Seymour Hersh’s sensational 10,000 word report on the Abbottabad raid was met by most analysts, including this humble blogger, with something of a smirk. While he described the official version of events as a story that “might have been written by Lewis Carroll”, his tale itself seemed to be filled with deep rabbit holes. However, things began to quickly take a turn as additional sources from the shadowy world of spy agencies began to confirm portions of his story. First came NBC News report that said that “a special operations officer and a CIA officer who had served in Pakistan…and a third source, a very senior former U.S. intelligence official” all confirmed that “a retired Pakistani military intelligence officer” helped the CIA track down Osama bin Laden and that “some officials in the Pakistani government knew where bin Laden was hiding all along”. Then came a second report where investigative journalist Carlotta Gall said that this part of Hersh’s report was also in line with what she was told during her research in Pakistan:
I learned from a high-level member of the Pakistani intelligence service that the ISI had been hiding Bin Laden and ran a desk specifically to handle him as an intelligence asset. After the book came out, I learned more: that it was indeed a Pakistani Army brigadier — all the senior officers of the ISI are in the military — who told the C.I.A. where Bin Laden was hiding, and that Bin Laden was living there with the knowledge and protection of the ISI.
I will not pretend to have any insights into this. Like everyone else, I am watching the story unfold before my eyes. There is one thing that has captured my curiosity, though. In dismissing Seymour Hersh’s report, many analysts both in Pakistan and abroad, criticised the reporter for relying so heavily on former DG-ISI Gen Duranni. He retired from service 20 years ago, they explained. He may be good at getting himself on TV, but he’s not privy to such details of covert operations. Now, though, it’s not just Seymour Hersh whose story is being confirmed, it’s Gen Durrani’s.
It is true that Gen Durrani officially retired decades ago, but is an ISI man every really retired? For years there have been rumours of a secret “unofficial” wing of ISI made up of retired officers who remain active in covert media operations and providing support for mujahideen. Their “retirement” would allow them to carry out their operations while providing the ISI with “plausible deniability” should their actions ever come to light. A perfect example of this was the response of another former DG-ISI Hamid Gul in his response to Wikileaks allegations about his support for Taliban and al Qaeda:
Gul, who served as director general of ISI from 1986 to 1989, had worked closely with the Central Intelligence Agency in organizing a covert war against the former Soviet Union forces in Afghanistan. Gul likes to call himself a “Muslim visionary” and has remained actively involved with Pakistani radical Islamic movements and Afghan Mujahideen leaders such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar since his retirement from the army in 1991. He has been a strong critic of America since then.
Gul now lives in a high-security neighborhood in Rawalpindi, which is also the headquarters of the Pakistan army. “I am their favorite whipping boy and it is not the first time that such a allegations are made against me,” he said. “It is almost two decades since I am retired from the ISI, but they keep accusing me for everything.”
When Difa-e-Pakistan Council was activated, a group believed by many to have the backing of ISI (if not being an outright creation of the agency), Hamid Gul was on stage every step of the way. It was explained that he was acting in his own right as a private citizen. In 2008, a group of Army Generals gathered in Islamabad to support jihad. The occasion was Kashmir Solidarity Day, and the attendees included:
- General Mirza Aslam Beg
- General Faiz Ali Chishti
- General Hameed Gul
- General Jamshaid Gulzar Kiyani
- General Asad Durrani
- General Sardar Anwar Khan
- General Abdul Qayyum
- General Ali Quli Khan
They, too, were explained to be acting in their own rights as private citizens and not any official capacity.
Newspapers and electronic media are filled with “retired” Army officers and ISI men who warn us against criticising the military and seem to know the official line before even the officials do. This does not even get into the murky world of fake news sites used to promote certain narratives, or “retired” officers who are appointed as “advisors” for friendly governments.
A few months before Seymour Hersh’s report caught the attention of the world, a former DG ISI was telling exactly the same story. It’s not hard to assume that he had already been contacted by the American reporter and knew that the story was going to break. It’s also not hard to believe that he was then activated to “manage” these revelations, making sure that they showed the ISI in the best possible light. To do this, he would need to know some details. It would be a difficult task for an old man who was entering his third decade of retirement and had been disconnected from his old agency for so long. Of course, Gen Durrani has done his job masterfully. Maybe because he was never really retired after all? And if this is the case, what does that mean about the activities of others like Aslam Beg and Hamid Gul? As details the begin to unfold, rumours about ISI protecting Osama bin Laden aren’t the only ones that ring true…