Briefings on Sheikh, Atta and the ISI
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The claim that ISI chief Mahmoud Ahmad ordered Saeed Sheikh to wire $100,000 to Mohammed Atta is usually supported by references to stories in Pakistan’s Dawn magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and the AFP. But as we’ve seen elsewhere, these all place major reliance either on the original Times of India story, or unnamed Indian sources, not necessarily the people to offer an objective analysis of Pakistan or the ISI. That doesn’t mean they should be automatically dismissed, of course, just treated with caution, so with that in mind let’s take a look at other attempted confirmations that we’ve found.

This Daily Excelsior story, for instance, appears to offer more background to the story:

NEW DELHI: The US Administration has called for "quiet" investigations by America’s intelligence establishment in close cooperation with its allies outside the United States of a set of reports, all accusing Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of having played its role while facilitating the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

Even as Pakistan President and military ruler, Gen. Parvez Musharraf, has tried to divert Washington’s attention by sacking the ISI chief, Gen. Mehmood Ahmed, America’s FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) and CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) seem determined to investigate the allegations against the ISI.

The FBI investigators have come across what has been termed as the "most damaging evidence" vis-Ó-vis the former ISI chief’s connection with Omar Sheikh, the Pakistan-born British national, who was released by the Government of India along with Masood Azhar and Mushtaq Zargar towards the end of 1999 to seek the freedom of passengers of the hijacked plane of Indian Airlines at Kandahar in Afghanistan.

The FBI investigators are reported to have conceded that India’s inputs proved to be "vital". A highly-placed intelligence source told EXCELSIOR that the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) provided the critical lead, which was vigorously pursued by the FBI investigators in Pakistan for more than 10 days until the cat was out of the bag.

The critical lead, the source elaborated, was the cellphone number of Omar Sheikh. In the initial stages, America’s intelligence establishment was found having certain reservations on India’s inputs. The scenario changed after the RAW made available Omar Sheikh’s cellphone number-0300 94587772.

The FBI’s examination of the hard disk of the cellphone company Omar Sheikh had subscribed to led to the discovery of the "link" between him and the deposed chief of the Pakistani ISI, Gen. Mehmood Ahmed. And as the FBI investigators delved deep, sensational information surfaced with regard to the transfer of 100,000 dollars to Mohammed Atta, one of the Kamikaze pilots who flew his Boeing into the World Trade Centre. Gen. Mehmood Ahmed, the FBI investigators found, fully knew about the transfer of money to Atta...

The CIA as well as the FBI investigators, report said, had accepted Indian intelligence community’s inputs that it was with the full support of the former ISI chief (Gen. Mehmood Ahmed) that Omar Sheikh and Masood Azhar launched Jaish-e-Mohammed after the Kandahar hijacking episode. The FBI investigators, reports added, had also come across evidence with regard to the contact the two militants had developed with Osama bin Laden after their release...

Omar was seen in Karachi a fortnight before the September 11 strikes. America’s intelligence community as well as India’s RAW treat him as the "crucial link" in the probe into the September 11 attacks. He has gone underground since the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. Is he hiding in Afghanistan?

On the plus side, the inclusion of Sheikh’s phone number suggests the reporter has some inside knowledge. As is the naming of RAW, the section of Indian Intelligence supposedly involved in the investigation.

On the negative side, it’s hard to tell what the “hard disk of the cellphone company” will tell anyone. If we assume that’s shorthand for examining their records, it’s still unclear how these could prove that Ahmed “fully knew about the transfer of money to Atta”, nor does the story explain how this was determined. Keep in mind also that the Daily Excelsior describes itself as “THE LARGEST CIRCULATED DAILY OF JAMMU AND KASHMIR”, and so is particularly keen (even by Indian standards) to demonstrate Pakistani complicity in terrorism.

The Excelsior piece does make it worth reproducing part of another article, though, that otherwise might have been too dubious to mention. Not least because it comes from an article in the Bharat Rakshak Monitor, that’s apparently been “developed from a discussion conducted at the Bharat-Rakshak Forum”, appears to be written with the aim of blaming Pakistan for everything, and the key claims it contains of interest to us are unsourced. The first paragraph does provide more detail than we’ve seen so far, though:

[Wpost020216] and [TOI0208] report on Pakistani conduits for Al Qaeda funding. The “smoking-gun” accusation in the 9/11 investigation, however, is a cell-phone call allegedly from Pakistan ISI Chief, Lt. Gen. Mehmood Ahmed to terrorist Omar Shaikh Saeed, who then transferred $100,000 from a UAE bank to Mohammed Atta in Germany before the 9/11 attacks. The call was caught by Indian RAW (Research & Analysis Wing) agents monitoring Ahmed’s (or Saeed’s) cell phone, and shadowing Saeed in a bookstore in Karachi. 

