The wheel of justice may turn slowly, but one would like to believe that it does turn inexorably. If so, the terrorism trial that is set to begin in Chicago on the Mumbai terrorist attacks of November 2008 that killed more than 160 people including Americans, will have huge repercussions for international security. The United States federal prosecutors unsealed charges Monday against four additional defendants for plotting the 2008 terrorist attacks.
All four accused are considered fugitives with alleged links to Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, Pakistani-based terrorist group, and the prosecution's key witness has linked one of them to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence [ISI] although the indictment doesn't explicitly mention the Pakistani security agency. Prosecutors identified three of the men as Sajid Mir, Abu Qahafa, Mazhar Iqbal and provided only a pseudonym for the fourth, “Major Iqbal.” All eyes, however, will be on "Major Iqbal". The indictment describes him as “a resident of Pakistan who participated in planning and funding attacks by Lashkar.” But US and Indian security officials and Indian court documents identify Iqbal as a serving ISI officer and one of at least three ISI officers who are suspected of being involved in recruiting, training and directing David Headley, the mysterious one-time informer of the US Drug Enforcement Administration, who conducted reconnaissance missions for the Mumbai attacks.
Sajid Mir is a longtime Lashkar chief, who also is accused of serving as Headley’s handler. He remains at large, although his voice was caught on tape directing the Mumbai killings by telephone from a Pakistani safe house. France had convicted Mir in 2007 in absentia as a terrorist and identified him as possibly an officer of the Pakistani military. Abu Qahafa whose voice was also recorded directing the 10 gunmen who carried out the three-day attack, is accused of overseeing the training of the attack team. Mazhar Iqbal, alias Abu al-Qama, is the only one of the four known to be in Pakistani custody. All four suspects could face the death sentence or life in prison.
The trial is bound to cast shadows on the US' future dealings with ISI at an official level. A transparent working relationship is going to be hard to sustain while the trial in Chicago is on as each side will be suspecting the motivations of the other. Coming on the heels of the latest WikiLeaks cables of 2007 pertaining to Guantanamo Bay in which US military listed ISI as a terrorist organization on par with al-Qaeda or Hamas and Hezbollah, the Chicago trial will at the very least highlight the role of the Pakistani military in crafting terrorism as an instrument of state policy. Admiral "Mike" Mullen, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, said only last week that the "relationship" between the ISI and the Haqqani network of Afghan insurgents constitutes a major source of tension in US-Pakistan ties.
The trial proceedings at Chicago hold the potential to directly implicate the ISI, which in turn can complicate the US-Pakistan relationship at the political level. The fact remains that ISI is a key interlocutor in the endgame in Afghanistan and US can ill afford to antagonize the Pakistani military. Having said that, the Chicago trial can be used by Washington to leverage more cooperation by the Pakistani military in the Afghan war. Significantly, the US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said last week that 2011 may prove to be the decisive year of the war.
India will also be watching the Chicago trial with eagle's eyes. It has huge stakes in the trial being taken to its logical conclusion rather than being exploited or hijacked by the US administration with a view to extract concessions from Pakistan on the Afghan war front. It remains to be seen whether India will seek a formal participation in the Chicago trial. There is much frustration in the Indian establishment that Pakistan is stalling in bringing the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks to justice and there is some latent discontent as well that Washington treads softly keeping the priorities of its AfPak policies in mind. At the same time, India has just resumed its dialogue with Pakistan, which has raised a public controversy in the domestic opinion. Much statecraft will be needed to reconcile these glaring contradictions.
On balance, it is highly improbable that the Pakistani military will cave in and admit the ISI's involvement in the Mumbai attacks and show willingness to be punished. Any such admission will not only make Pakistan a state sponsoring terrorism, but will also tear apart Pakistan's political economy where the military calls the shots. Let us not forget that ISI is largely manned by Pakistani army officers on deputation. There is no question of the Pakistani military handing over one or more of its officers to stand trial in the US. If the push from Chicago comes to a shove from Washington, Pakistani military leadership will simply hunker down. Pakistan will also weigh its trump cards in Afghanistan, factoring in that the Barack Obama administration will be highly vulnerable to adverse tidings from the Afghan war when a crucial presidential election looms ahead. So, it is going to be a tough call for Uncle Sam who is juggling so many balls in the air - the global "war on terror"; Pakistani military being US's key ally; "strategic partnership" with India; imponderables in the endgame in Afghanistan; Obama's bid for second term as president; and, of course, the "due process of law" taking its inexorable course in Chicago under the constant glare of media publicity at home and abroad.