Pakistani ISI ‘S Wing’ aids terror groups in South and Central Asia

One interesting byproduct of the ongoing trial of Tahawwur Rana is the additional information that is emerging about the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, Pakistan’s military intelligence service known as the ISI. Rana is the Canadian citizen who is on trial in the US for his role in the 2008 terror assault on Mumbai, India. His accomplice, David Coleman Headley, has decided to testify against Rana and in so doing has exposed the ISI’s role in spreading terror throughout the world.

This report from The Times of India [republished in full] provides excellent details of the ISI’s “S Wing,” the division of the notorious intelligence service that liaises and directs terror organizations on the subcontinent. The existence of the ISI’s S Wing has been known for some time [see these reports from The Guardian and The New York Times back in the summer of 2009].

The secretive S Wing of ISI is under fresh scrutiny in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s killing and the ongoing trial of Tahawwur Rana in Chicago where David Headley has narrated in detail ISI’s role in the Mumbai attacks.

The ISI’s involvement and planning for Mumbai attacks would have been handled by the S Wing, sources here said.

ISI coordinates all its work with terrorist groups through S Wing, a secretive, powerful and probably dispersed network that includes a number of retired military personnel. The S Wing may have “hundreds of retired military officers and terror leaders” on its rolls, said a senior official. “All that we know about ISI may not fully explain this monster,” he said of ISI and its S Wing.

The official speculated that even some very senior retired military officers who are active in the Track 2 circuit may be associated with the S Wing. “When you really look at the reach of their work, then it is clear that it is an operation with great depth and wide reach,” he said of S Wing.

Headley has outlined in the Chicago court, where he is the prosecution witness in Rana’s trial, about his extensive training and financial support from ISI. He was being handled by one Major Iqbal. Indian sources are convinced that the major is part of the S Wing.

“We have known about its (S Wing) existence for several years. It took shape probably in the 80s, and from then on it has grown in size and strength,” a former intelligence officer said, adding that the entire operation of Kashmir militancy through the past 20 years was handled by this Wing.

S Wing also handles Taliban and al-Qaida, sources said. Most Indian officers are convinced that Osama was being sheltered by select officers of S Wing.

Taliban has been S Wing’s most stunning achievement — grooming youngsters from refugee camps and madrassas to become fighters who took over Afghanistan. Colonel Imam, a legendary ISI operative who trained Mullah Omar and played a significant role in the Taliban raid into Kabul, may have been part of this S Wing, an Indian official said.

He argued that S Wing, or whatever new name it now has, is “steeped in Islamic ideologies imparted during Zia-ul-Haq’s time, and most of them are fanatics”. If ISI had to metamorphose from its present state of being a semi-criminal enterprise into a modern intelligence agency, then it would have to begin with the S Wing, said officials.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Charu says:

    Bill, this is typical shoddy Indian journalism. I gave up counting the number of times the term ‘S Wing’ appeared in the “report”. I have no doubt that this wing exists to give the rogue state-within-the-state-within-the-state plausible deniability, but the stenographers of Indian “journalism” would be last source for shining light into this sewer.

  • Neo says:

    Charu, Perhaps this old article is a little better sourced.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    LOL Neo, I linked that in the post above, along with one from the Guardian.
    Just because The Times of India account above is a view from Indian perspective, or you don’t like the way it is written, doesn’t mean it is wrong, or inaccurate. I’m told it is quite accurate, in fact.

  • PJH says:

    Maybe being caught sheltering OBL, and having the SEALS go in, get him, and leave without any Pak awareness … maybe this will lower by a little the contempt they obviously feel for the USA. Maybe.

