Did much of the US reward money from the capture of Osama bin Laden find its way back to Al-Qaeda? Antony Loewenstein reports from Pakistan, one of the most dangerous, militarised and confusing countries in the world.
The past decade has seen a significant increase in foreign investments in the private security market around the Middle East. Pakistan is one of the countries that attracted the most attention in this global mercenary business.
The American killing of Osama bin Laden last year in Abbottabad still resonates across Pakistan. Newspapers are filled with establishment outrage that Washington has treated the country like an abused cousin for too long. “Give us some respect,” military and government figures opine on the airwaves. “We are an independent nation that won’t tolerate drone attacks and extra-judicial killings,” commentators scream on the radio.
It’s all an elaborate sham. Front page stories in leading publications explain that President Asif Ali Zardari is attempting to negotiate a better deal to allow supply lines that service American troops in Afghanistan through Pakistan to be reopened. This, after they were severed in November when US airstrikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. There has been fierce opposition to this proposal, including on the part of leading Muslim groups who want to keep America isolated.
However, a leading national security journalist in Karachi told me that 90 per cent of the supply lines never stopped and journalists in the mainstream media were knowingly publishing lies that the routes had been closed. “This is how our media operates,” he said, “the truth is rarely clear.”
A Broken Country
The private security industry is integral to this equation, inflaming a militarised and unaccountable situation and providing vital surveillance to a heavily monitored state. Pakistan, more than 10 years after 11 September 2001, is a broken country. Militants are eating their host, launching attacks inside the country and neighbouring Afghanistan, and demanding the overthrow of the central government.
The ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) is effectively a state within a state, often accused of detaining, kidnapping, and killing journalists at will.
I spoke exclusively to some of Pakistan’s leading reporters in Karachi, Islamabad, Rawalpindi, and Peshawar to understand how Pakistan remains, as writer Ahmed Rashid calls his latest book, “on the brink.”
The private security industry is integral to this equation, inflaming a militarised and unaccountable situation and providing vital surveillance to a heavily monitored state.
Shaukat Qadir, a retired Pakistani Army Brigadier close to the country’s political and intelligence establishment, has been at the centre of these discussions for years. He was given official permission in 2011 to visit the bin Laden’s house in Abbottabad and interview some of the key players in the Pakistani government and intelligence in an attempt to understand how the world’s most infamous fugitive was able to live in supposed hiding for so long.
Qadir said in Rawalpindi that he believed only a few ISI and Pakistani officials knew the whereabouts of bin Laden before his death. “I refuse to believe it was due to incompetence or complicity,” he argued.
Qadir, 65, discovered in his research that the Americans, despite claiming otherwise, had no idea where bin Laden was hiding and weren’t watching his house for a long time.
“Bin Laden had become a liability, embarrassment, and distraction for Al-Qaeda and they wanted to make a fresh start or at least re-brand,” he said, suggesting the leader had been forcefully retired in 2003 due to growing dementia.
The most explosive allegation was that one of bin Laden’s wives eventually sold him out as a way to share in the US$25 million reward money. There was intense rivalry amongst bin Laden’s wives — some of whom are soon to be deported from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia and Yemen. But Qadir didn’t know if that reward had been paid. He’d heard that al-Qaeda, “who were totally broke before this,” had received – not directly from the US though Qadir claimed without hard proof that Washington had unwittingly paid al-Qaeda this money – about US$12 million and his wife US$1.5 million.
Asked constantly if he was sure of his allegations, Qadir wouldn’t confirm them, but some of the allegations were certainly plausible. His connections in Pakistan’s military and intelligence are impeccable and, in place of anything more substantive, or a thorough and believable Pakistani-led investigation, Qadir’s report stands as a damning indictment of the country’s shadow state that operates above the rule of law and accountability of the parliament.
The years since 9/11 have brought Pakistan instability and mass carnage. An official from MQM, Pakistan’s third biggest political party, said that after the attacks in New York and Washington, “the nation had no choice, under President Musharraf, but to back the US. If not, we would have been attacked”.
