Praveen Swami

“U.S. intelligence intercepted communications between Pakistani spies and terrorists”

NEW DELHI: Evidence exists to support claims that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence assisted last month’s bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul, The New York Times has reported.

Government officials told the Times that their “conclusion was based on intercepted communications between Pakistani intelligence officers and militants who carried out the attack.” Both India and Afghanistan had earlier blamed the ISI for sponsoring the attack. Afghanistan later pulled out of talks with Pakistan, pointing to its continued support for Islamist terror groups.

News that the U.S. possessed communications intelligence on the Kabul bombing was first broken by The Hindu last month.

Afghanistan’s Riyast-e-Amniyat-i-Milli, the U.S.’ Central Intelligence Agency and India’s RAW provided separate precision warnings on an imminent attack on the Indian mission. Embassy security staff were therefore able to erect defensive fortifications without which the entire building would most likely have been destroyed.

Senior U.S. officials at first denied the existence of proof to support Indian claims of ISI involvement in the attacks. “I haven’t seen any evidence or proof that foreign agents were involved,” Defence Secretary Robert Gates said on July 10.

However, the Times reported earlier this week that a top CIA official travelled to Pakistan to confront officials with evidence of the ISI’s continued support of terrorism. CIA deputy director Stephen R. Kappes carried with him a large mass of evidence, including the available communications intelligence on the Kabul bombing.

U.S. President George Bush is also believed to have confronted Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani on the ISI’s support for terrorism during their recent meeting. President Bush also complained that tactical intelligence provided by the U.S. to Pakistan was being leaked by ISI elements to terrorists. Before his visit to the U.S., Mr. Gilani issued orders placing the ISI under the control of the Interior Ministry, but backed down under pressure from the Pakistan Army.

Government officials who spoke to the Times said the ISI officers whose conversations with terrorists had been intercepted “had not been renegades,” suggesting that the Kabul bombing was authorised by the organisation. “It confirmed some suspicions that I think were widely held,” one State Department official told the Times of the intercepted communications. “There was a sense,” he said, “that there was finally direct proof.”

Given that the ISI director is a three-star Army general, this would imply that the attack on the Indian embassy was endorsed by Pakistan’s strategic establishment.

Multiple warnings

Afghanistan’s RAM first notified India that an attack was imminent on June 23. Based on source reports and communications intelligence, RAM said Pakistan’s ISI had instructed Afghanistan-based jihadists to target the Indian mission. Its report said terrorists linked to Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani planned to stage a fidayeen assault on the mission. RAM’s head of diplomatic security, spent three nights camped at the embassy, working to put counter-measures in place.

India’s RAW corroborated the Afghan warning three days after RAM’s report. Based on communications intelligence and informants’ reports, RAW said the attack would most likely be carried out using a Toyota suburban utility vehicle.

New information

Less than a week before the bombing, U.S. intelligence personnel monitoring terrorist communications in Afghanistan obtained new information on the attack. Plans to execute a fidayeen strike, they learned, had been dropped.

Instead, a car-bomb was being prepared. Government sources said this last warning was accurate down to the last detail, even asserting that the vehicle would have a Kabul licence plate.

Pakistan’s covert services, India believes, have sponsored several past attacks on New Delhi’s diplomatic facilities in Afghanistan.

In August, 2006, for example, evidence surfaced linking a planned bombing of the Indian ambassador’s resident in Kabul to the ISI and Lashkar-e-Taiba. Lashkar-linked Pakistani national Zahir Shinwari Shinwari and Afghan police officer Sher Agha, investigators discovered, had been tasked by the ISI to execute the attack.

More attacks likely

Afghan authorities say the ISI continues to plan offensive operations against India. In a statement issued on Friday, Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security warned that the ISI is “determined to hamper the activities of Indian companies in various parts of Afghanistan.”

It said the feared covert service had some 3,000 terrorists, most of them foreigners, under sabotage training to attack Indian construction projects inside Afghanistan.

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