  • Tim says:

    Perhaps Indian journalism may be a little ‘young’ just now. Remember, US and European journalism is over a hundred years old! 🙂
    But let us not discount the vastly greater intelligence and understanding Indians have of the duplicitous nature of the Pak Army ISI. My respect for Indian judgement has grown manifold since OBL was found hiding in Pakistan under the protection of the ISI (oh, come on! Like this is not the truth!) India had warned NATO 10 years back that Afghanistan is a black hole…sucking anyone who dares to enter. The real prize is in Pakistan! We never believed them, until now…

  • villiger says:

    Bill, yes, that’s really funny! Hyper-links with a new twist! Thanks for your diligence.
    Charu, i’m absolutely with Bill on this one, though i understand where you are coming from. The TOI’s international reporting, one has observed, is of a pretty consistently high standing. On occasion one has even seen reports quoting politicians making unusually sane and frank assessments about Pakistan in the House, Senate or in committees, which i have seen other people too question as to why they were not reported in the US media.
    Tim, you make a good point about Indian judgment, combined with the US’s efforts and in the field, there is significant synergy to be gained for quick wins.

  • villiger says:

    Is LeT part of the S wing? They’re together for sure…
    Charu you may prefer this one also from the Times of India
    or this one….

  • An Indian says:

    We told you so.
    An Indian

  • Vienna,29-05-2011
    I do keep monitoring Indian journalism, English and American journalism for that matter for my one man Taravadu Taranga Trust for Media Monitoring,TTTMM. May be as in the education standards, the journalism standards in India are not what they should be compared to the classic Indian culture. India does have some of the best journalists in the world.That apart,date line pressure and resource crunch faced by the Indian journalists are not to be forgotten. In composition of news stories important key information can go disjointedly spread over. That compels readers search for key facts in a copy. However,the
    point made by Bill Roggio is valid.Inter Services Intelligence is penetrating and pervasive. I am sure the Abbottabad investigations by the Central Intelligence Agency team will prove it.
    -Kulamarva Balakrishna

  • JRP says:

    To those who regularly comment on this site . . . What is your gut feeling on the subject of whether or not Al Qaeda, with or without Pakistani Intelligence assistance, is planning a spectacular attack within CONUS to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attack???
    My feeling is that something was being planned even before Bin Ladin was eliminated and his elimination notwithstanding, AQ is pressing forward. This year September 11th falls on a Sunday. My guess is that AQ will let it pass just so we let down our guard a bit, then pull it off during the work week immediately following.
    Any thoughts?

  • Villiger says:

    I don’t think so because:
    A) I really don’t think they have it together. This could be a measure of progress made or not made cumulative to date.
    B) The War is on, full-on. I don’t think they would be thinking so symbolically, when any day is a ‘good day’ for them to deliver a strike, if they could.
    C) Even Pakistan won’t want to risk a huge increase in domestic/international sympathy, of the kind that the US experienced in 9/11.
    D) I don’t think the Taliban can count to 10 😉
    They haven’t achieved much in the last 9 anniversaries.
    E) Last, not least, one has to give credit to Homeland Security. Its quite incredible, all that they have prevented. (Some in the Pak public are clambering for a similar dept. in their country. LOL but poor chaps!)

  • Vienna,29-05-2011
    All I can say to Mr.JRP is ” eternal vigilance is
    price of LIBERTY”.
    -Kulamarva Balakrishna

  • Soccer says:

    Villiger, every country has different intelligence and security services, that deal with threats in their own ways. The Pak. establishment’s track record in security shows that they are in serious need of a major overhaul in efficiency of their security services.
    Villiger, why did you say the Taliban can’t count to 10? With all due respect to the alliance, the Taliban have given the entire world, and Pakistan, one hell of a fight since we invaded Afghanistan. I am pretty sure they can count to 10. Besides, what does the Afghan Taliban have to do with Al Qaeda planning an attack on the 10th anniversary of 9/11? I don’t see the correlation between the two.
    Yes, it’s true this article is properly sourced, but I agree with Charu in the sense that you have to keep in the back of your mind the hidden agenda here. It’s simply natural for Indian news agencies to have dis contempt for and a bias against Pakistan, and vice-versa.

  • Graham says:

    Why did the ISI arrest Adam Gadahn?