This may be true but the effect of the conflict within its own borders and Afghanistan has been a disturbing war against free speech and outspoken journalists. The expansion in private mercenaries has supported a conflict that many told me they didn’t really want but billions of American dollars helped convince any official waverers.
Apart from the ISI, private security companies are another state within the state. I had been given exclusive access to a list of 62 retired former military men who joined private security companies in the last years.
Qadir claimed Washington had unwittingly paid al-Qaeda about US$12 million. Sources say that at least half of these men had been arrested and then released for corruption and working for the Americans. Although it was an open secret that many Pakistani officials worked with the US, these men were targeted briefly for pushing the murky rules too far.
The most revealing company name on the list was G4S Wackenhut Pakistan. G4S is a British-based behemoth in the industry with a troubling human rights record. Its presence in countless countries is ubiquitous and it remains the world’s largest security firm on revenues, operating in 125 nations and employing over 650,000 people. Countless men in G4S uniforms are employed across the country.
In Islamabad the G4S manager, retired from the air force, is Muhammad Alamgir Khan. “I wasn’t really working before [in the army],” he said, “but now I’m working for G4S. Army is a way of life.”
Discussing human rights, Khan said, “You love independent media, judiciary, and government until you’re in government and then it’s a problem.” Throughout the two-hour meeting, the term “human rights” were regularly brought up.
The real reason for the expansion in companies such as G4S in Pakistan was revealed in a succinct comment. “If direct foreign investment doesn’t come to Pakistan, the economy fails. Private security helps protect these investments,” Khan argued.
As the security situation across the nation deteriorated, private interests needed protection from militant forces that elements of the state still supported.
In many nations since September 11, private security companies have often replaced functions of the state. In Pakistan, however, the government uses former military personnel to work for private security companies, giving them unique access to intelligence. The war economy fuels an elite group of companies and individuals determined to make money from political instability.
Journalists rarely report on this deep collusion between intelligence, private security, and the state because they face the threat of death or assault. According to the Committee to Project Journalists, Pakistan is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to practice reporting in. I met a number of print, TV, and online reporters who recounted stories of official harassment, kidnapping, ISI threats, and torture. Officials are never held to account for these actions.
G4S presence in countless countries is ubiquitous and it remains the world’s largest security firm on revenues, operating in 125 nations and employing over 650,000 people. Hamid Mir is arguably Pakistan’s most famous talk show host and journalist. He works for Geo TV and hosts “Capital Talk.” In his mid-40s and slightly pudgy with a bushy black moustache, his office in Islamabad was a stuffy large room with bare walls and four TV sets playing various local channels.
Mir has interviewed bin Laden three times, including once after 9/11. He is the only journalist known to have spoken to the Al-Qaeda leader after the attacks.
Mir has been the victim of countless ISI attacks and kidnappings, loved and loathed at various times by the Pakistani government, Taliban, and militants. He has sent his son out of the country to ensure his safety. He takes big risks by naming and shaming ISI officials who threaten him and other journalists. Very few other people follow his lead.
He claimed recently that Zardari called him personally and asked him to stop criticising some military figures. He refused. Zardari then urged him to organise more security for his protection and use state-provided services. Mir said he didn’t trust them but he had arranged a guard to accompany him day and night. “Zardari is only the president in the papers,” Mir stated, asserting that the real power in Pakistan lies with the military and intelligence services.
When asked about the role of private security and intelligence he reached for his copy of the Pakistani constitution; clause 256 states, “Private armies forbidden.” Mir said they operated far more frequently in past years, mostly former military men out to make more money in the private sector, but less often today.
The Pakistan government’s war against its journalists isn’t just directed at men. Women are often the silent victims of the conflict though few have a platform like “Miriam” (not her real name) who hosts a popular talk-show.
She told of being hassled by the ISI for criticising the intelligence services too forcefully on her program. She initially didn’t take the threats seriously until being warned by close associates that she could no longer ignore them. She has never been told the exact nature of the complaints against her but her life has now changed profoundly. She is not the free woman she was only a few months ago and her movements must be carefully considered.
