How far does the ISI money go? Quite far, for sure
by Ramtanu Maitra on 17 Dec 2011 15 Comments
The Week magazine, based in Kerala, India, came out recently with a comprehensive report on the
massive arms seizure in Chittagong, Bangladesh, in 2004 made by two Bangladeshi policemen. The Week claimed it had unearthed official records on the case in India and Bangladesh, and that it had exclusive access to the 3,500-page Chittagong case diary.

Subsequently, a four-member team of the Bangladesh army's ordnance branch that investigated the arms haul confirmed that all 10 truckloads of arms and ammunition seized were manufactured in China by NORINCO, a state-owned arms manufacturer. The seized consignment, which included 1,290 submachine guns, 400 semi-automatic guns, 400 Thompson submachine guns, 150 rocket launchers, 2,000 grenade-launching tubes, 840 rockets, 24,996 hand-grenades and 11,40,520 bullets, was the largest arms haul in Bangladesh's history.

A Hornet’s Nest

No question, it was a major consignment, and it was designed to supply to various secessionist and terrorist groups then operating in some of India’s northeastern states bordering at least two weakly governed nations — Bangladesh and Myanmar. In 2004, the year this huge consignment landed in Chittagong, Bangladesh was governed by the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), led by Begum Khaleda Zia. Originally formed by the anti-India and pro-Pakistan Bangladesh military, the BNP went about setting up a covert presence of Pakistani elements in Bangladesh to counter any effort by New Delhi to “grab” Bangladesh.

What could have been merely a bit of paranoia within a powerful section of the Bangladeshi military was exploited well by both Pakistan and the British-Saudi nexus. For her part, Begum Khaleda, a political novice when she took over leadership of the party in the 1980s, leaned heavily on the shoulders of the pro-Islamist and pro-Pakistan military faction. As a result, money started pouring in from Saudi Arabia; Britain sent the jihadi organizers; and the Pakistan ISI set up its base to train the jihadis to help Begum Khaleda stay in power, assassinate the pro-India and anti-jihadi elements, and maintain the terrorists and secessionists operating within some of India’s northeastern states.

An opportunist at best, Begum Khaleda was using the jihadis and the ISI to stay in power and keep her more formidable political opponent, Sheikh Hasina Wazed, the present prime minister and daughter of Bangladesh’s founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, at bay. But as so often happens, by deriving her political power from these noxious support groups, Begum Khaleda became part and parcel of the militant elements, controlled mostly from Islamabad, London and Riyadh.

In January 2005, a Bangladeshi human rights group claimed that 31 Islamic militant outfits were operating at the time in the country targeting non-Muslims and seeking to establish a “greater Islamic nation” that also included parts of some adjacent Indian states. The Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) was the youth front of Al Mujahideen, the parent organization that began working in the mid-1990s. Other organizations, such as Jama’atul Jihad, Ahle Hadith Andolan Bangladesh (AHAB), Ahle Hadith Jubo Shangha, Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB), Harkat-ul-Jehad-al-Islami (HuJI), Hizbut Tahrir, Tawhidi Janata, Islami Jubo Shangha, Islami Shangha, Al Falah A’am Unnayan Shanstha and Shahadat-e al Hiqma were functioning under the wide umbrella of the Al Mujahideen network.

Their activities were mostly funded by the Saudis and the Pakistan ISI. While the Saudi source of money was its vast pool of oil, it was always a question how the ISI could get such unlimited funds. Nonetheless, it was evident that the funding was enough to maintain these jihadi groups, whose intent was to “Talibanize” Bangladesh with the blessings of Khaleda Zia’s BNP.

The money was also used to corrupt powerful individuals and pay off those who were playing ball with them. For instance, according to The Week’s report, the Chittagong case diary shows that the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), which is Bangladesh’s military intelligence agency, was penetrated by the ISI to the extent that its then-director, Maj.-Gen. (retd) Rezzakul Haider Chowdhury, was an ISI mole. Chowdhury was later promoted to the powerful post of Chief of Bangladesh’s National Security Intelligence (NSI), Bangladesh’s chief civilian intelligence agency. The NSI, too, was penetrated by the ISI; and its then-chief, Brig.-Gen. (retd) Abdur Rahim, who reported directly to the prime minister like the DGFI chief, was discreetly working for the ISI.

The Long Reach of the ISI

That is just one example of how far ISI money travels. Here is another story, one that took place on the other side of the globe. On Dec. 7, Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai acknowledged receiving funding from the Pakistan government, as well as committing tax violations, according to court documents filed in US District Court in Alexandria. Fai faces up to eight years in prison. A sentencing hearing is scheduled for March 9, the Washington Post reported on Dec.8.

Since approximately 1990, US prosecutors charge, Fai has received at least $3.5 million from the government of Pakistan, including its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, but he has failed to report the origin of that funding as required by law. “For the last 20 years, Mr. Fai secretly took millions of dollars from Pakistan intelligence and lied about it to the US government,” US Attorney Neil MacBride said in a statement. “As a paid operative of ISI, he did the bidding of his handlers in Pakistan while he met with US elected officials, funded high-profile conferences, and promoted the Kashmiri cause to decision-makers in Washington.”

What is interesting to note is that Fai has an India connection. He offered junkets to some of India’s foreign policy experts to speak at his forums, not for money perhaps, but to get valuable face-time in the West. Although it was known to most that Fai used to urge American lawmakers, a few of whom were beneficiaries of his contributions, to malign India for its alleged draconian policies in the Kashmir Valley — in fact, mere 10-minute discussion with Fai would reveal that he wanted India out of Kashmir — these knowledgeable experts just could not figure Fai out.