  • kp says:

    One thing that has been released from the UBL intel that is different from previous beliefs is that UBL, AQSL (and AQAP) do really like “special dates”. Like religious holidays (even when mostly secular I guess as an Islamist you start to see everything through religious glasses) and anniversaries. For the 10th anniversary of 9/11 they might like the fact that it falls on a Sunday (a religious day) even if that does reduce the number of mass targets available.

    AQ problems for an attack in the US is they have big problems getting people in the US: they really need US citizens or US residents to carry out their attacks. But they need training and I’m use ICE/CIA/FBI spend a lot of time looking at people with connections to Pakistan/Afghanistan/Yemen/Somalia. They have tried quite a few times since 9/11 and all have been failures.

    If they do get some sort of attack in the US it will be “lone wolf” or small group(s) and I suspect less explosives based than firearms (easier to get in the). They might try to blow up another aircraft. I suspect it will be connected with AQAP or Al Shabaab (in the latter case Somali-Americans will be involved) or possibly even Pakistani connected British Asians though MI5 seems to be doing a good job finding them.

    AQs real problem is getting a “spectacular”. I don’t think they can do that in the US on the scale of 9/11 (3000 dead). Even on 9/11 they got lucky (without the building collapse casulaties would have been much less). They might be able to do a Madrid or Bali (200 dead) if they get lucky but getting the commercial explosives or fertilizer is a problem and likely to reveal the plot before it’s carried out. A London (7/7) is more likely (55 dead). Most likely single Islamist on a gun rampage or several Islamists on gun rampages in different cities or perhaps a small LeT group but they won’t have had much training and will just have rifles and pistols (no grenades and probably no suicide vests … a TATP/flour/peroxide home made vest doesn’t seem designed for running around). That sort of attack probably won’t generate many more casualties than your regular “gun nut gone bad”. Not quite the spectacular that AQ would want.

    AQ might get more benefit out small direct attack on politicians or the Army or some other symbolic target rather than just on random civilians.

    I suspect that AQSL and Core AQ have the least ability to pull off an attack in a long time. They’ve lost a leader (and several couriers) and a lot of intel in the UBL raid. Pakistan must be hotter than it’s ever been (either with the IB finding them or the US raiding them). So just getting AQSL communicating with Core AQ may be AQ’s biggest problem now.

    Other groups TTP or LeT or AQAP or Al Shabaab are perhaps more likely to try the attack. If an attack does originate from Pakistan things could get interesting very quickly.

    Most of the recent AQ (TTP, AQAP, etc) efforts seem to be recruit a person, train them generally then send them back to their own country and let them come up with targets, generate a plan, generate funding, make the bombs or buy the guns and recruit others. It lets Core AQ try to do something but it leaves the person with a lot to do especially when he’s not an expert in any of the tasks making him (Zazi, Time Sq Bomber) more likely to mess up at some point. This is unlike say 9/11 where you can see different people trained in roles of project manager, pilot, muscle and using external funding.

  • Charu says:

    Great cartoons, villiger. The first one should have shown the Pakistani general stabbing Uncle Sam in the back with the other hand.

  • Charu says:

    Well, Gen. Cartwright appears out and Gen. Dempsey the new choice to lead the Joint Chiefs. Adm. Mullen’s final gift to his BFFs in Pakistan? The best candidate for the job all along was Gen. Petraeus; but he is also a best candidate for President in 2016. And the Pakistanis hate him fierce. Watching Ken Burn’s Civil War series recently again, I was reminded how important it was to have the right commander to win key battles and the war. Seems like a bad time to be changing horses; Gen Petraeus as Chairman would have provided continuity to the AfPak war.

  • Paul D says:

    How can democracy flourish in Pakistan when the
    Pak army is deeply Islamist?

