. None of your correspondents has ever bothered to check up as to what is the organization of the ISI. How can a rogue element exist in the ISI when the director general of the ISI and other officers are all serving armed forces officers, bound by the army discipline, taking orders from the army chief, reporting to the prime minister of the country, who could at any time change the director general of the ISI if the government was not happy with his performance.

MCEDWARDS: Well, Mr. Qazi, how difficult do you think it's going to be, then, for Gen. Musharraf to try to change this? To try to, in a sense, control the ISI in a way that hasn't been done before?

QAZI: There is no problem for him at all. He has appointed the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) ISI. He has retired the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) ISI. And it is just like whenever he wants to make changes in the army. He is a free- agent, he can do so. He is the chief.

Similarly, he is the chief of the ISI also. I don't think there will be any problem for him to make any changes in the ISI that he desires. There will be no problem. It is not a state within a state.

MCEDWARDS: All right -- Javed Ashraf Qazi, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

And for more on this, we're joined in Washington by CNN's terrorism analyst Peter Bergen. He's also the author of the book "Holy War, Inc."

And also in Washington, we have Selig Harrison with the Center for International Policy.

Thank you both for being here.

Peter Bergen, to you first. Do you accept that there has been no policy to support extremist groups within the ISI?

PETER BERGEN, AUTHOR: I think the general was making the point that ISI fulfills Pakistani government policy.

Well, the general that we just heard from was the head of ISI at the time the Taliban was being supported by the ISI. Benazir Bhutto's government in 1994 basically gave the green light to ISI to help out the Taliban, which they did.

So maybe we're making a distinction without a difference in a sense that the general was defending the ISI's position as saying, look, we just fulfill government policy...

MCEDWARDS: Absolutely.

BERGEN: Well, clearly, the government policy at that time was to support the Taliban, who, I mean, by my standards are an extremist group.

MCEDWARDS: But he's saying no ties to other extremist groups and, Selig Harrison, you know, what do people know about those ties? How much is known about which groups the ISI has been involved with or not?


I mean, he said that officers were entitled to have their own individual opinions, and because Gen. Zia, during the Afghan war, filled the ISI with people who were very anti-Indian and wanted to use the ISI operations in Afghanistan to build up a client state in Afghanistan which Pakistan could control, and thus have strategic depth against India.

And then they decided to use these Islamic groups after the war, after the war against the Russians, to operate in Kashmir and to carry on -- it was basically an anti-Indian ISI approach.

It's wrong to think of the -- when you talk about extremists and the ISI and extremists, most of these people are serving military officers. They'd rather have their scotch in the evening. They are not, themselves, trying to Talibanize Pakistan, but they have an anti-Indian agenda and they've made a conscious decisions dating back to the end of the Afghan war, to use the Islamic extremist groups in the country as the shock troops of their operations in Kashmir.

And that's the whole point. So as he says, they have a body of officers whose views were shaped during the period of the jihad, as he said. But were part of a broader strategic plan, that is still the atmosphere within the ISI and within many elements who are no longer in the ISI. And that's what's one of the problems.

MCEDWARDS: Mr. Harrison, explain, also, the role of the CIA in all of this and whether or not it still has links to the ISI.

HARRISON: Well, of course, the CIA has always had very close links with the ISI, going back a long way.

It had intelligence monitoring facilities in Pakistan. The ISI was involved in that, which monitored the Soviet Union. It used the ISI as a link to its operations throughout that region, and so I'm sure they have ties. They've been rather slow, it seems to me, to catch on to the fact that the ISI was sponsoring groups that were anti-American, like the Harakat Islam, the group that Mr. Sheikh has been connected with, and groups that have had an anti-American and an anti-India agenda.

MCEDWARDS: Peter Bergen, do you have a fix on what Musharraf is trying to do here with the ISI? I mean, when he talks about moving people around, moving people into military positions, for example (AUDIO GAP).

BERGEN: ... general proposition, he said himself, he doesn't want a Taliban-style theocracy taking over Pakistan.

And I think an interesting point is that he was moving against religious extremists before 9-11. He was starting to disarm some of these religious parties. They've been responsible for hundreds of death inside Pakistan because of violence between Shiites and Sunnis.