[Mir020711] gives the transfer date in summer 2000, which fits later American / German reports [CNN020710] of the terrorists’ banking records, citing a $110K deposit as the earliest transaction – in 2000. On 9/10/2001, Atta and one of the other hijackers are reported to have wired the remainder of the money to the UAE (Atta reported to have wired $15,600), where Omar Shaikh is said to have collected it and returned to Pakistan immediately...

The first paragraph here tells us that the money was transferred to Atta in Germany, which is a new claim: previous information suggests the hijackers didn’t receive this level of financial support until after they arrived in the US. And this time it seems they’re hinting that the cell phone call was monitored as it happens: it could have been later, but talking of “shadowing Saeed in a bookstore” suggests a closer watch on events than we’ve seen previously. 

As we’ve mentioned, this is too unreliable a source to take as anything but someone’s hypothesis about what happened (and if it is sourced from an Indian intelligence report somewhere then there are still the reliability issues we’ve discussed before), but there is some support for one of the details elsewhere:

Sheikh is reported to have wired $100,000 to Mohammad Ata, leader of the terrorist cell that carried out the attacks, from Pakistan. The FBI has even traced the public telephone booth from where someone made three international calls to Ata's house in Hamburg, Germany.

It’s not explictly stated here, but placing the wire transfer and “calls to Atta’s house in Hamburg” in the same paragraph suggests the author is also saying the money was transferred to a German account. Do these calls, even if they occurred, necessarily show contact with Atta, though? Perhaps not. According to the official chronology at least, Atta was primarily in the US from June 2000, while his Hamburg apartment wasn’t “vacant” until February 2001, and was used by others:

Local and federal investigators and police have been poring over Mr. Atta's traces in Hamburg since the Federal Bureau of Investigation told them that Mr. Atta and two other Arab men in his circle were among the suspected hijackers...

His apartment, in a moldy yellow building at Marienstrasse 54, has been vacant since February. It has been repainted and stands empty, though the rent of 916.75 marks was paid each month, usually in cash.

Torsten Albrecht, the building's administrator, says Mr. Atta was ''a nice tenant.''

Neighbors say he was polite but kept to himself, that up to five other Arabs lived with him at different times and that they always left their shoes neatly outside the door.

Three men wanted as fugitives by German authorities were part of a terrorist cell in Hamburg with three of the Sept. 11 hijackers and helped plan the terror attacks on New York and Washington, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft said today.

Ashcroft said the fugitives – Said Bahaji, Ramzi Binalshibh and Zakariya Essabar – lived at various times in the same Hamburg apartment where three of the hijacking pilots also lived. The six were part of a terrorist cell that operated in that city since at least 1999, he said...
Ashcroft said Essabar went to Florida in February at a time when both Atta and al-Shehhi were known to be there; German authorities had said previously that Essabar failed in two attempts to get a U.S. visa in December 2000 and January 2001.

What’s the issue? Check the CooperativeResearch 9/11 timeline and you’ll see the “$100,000 funding from United Arab Emirates” placed as occurring between June 29th and September 18th 2000, after Atta had moved to the US and the hijackers had opened bank accounts there. Why, then, does one version of the story talk about transfers to Germany? It could be an early transfer that isn’t documented elsewhere (although if it is, you can forget using the UAE details to prove it’s Sheikh); it could be that the Bharat Rakshak Monitor claim is simply wrong, and the story didn’t mean to imply that the transfer occurred to Germany; but it could also be an example that at least parts of these Indian-sourced stories are false, with some of the detail proving less than reliable.

India wasn’t the only country reporting on this story, though. Amir Mir of Pakistan has also weighed in:

The murder of journalist Daniel Pearl in Karachi in 2002 was masterminded by Sheikh Omar Saeed, a double agent of the ISI and JeM who was previously involved in terrorist attacks on high-profile targets in India. Musharraf himself admitted that Pearl had been "over-intrusive" in his investigations. Saeed had foreknowledge of the September 11 terrorist strikes and immediately informed Lieutenant-General Ehsanul Haq, then ISI director and corps commander for Peshawar. Saeed's capture spurred ISI higher-ups to intervene and obstruct his interrogation findings from being made public. Holding him in an isolated cell "helps Musharraf keep a key witness out of American, British and Indian hands"...