  • villiger says:

    Soccer: “Villiger, why did you say the Taliban can’t count to 10?”
    V: Its called a sense of humour, but then one mans meat is another man’s poison.
    Soccer: “what does the Afghan Taliban have to do with Al Qaeda planning an attack on the 10th anniversary of 9/11? I don’t see the correlation between the two.
    V: Soccer, i used the term Taliban, not ‘Afghan’ Taliban. In my feeble brain, the Taliban aggregated is synonymous to AQ, ie is see it all as AQAM.
    As for correlations, surely they ARE co-related! Anyway i’m not going to get into splitting hairs, especially on dyed salafist beards.
    Soccer: “With all due respect to the alliance, the Taliban have given the entire world, and Pakistan, one hell of a fight since we invaded Afghanistan.”
    V: Sorry, Soccer, you have it fundamentally wrong, wrong, wrong! They have not given the ‘entire world, and Pakistan, one hell of a fight. On the contrary, they have had Pakistan very much on their side and they in turn have had China on their side, however benign that might appear to be.
    Pakistan has provided them a non-State within their State and every kind of support you can imagine–read Bill’s latest blog on N Wazoo. We should legitimize that non-State as Pashtunistan and sequester them.
    Soccer: “Yes, it’s true this article is properly sourced, but I agree with Charu in the sense that you have to keep in the back of your mind the hidden agenda here. It’s simply natural for Indian news agencies to have dis contempt for and a bias against Pakistan, and vice-versa.”
    V: With respect you’re out of touch. The Times of India is in fact a leader of a program that is urging peace between India and Pakistan.
    May surprise you to learn, that at a people-to-people level where Pakistanis and Indians co-exist together there is quite a bit of shared empathy, given the commonality of culture. The problem is religion and the way it has been played by Pakistani politicians which includes their Army, which is essentially politicised (think ISI as foreign Ministry).
    As for bias by the The Times of India or any major leading daily on news, not opinion, if you have some examples pls share them. This is not an invitation to send you on a wild goose chase. Point is any comparison between the Paki media and Indian media would be false.

  • villiger says:

    Paul D, you are totally right.
    Still, there can be a democracy if all people are reasonably represented, acknowledging that the vast majority are Islamic (Sunnis, Shias, Ahmadiyas etc aside).
    To me, the litmus test is to for Pak to dismantle and destroy the ‘banned’ outfit of LeT, before you can even begin to consider whether a civil democracy is capable of taking root in this poor mislead, deluded, beggar country.
    The next step would be bring the Army under total civil control, including the ISI. We know that just ain’t gonna happen.

  • Soccer says:

    I know what a sense of humor is, I just didn’t see it to be relevant in the context of your post.
    Eight soldiers died in an IED attack in southern Afghanistan a few days ago. Are you saying that’s not taking the fight to us? And what about all the policemen, civilians and soldiers killed in Pakistan? They cannot be ignored and forgotten, as you are doing right now with them.
    I’ll share my examples of Times Of India bias once you share your examples of that outlet promoting peace between the two countries. I see no evidence of such, only finger pointing and playing the blame game against Pakistan. It’s NATURAL for that to happen.
    “Soccer, i used the term Taliban, not ‘Afghan’ Taliban. In my feeble brain, the Taliban aggregated is synonymous to AQ, ie is see it all as AQAM.
    As for correlations, surely they ARE co-related! Anyway i’m not going to get into splitting hairs, especially on dyed salafist beards.”
    There is quite a difference between the Afghan and Paki Taliban, no matter how small the difference may be. The Afghan Taliban are the better known group, and they are not involved in carrying out attacks overseas, hence the reason why I used ‘Afghan Taliban’. As for the correlation, if they WERE correlated, you would explain why they were. The Afghan Taliban are not Salafist, they are Sunni deobandi. There is a massive difference, a difference that makes whatever point you were going to make null in the first place.

  • villiger says:

    Soccer, i’ll take it then that you weren’t able to dig out those examples of bias at the TOI…
    If you need any help in better understanding the dynamics of relations between Pakistan and India, people-to-people, don’t hesitate to ask. One has wide and long experience of and in that area.
    Its quite obvious that Charu can help you too.

  • ajay says:

    Disband the Pakistani Army and the ISI
    Form a new Army under genuinely representative civilian control
    There won’t be any terrorism left in the entire Af-Pak area and consequently the globe.


Islamic state



Al shabaab

Boko Haram