So I think this is all part of a broader plan by Musharraf to head the country in a more secular direction. After all, Jinnah, who founded Pakistan, didn't really want a theocratic state of the kind that these religious parties want. And the religious parties, although they've been very vocal, when there are elections in Pakistan, too infrequently now, they only get about 2 percent of the vote. So they may make a lot of noise, but at the end of the day they're not that significant, I think.

MCEDWARDS: Has Gen. Musharraf, Peter, got the support of the ISI? I mean, everyone, of course, assumed he did at the time of the coup, but does he now?

BERGEN: I don't know. I don't really know the answer to that question, to be honest.

I think that the fact that, you know, you fired the head, and it's -- Musharraf, I think, has played his cards brilliantly. With every month, he has gone forward with his agenda, as Mr. Harrison said. You know, Musharraf is somebody who, you know, is by all accounts a rather moderate Muslim who is not adverse to the occasional drink or whatever. And I don't think that he is somebody that -- you know, his whole view of the Pakistan state is more much similar to Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, than to a lot of these religious parties who have come to the fore in the last few years.

MCEDWARDS: Selig Harrison, is it clear to you whether or not the ISI still has operations in Afghanistan, in Kashmir?

HARRISON: They certainly do in Kashmir. I'm not sure how extensive they are in Afghanistan. Certainly, in the tribal areas, in the areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan, where people think Osama might be hiding, they certainly, it seems to be, still do have operations there, and they do have a plan to try to get Pakistan influence in the new government in Kabul through the loya jirga in June.

I think we should bear in mind, though, that it's not just the ISI structure as such. One of the former heads of the ISI, Gen. Mohammad Aziz is now the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff in Pakistan. Gen. Musharraf encouraging the armed forces has not purged him, and yet he is one that has been connected very closely with the creation of the Harakat, the group that Mr. Sheikh has been connected with.

So it's a whole group, who are some of them in the ISI, some of them have been purged of the ISI, some of them are in the armed forces itself, holdovers from the Zia period, who have basically an anti-Indian objective, and these Islamic groups are just the shock troops.

MCEDWARDS: Well, and Selig, is there disagreement among all of those groups as well?

HARRISON: No. I would say that you take Gen. Hamid Gul, who is the retired head of the ISI, and Gen. Mohammad Aziz who is now chairman of the joints chief of staff, and many people down the line, up and down the structure, whom one could talk to. In earlier days, you could get into this situation much more easily in the past than you can now, because things are so hot.

There is no question that they all think in pretty much the same way. They're not essentially Islamic extremists themselves. They're sympathizers upon Islamic views in a vague sort of way. But their basic agenda is anti-Indian, and that's what is so troublesome now, because as the United States government has been indicating in the last couple of days, the danger of another war between India and Pakistan is still a very serious problem, and Pakistan's role in Kashmir is the provocation that could lead to that.

MCEDWARDS: Right. Peter Bergen, as you've pointed out, there's been an obvious change in policy within the Pakistani government, and I'm wondering your thoughts on how risk you think this is, for Gen. Musharraf to be in a sense taking on the ISI.

BERGEN: I think the risk for Gen. Musharraf are the following. You know, on the subject of Kashmir, no Pakistani politician can be seen to be, you know, in any way taking a sort of soft stand.

So if people interpret some of these moves as being sort of deflationary in terms of the Kashmir cause, that's a problem.

But I think as a general proposition, Musharraf seems to be making these changes without really any people within the army or demonstrations on the streets. It seems to be happening fairly straightforwardly.

I think one of these interesting things is, all of these groups that we've heard about, army of Mohammad Harakat al-Mujahidin, Harakat al-Ansar, they're all essentially the same set of groups. For a long time, the Pakistani government said yes, we give these groups diplomatic and sort of moral support.

Western diplomats in Pakistan always said that the government in fact gave these groups military support and some form of intelligence. And the proof of that is that the Kargil operation, which was an insurge into Indian-held Kashmir in 1999, was a joint operation by the Pakistani army and these militant groups.

So there are these links. They have existed, and it is simply a fact, whether ISI or however you want to call which part of the operation is doing it, it is an army operation which is linked to these militants.

MCEDWARDS: Right. We're going to have to leave it there, gentlemen.

Peter Bergen, Selig Harrison -- thank you both. Appreciate it.

And there is much more Q&A coming up in just a few hours. That's with Jim Clancy at 20:30 GMT.

And that's it for this edition of Q&A. I'm Colleen McEdwards at CNN Center.


2002 Cable News Network LP, LLLP.

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