Investigations into the September 11 plot revealed that ISI's then-head, hardliner pro-Taliban Lieutenant-General Mahmood Ahmad, ordered Sheikh Omar Saeed to wire US$100,000 to Mohammad Atta, the chief hijacker. In October 2001, Musharraf forced Ahmad into retirement after the FBI displayed credible evidence of his involvement in the terror attacks and knowledge that he was playing a "double game". So frustrated was the FBI with the calculated blockading of counter-terrorist operations by the ISI that it formed its own secret Spider Group of former Pakistani army and intelligence operatives to monitor fundamentalist activities through the length and breadth of Pakistan.

Unfortunately Mir doesn’t source his claim that Saeed Sheikh was ordered by Mahmoud Ahmad to send $100,000 to Atta, and so he may simply be referring to the original Times of India account. However, some of the additional details here, for example about his claimed foreknowledge of the attacks, also appear in another account of Sheik’s interrogation:

When the Karachi police took custody of Omar [Saeed Sheikh] from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) on February 12, he started talking to them freely and voluntarily about his activities since he was released by India in the last week of December, 1999, to terminate the hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane to Kandahar by the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM). This is what he said during interrogation:

“He had since then been functioning from Lahore with the knowledge and permission of the ISI. At Lahore, he was in regular touch with Gen Mohammad Aziz Khan, who was a Corps Commander there, till his appointment as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee on October 8, 2001. He was frequently travelling to Kandahar to meet Mulla Mohammad Omar, the Amir of the Taliban, and Osama bin Laden; and to Dubai.

“He had personally met Mohammad Atta, the mastermind of the September 11 terrorist strikes on the World Trade Centre in New York, during one of his visits to Kandahar and knew of the plans for the September 11 strikes. He had told Lt Gen Ehsanul-Haq, the present DG of the ISI, who was then a Corps Commander at Peshawar, and Gen Aziz Khan about it.

“He had personally accompanied Musharraf and Aziz to the headquarters of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), at Muridke, near Lahore, when they had gone there before Musharraf’s India visit in July last to appeal to the LeT not to oppose his visit to New Delhi.

“He had orchestrated the attacks on the Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly on October 1, 2001, and on the Indian Parliament in New Delhi on December 13, 2001, and the firing incident outside the American Centre in Kolkata on January 22, 2002. He knew Aftab Ansari, the mafia leader, who is presently under interrogation in India in connection with the Kolkata incident. All these attacks were organised with the knowledge and approval of the ISI.

“Peral was kidnapped and murdered because he was making enquires about the links of the Pakistani military intelligence establishment with bin Laden and wanted to meet people who would have knowledge of the present whereabouts of bin Laden. They suspected that Pearl was being used by the USA’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to recruit people who might be prepared to betray bin Laden and help in his capture. “More spectacular terrorist acts against the US were in the offing.

Sindhi officers of the Karachi police, who had been extremely resentful of the manner in which Musharraf, a Mohajir, had made them work under the supervision of Army monitors much junior to them in rank, leaked to the media what Omar Shaikh told them about his involvement in the terrorist attacks in India. Kamran Khan of the News of Islamabad reported about this in his periodic column. This set off a wave of panic in the GHQ at Rawalpindi and in the ISI headquarters, who tried to discredit Kamran Khan’s story by saying that Omar Shaikh had been tutored to say all this about his involvement in the terrorist attacks in India. Though they did not specify who had tutored him, the insinuation was that India had tutored him to discredit Pakistan and Musharraf.

They then pressured the owner of News to sack the Editor of the paper and three of his journalists, including Kamran Khan, who had been publishing a lot of reports on the Pearl case which cast doubts on Musharraf’s sincerity.

Musharraf spoke to the father of Omar Shaikh and requested him to persuade his son not to make such statements which harmed Pakistan’s supreme national interest. The father was allowed to talk to his son over phone and, on his appeal, Omar Shaikh agreed to retract his earlier statements and deny ever having said these things. In fact, in keeping with his promise to his father, he did retract, but subsequently, he again started saying that he stood by whatever he had stated earlier.

