The indictment has explosive implications because Washington and Islamabad are struggling to preserve their fragile relationship. The ISI has long been suspected of secretly aiding terrorist groups while serving as a U.S. ally in the terrorism fight.The discovery that bin Laden spent years in a fortresslike compound surrounded by military facilities in Abbottabad has heightened those suspicions and reinforced the accusations that the ISI was involved in the attacks that killed 166 people in Mumbai.
“It’s very, very troubling,” said Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees funding of the Justice Department. Wolf has closely followed the Mumbai case and wants an independent study group to review South Asia policy top to bottom.
“Keep in mind that we’ve given billions of dollars to the Pakistani government,” he said. “In light of what’s taken place with bin Laden, the whole issue raises serious problems and questions.”
Three chiefs of Lashkar-i-Taiba, the Pakistani terrorist group, were also indicted in Chicago. They include Sajid Mir, a suspected Mumbai mastermind whose voice was caught on tape directing the three-day slaughter by phone from Pakistan. Mir, too, has ISI links. He remains at large along with the suspected ISI major and half a dozen other top suspects.
Despite the unprecedented terrorism charges implicating a Pakistani officer, the Justice Department and other agencies did not issue news releases, hold a news conference or make any comments when the indictment was issued. The 33-page document names the suspect only as “Major Iqbal.” It does not mention the ISI, although Iqbal’s affiliation to the spy agency has been detailed in U.S. and Indian case files and by anti-terrorism officials in interviews with ProPublica over the past year.
“Obviously there has been a push to be low-key,” said an Obama administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the pending trial.
The first public airing of the ISI’s alleged involvement in the Mumbai attack will begin May 16 with the trial of Tahawwur Rana, owner of a Chicago immigration consulting firm. Rana was arrested in 2009 and charged with material support of terrorism in the same case in which the four suspects were indicted. 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.
Rana’s attorney, Charles Swift, contends that Rana is not a terrorist because he thought he was assisting the ISI with an espionage operation. Swift said the U.S. indictment omits the ISI in hopes of mitigating tensions.