‘Indictment could put fresh strains in U.S.-Pakistan ties'

It may be a while before the world knows if Pakistan's Inter- Services Intelligence (ISI) had any role in sheltering Osama bin Laden but allegations of its involvement in terrorism will be made public at the Chicago trial of the 2008 Mumbai attacks to be held from May 16. This could put fresh strains in U.S.-Pakistan ties, a media report said here on Sunday.

Noting that federal prosecutors last week quietly charged a suspected ISI major with helping to plot the murder of six Americans in the 26/11 attacks that killed 166 people, investigative journalist Sebastian Rotella wrote in The Washington Post that the indictment had explosive implications because the U.S. and Pakistan are struggling to preserve their fragile relationship.

Observing that the ISI had long been suspected of secretly aiding terrorist groups while serving as a U.S. ally in the fight against terror, The Post said the discovery that the slain al-Qaeda leader spent years in a fortress-like compound surrounded by military facilities in Abbottabad heightened those suspicions and reinforced the accusations that the Pakistani spy agency was involved in the Mumbai attacks.

“It's very, very troubling,” Congressman Frank Wolf, Chairman of the House Appropriations sub-committee that oversees funding of the Justice Department, was quoted as saying by the daily. “Keep in mind that we've given billions of dollars to the Pakistani government.”

“In light of what's taken place with bin Laden, the whole issue raises serious problems and questions.”

While the 33-page indictment in the Mumbai attacks names the suspect only as “Major Iqbal” and does not mention the ISI, Iqbal's affiliation to the spy agency has been detailed in U.S. and Indian case files.

“The first public airing of the ISI's alleged involvement in the Mumbai attack will begin on May 16 with the trial of [Pakistani-Canadian] Tahawwur [Hussain] Rana, owner of a Chicago immigration consulting firm,” the article said.

Rana was arrested in 2009 and charged with material support to terrorism in the same case in which four suspects were indicted last week.

“The star witness will be David Coleman Headley, a Pakistani-American businessman-turned-militant who has pleaded guilty to scouting targets in India and Denmark. Rana allegedly helped Headley use his firm as a cover for reconnaissance,” the report said.

Headley trained in Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) camps before being recruited in 2006 by ISI officer Major Samir Ali, who referred him to Iqbal in Lahore, it said.

Iqbal became Headley's handler, introducing him to a “Lt. Col. Shah” and giving him months of spy training before deploying him to India, according to the Indian report, which officials say repeats Headley's confessions to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Headley, the federal prosecutors said, was associated with the LeT and attended its training camps in Pakistan which began in or around February 2002, August 2002, April 2003, August 2003 and December 2003.

Headley assisted senior LeT men in planning and preparing for terrorist attacks.

Now languishing in a Chicago jail, Headley has bargained with the U.S. authorities that in exchange for his guilty plea he would not be extradited to India and would not face the death penalty.