Musharraf then ordered the Karachi police not to interrogate him any longer and to treat him well. The military intelligence establishment is in a dilemma. It is determined not to extradite him to the USA lest he repeat before the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) what he had told the Karachi police. At the same time they don’t want to try him in Pakistan either. Amongst the various options reportedly being considered are to have him declared as insane and unfit for trial and extradition or, if need be, to eliminate him and show him as having been killed when a attempt was made to free him by the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, the banned Sunni extremist organisation, which has recently stepped up its anti-Shia activities in Karachi.

This account also requires a source “health warning”: it documents problems between the Karachi police and Musharraf that lead to this story reaching the press in the first place, and it’s been retold by Jammu-Kashmir, who aren’t the most objective source on Pakistan. Still, let’s suppose it is entirely true: what can we learn from these confessions?

One interesting new point here is the suggestion that Sheikh met Atta personally, and so learned of the attacks in advance. This information was then communicated to the ISI, and others.

What’s noticeable absent, though, is any mention of General Mahmoud Ahmad, or Sheikh actually wiring funds to Atta. Why should that be? The confession is actually more incriminating than the original claims, both for himself and the ISI, so it’s hard to see why that part of the story should be left out.

We could speculate that Sheikh was saying just enough to get the attention of the Government, but leaving out key information: a form of threat, if you like, to ensure he at least gained better treatment in prison. But that really is just speculation. We might just as well argue that he was telling the whole truth, or the entire story was made up by an unknown Pakistani source, because there’s just as much evidence for both of those scenarios.

Information supporting the simpler, “Ahmed told Sheikh to wire $100,000 to Atta” story has continued to appear elsewhere, though. Here’s what Bernard-Henri Levy had to say in his book “Who Killed Danny Pearl?”:

I see a note--but one I’m not allowed to take with me--which apparently is based on the contents of an FBI report: 0300 94587772... Omar’s cell phone number... the tracing of all his calls between July and October 2001 on that line. And among the numbers called, the number of General Mehmood Ahmed, who, until right after September 11, was the general director of the ISI...
Page 254,
“Who Killed Danny Pearl”
Bernard-Henri Levy

The hypothesis... is no longer that Omar [Saeed Sheikh] is the financier of September 11, but that Omar is operating on orders from the ISI. The hypothesis is no longer just that Omar is linked to al-Qaeda and a most spectacular terrorist operation, but that there is an Omar whose role is even greater than that--to facilitate a collusion between al-Qaeda and the ISI, working together towards the destruction of the Twin Towers.

For Indian agencies, the connection is not in doubt. In New Delhi I saw the results of decoding the telephone chip of Pearl’s killer, showing, during the summer of 2000, at the time of the money transfer, repeated calls to General Mahmoud Ahmad. The FBI, of course, is more diplomatic, but I’ve spoken with people in Washington who confirm unofficially that the cell phone number decoded by RAW--0300 94587772--is Omar’s, and that the list of calls made from it are the same as were shown to me in India. So, if Omar is proved to be the originator of the transfers it would be difficult to deny that it was done with the knowledge of the head of ISI.
Page 322/ 323,
“Who Killed Danny Pearl”
Bernard-Henri Levy

One oddity here is that even in the same book, there’s no clear agreement over timings: on one page Levy talks about contact between Sheikh and Mahmoud Ahmed in the summer of 2000, on another he mentions calls between July and October 2001. This need not necessarily be a conflict, as Levy may have been shown details of both 2000 and 2001 calls in New Delhi, but it’s another illustration of just how unclear these stories can be.

Another problem may come in taking Levy’s word for anything at all. William Dalrymple’s review of “Who Killed Danny Pearl” in the New York Review of Books was laced with comments like this:

LÚvy quickly shows that he is deeply ignorant of South Asian politics...

Gossip and hearsay are repeated as fact...

...there are numerous occasions where LÚvy distorts his evidence and actually inverts the truth...

None of these related to the passages we’ve highlighted, but Dalrymple is a heavyweight commentator and his concerns can’t be entirely dismissed.

Still, if we can trust Levy on his conversations with “people in Washington” then at least we do have some confirmation of this story, outside of India. And these tell us that Sheikh was in touch with Mahmoud Ahmad. Whether that in itself proves that any particular action of Sheikh’s was “at the instance of Ahmad” is another matter, and as you might expect, that’s not a conclusion drawn by Levy’s Washington contacts. But if you accept that he spoke to knowledgeable people, and reliably reported what they said, then it does provide a little extra credibility to the background of the Ahmad-Sheikh-Atta story. Although proof, and even consistency between the accounts, still seems a very long way off.

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