“If direct foreign investment doesn’t come to Pakistan, the economy fails. Private security helps protect these investments.” Leading investigative journalist Umar Cheema explained in Islamabad that this limbo was exactly what the authorities wanted. Having been himself kidnapped and tortured by the ISI in 2010, Cheema said the ISI wanted to instil fear in anybody who challenged its behaviour and wanted individuals to believe they could be reached, harassed, or hurt no matter where they are.
These stories were sadly familiar. If they were given a degree of protection because of their fame – this didn’t save Syed Saleem Shahzad who was murdered allegedly by the ISI last year, because he had uncovered a connection between al-Qaeda and the Pakistan Army – such comforts were not shared by Syed Fakhar KaKaKhel, based in Peshawar near the Afghan border.
Peshawar is an edgy city with suicide bombings every other week, most women wear burkas and men have bushy beards. It is a world away from the relative liberalism of Islamabad only a few hours away.
Fakhar’s knowledge about FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] was immense, having spent time in the various regions. He believed that the vast bulk of the violence that was currently bedevilling Pakistan was a reaction to American actions post 9/11. He didn’t subscribe to the clash of civilisations narrative. “Not all the Taliban are the same,” he explained.
Fakhar’s outlook on the ISI was based around pragmatism. He wasn’t blind to the brutality of some Taliban toward apparent enemies or “infidels.” There was no romanticising but he saw them as a product of circumstances created by outside forces in the West and inside Pakistan. His journalism was grassroots, keeping connected to the various people in the regions.
He explained to me that he didn’t fear for his life but he could only be an independent reporter these days because so much of the mainstream media refused to tell the truth about the role of the ISI in empowering the very elements that were destabilising the state.
Miriam didn’t take the threats seriously until being warned by close associates that she could no longer ignore them. The resentment toward foreign influence was palpable in Peshawar. The compound of Khyber News Bureau is a sprawling safe house allegedly once used by the American mercenary company Blackwater until the expulsion from Pakistan of CIA agent and Blackwater employee Raymond Davis in 2011. It was one of up to 70 such private security compounds in the area before 2011, according to Fakhar.
There were also credible, although impossible to verify, allegations by a senior government official in Peshawar of Blackwater activity in the tribal area between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The firm was both collecting intelligence on suspected militants and operating with the CIA and US Special Forces.
The presence of Western security companies in Pakistan was unwelcome. Fakhar asked if private security was needed why locals weren’t employed, who understood the area and spoke the language, rather than Westerners who looked foreign, couldn’t converse, and wouldn’t know the latest intelligence because they’d have to rely on others to provide it for them.
When a company such as G4S operates in the country under the guise of providing security for key institutions or individuals, it creates an industry that is self-perpetuating. Instability is growing and G4S will protect you the thinking goes. But instability is worsening because companies such as G4S often operate outside the law and hire guards with little training. The war economy therefore expands and a select few individuals are turning a profit due to the actions of colleagues in the ISI, some of whom back the very militants private security is meant to repel.
The confusing agendas of competing forces in Pakistan have contributed to a culture where “red lines” are constantly shifting for commentators and reporters. Journalists, who report on Waziristan, the area suffering US drone bombardment, face some of the toughest conditions.
This is the enigma of Pakistan. It is a nuclear-armed nation which is seemingly always on the verge of collapse due to both a desperate need for American money and its need to secure its regional position against India and Afghanistan. The result is a quasi-police state, backed by private security, silencing critics of its politics of capitulation toward militants and Washington. Courageous journalists and human rights activist are lone voices of dissent.
Over a decade of manoeuvring has left the state divided by ethnic tensions, insurgent activity, corruption, and self-censorship. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have compounded the problem by treating the nation as little more than a testing ground for new weapons against supposed terrorists. Tragically, civilians have borne the brunt of the onslaught and turned the country into a cauldron of poverty, resentment, elite disdain, and silence.
That’s the “war on terror’s” legacy.
This story was originally published in Al-Akhbar and has been republished with the author’s permission.