Are these middle-aged, or aged, elite really babes in the wood? It is difficult to believe that. Take, for instance, the case of Dileep Padgaonkar. When he was editor of the Times of India, he was, in his own words, the second-most-powerful individual in India after the prime minister. Since he is not known as a body-builder, one has to assume that he was referring to the power he derives from his knowledge of things.

Another such individual is Radha Kumar, the lady who protests too much. A professor with Jamia Millia in New Delhi, she reportedly submitted a letter to India’s Home Minister P. Chidambaram protesting remarks made by an individual about her attending a European Parliament conference organized by the Tramboo Centre in 2006 in Brussels. The Centre is run by Abdul Majeed Tramboo, a barrister and a Kashmiri from the Valley who has a strong association with the Pakistani establishment, ISI, and Ghulam Nabi Fai. Kumar says she has not taken any financial remuneration for functioning as the Centre's interlocutor of Kashmir. It could be true that Radha Kumar was not taking money; but that implies that she was swallowing hook, line and sinker whatever anti-India propaganda dished out to her.

Then there are others, such as Justice Rajinder Sachar, author of the famous Sachar Committee Report on the state of Indian Muslims; Harish Khare, media adviser to the prime minister; Rita Manchanda, the India/Pakistan Local Partner for Women Waging Peace; Ved Bhasin, editor, Kashmir Times; Harinder Baweja, editor (investigations) Headlines Today; Gautam Navlakha and Professor Kamal Mitra Chenoy, human rights activists; and, Praful Bidwai, well-known columnist — all lighted up the list of Indians that Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai had in his well-endowed list of eminent Indian speakers.

What is somewhat depressing, but not at all surprising, is that Padgaonkar and Radha Kumar were selected as members of a panel of interlocutors on Kashmir. It is not surprising because they were picked by Home Minister P. Chidambaram, whose personal integrity is in tatters following the revelation that he was on ‘in the know’ in the massive 2G scam that has made the ruling UPA government a body of scorn for hundreds of millions of Indians. It is depressing because it leads one to believe that Chidambaram wanted to have Fai’s input in the interlocution. That does not seem right, but that is the way it was.


ISI Blood Money

While Ghulam Nabi Fai was getting his money from the ISI to influence American lawmakers and bring in some “stars” from India to propagate his analysis of the Kashmir situation, where was the ISI getting its unlimited money for covert actions? Those with even a faint knowledge of international intelligence agencies, and the ISI, know very well that such huge volumes of funds come from drugs and other illicit activities. ISI has been getting a chunk of money for decades from the Afghan opium trade and letting precursors refine opium to heroin that travels from Pakistan to Afghanistan. The agency gets money, as the Chittagong arms case proves, from arms smuggling, as well.

In June 2006, the Kolkata-based Bengali news magazine Desh put together a comprehensive picture of the Kolkata-based terrorist networks’ linkages with Dawood Ibrahim, ISI and the BNP led by Begum Khaleda Zia. While Dawood is merely an underground criminal, handling drugs and guns and being controlled by foreign intelligence agencies operating out of Dubai and elsewhere, ISI and the BNP were working on a grand design to wipe out any Bangladeshi leader who would develop friendly relations with India. For this reason, a number of assassinations were attempted over the years against the present Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina Wazed. Sheikh Hasina opposes extremist Islamic rule in Bangladesh and wants her country to become integrated with its neighbors, such as India, Nepal, Myanmar and Bhutan. None of these regional nations have any love lost for Islamic jihadis.

The Desh report reveals how vulnerable West Bengal had become under the CPI (M) Raj to international terrorists bent on hurting India. The report points to a 1999 plot to assassinate Sheikh Hasina that was hatched in Kolkata. Indian intelligence, working in league with their Bangladeshi counterparts foiled the plan. These sleuths followed the tracks and froze the bank transfer of cash, which, had it gone through, would have triggered LTTE suicide bombers into action to kill Sheikh Hasina.

These facts could hurt the feelings of some Indian elite who carry the banner of human rights in defending LTTE terrorists, but Desh said the group hatched the final plan at a meeting on June 6, 1999, at St. James Court Hotel in London. There a decision was taken to pay the LTTE, which had easy access into India, $10 million for their suicide bombers. The quid-pro-quo for the LTTE was that if Khaleda Zia came to power following the assassination, or even later, the LTTE would be granted the use of some of the islands off the Bangladesh coast for transit points for the drug-and-guns haul from Southeast Asia into Jaffna, in northern Sri Lanka.

The LTTE had previously used two islands (Qutubdia and Sonadia) as their drug-and-gun warehouses and safe houses. Their objective was to store their arms on these two islands for planned assaults in Sri Lanka, as well as to transfer them to other terror groups in India. According to Desh, the London meeting was attended, among others, by a well-known London-based radio broadcaster of Bangladeshi  origin who had taken part in the 1975 coup that killed Sheikh Mujib and most of his family; an Army officer; a former Pakistani Army officer and a front man for the ISI, Col. R.M. Ahsan, who owns Ahsan TradEx, a Karachi-based export-import firm; Lt. Col. Khondakar Abdur Rashid; and Lt. Col. S.H.M.B. Noor Chowdhury.

In other words, what Fai was getting — and using to arrange anti-India conferences to promote his and the ISI’s solution to the Kashmir issue — was not simply money from Pakistan’s treasury, but drug money and money that is paid for killing pro-India leaders. I hope India’s “babes in the wood” will be a little more careful next time around when the Fais and Tramboos of this world offer them spotlights in the West’s international conferences.

The author is South Asian Analyst at Executive Intelligence Review

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