There were rumours in the air. During the 126-day-long dharna by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) against the ruling Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PMLN), there were murmurs of a coup d’état. Other than General Shuja Pasha, the former intelligence officer who is known to be a close friend and supporter of PTI Chairman Imran Khan, the other name that was repeatedly brought up was that of Zaheerul Islam, the then director general of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Allegedly, the two were conspiring to create a rift between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif. In the past, the premier had acted against generals whom he had differences with. It was expected that he would again act in a similar manner, under the presumption that the dharna had the general’s backing. But the events did not play out as expected. Not exactly.
It was Federal Defence Minister Khawaja Asif who first stated that the two were behind the political unrest that prevailed last year. Specifically, the minister said, Islam had a “personal grievance” with the ruling party for siding with a particular media house. Asif was subsequently sidelined and snubbed at a dinner with army generals and quickly made to learn a central lesson.
Not everyone took from his experience. In an interview with the BBC in August 2015, Senator Mushahidullah Khan claimed that an audio tape obtained by the Intelligence Bureau was played during a meeting between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Raheel Sharif last year, in which Islam could be heard giving instructions to raid the prime minister’s office. According to the senator, when questioned by General Raheel Sharif, Islam confirmed that the voice was his own.
Khan later clarified that he himself had not heard the tape. Never mind the fact that he kept referring to the ex-ISI Chief as Zahirul Islam Abbasi – the major general who had plotted to overthrow the Benazir Bhutto government in 1995, and who died six years ago – the damage had been done.
Appointed on the recommendation of then President Asif Ali Zardari in March 2012, Islam became the 18th director general of the ISI. He has remained mostly out of the spotlight and yet, he manages to cast a shadow over many major events in the last few years. The most significant of them was when a private television channel ran photographs of Islam alongside allegations by journalist Hamid Mir’s brother stating that firing on the prime-time anchorperson was the handiwork of the intelligence agencies.
Islam has a strong military background; his father, brothers and brother-in-law had also served in the army. His uncle, Shah Nawaz, was a major general in the Indian National Army, led by Subhas Chandra Bose, and was captured and detained by the British briefly in the early 1940s.
Islam belonged to the Punjab Regiment, he was in charge of a division in Murree before being promoted to lieutenant general and being posted as Corps Commander Karachi.
He was mentioned in Forbes magazine’s most powerful people list as the “new head of Pakistan’s notorious intelligence service” in 2012. “The ISI has played both sides in the war on terror and, as US troops draw out of Afghanistan, will be hugely influential in determining the region’s future,” the magazine went on to state. He succeeded Pasha, who had had the embarrassing distinction of being the ISI chief when Osama bin Laden was killed by US forces in Abbottabad.
With the reputation of being an ‘honest’ officer and a close aide of General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, it was expected that Islam would continue Kayani’s policy of minimal interference in political matters. That seems to not have happened. And as recent events suggest, he may have been out of office but still holds a lot of say on the political development — albeit by default and alleged association. Quite like most of his career in the intelligence, he has refused to come out of the shadows to clarify his position. Or shall we wait until the Official Secrets Act no longer applies to him?
This was originally published in the Herald's September 2015 issue. To read more, subscribe to Herald's print edition.