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The mysterious case of Operation Midnight Jackal

Updated Nov 19, 2018 02:24pm

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Photo taken from the August 1994 issue of the Herald
Photo taken from the August 1994 issue of the Herald

The sudden arrest of former spymaster Brigadier lmtiaz has raised the political temperature to fever pitch, and set the government on a course fraught with uncertainty.

The decision by the PPP government to try lmtiaz and another former ISI officer for high treason provides a new twist to a saga that began with the bizarre events surrounding Operation Midnight Jackal in September 1989. The men charged with plotting to overthrow Benazir Bhutto's first government five years earlier, happen to be closely identified with opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, raising fears that the move may well be a prelude to a crackdown on the government's rivals.

Can the government see its unprecedented action through to its logical conclusion and expose the political machinations of various covert forces? Will it be able or willing to try the alleged conspirators in an open court? And will a stream of revelations in court about the workings of a sensitive intelligence agency open up a pandora's box that could set off a chain of potentially disastrous events?

This Herald special report on the aftermath of Operation Midnight Jackal examines the role of the intelligence agencies in the country's chequered political history. Plus excerpts from the controversial Midnight Jackal tapes and interviews with Generals Hamid Gul and Naseerullah Babar…

It was like a chapter out of a racy espionage thriller. A former officer of the army’s engineering services arranges a series of very business-like meetings between certain PPP MNAs and leaders of the opposition IJI, with two serving army officers - at least one of them from the Inter Services Intelligence – acting as the intermediaries. The meetings are held in the backdrop of the opposition’s impending no-confidence move against the first Benazir Bhutto government in October 1989, when political horse-trading had touched unprecedented new heights.

The two PPP MNAs, Arif Awan and Rasheed Bhatti, are presumably there to offer their loyalties to the opposition for the “right price”. The IJI MNA from Khushab, Malik Naeem, and a FATA MNA, Haji Sher Gul, are present on the occasion as representatives of the opposition leader, Mian Nawaz Sharif. The ISI’s major Mohammed Amir and his former superior in the intelligence service, Brigadier Imtiaz Ahmed, are also active participants in the talks, which are meant to convince the two PPP “dissidents” to cross over to the other camp because Benazir’s government is on its way out. Then there is the host, Malik Mumtaz, who later turns out to be a double agent, making desperate attempts to finalise “the deal”.

On the face of it, Malik Mumtaz is helping the opposition by arranging these meetings at his residence in Westridge, Rawalpindi. But at the same time, acting as a tool for the prime minister’s secretariat, he ensures that the Intelligence Bureau places enough video cameras and microphones in his house to record each and every movement and comment made during these clandestine meetings. This series of meetings, which started on September 28, comes to an abrupt end on October 6, when Benazir Bhutto’s arch rival and chief minister of the Punjab, Mian Nawaz Sharif, acts on a tip from IJI MNA Zahid Sarfaraz and decides against going to Malik Mumtaz’s house. The PM’s secretariat fails to trap enemy number one, but still manages to collect ample evidence in the form of audio and video tapes to establish a case against the key players of, what is later described as “Operation Midnight Jackal”.

Five years after the event, during which period the country witnessed some of the most bizarre political developments, the second Benazir government has decided to reopen the case. The government claims it is now in possession of sufficient evidence to try the key players of the alleged horse-trading operation under Article 6 of the constitution, which carries a mandatory death penalty. In this connection Brigadier Imtiaz, who during Nawaz Sharif’s tenure had acquired the role of a “master spy” and as director of the Intelligence Bureau kept tabs on every second politician and journalist, irrespective of their affiliation, was arrested last month.

Benazir Bhutto conducts strategically planned Long Marches after the dismissal of her first government | White Star Archives
Benazir Bhutto conducts strategically planned Long Marches after the dismissal of her first government | White Star Archives

But despite the government’s tall claims about the thoroughness with which it is investigating the case, Major Amir still managed to slip away, and to this day the FIA and all other agencies have failed to nab him. That he is suspected of having taken sanctuary in a madrassah in Swabi run by his younger brother, Mualana Tayyab, who has refused to hand him over in the name of Islam is another story altogether.

Yet another source of embarrassment for the government has been the challenge thrown down by Muslim League MNA Malik Naeem, who is refusing to seek bail and has dared the government to arrest him. He maintains that these clandestine meetings were simply part of the opposition’s efforts to win the support of as many MNAs as possible, and there was neither a conspiracy nor was any money ever offered to the PPP members. As a politician, Malik Naeem will perhaps be able to get away with this line, but both Brigadier Imtiaz and Major Amir may find it hard to justify their presence at the clandestine get-togethers arranged by Malik Mumtaz.

The plea now being taken by their supporters – who can be found in abundance among opposition politicians as well as a large section of the Islamabad-based press – is that they have already been penalized and, as such, there is no justification for another trial.

For his part, interior minister Naseerullah Babar insists the government will still go ahead with the trial because, according to him, the earlier forced retirement of these army officers was merely an administrative action. Besides, he says, the government’s actual aim is to get to the real culprits behind this alleged conspiracy against an elected government. But what even the interior minister is not prepared to guarantee is an open public trial. And though he doesn’t admit it, the inherent fear is that a public trial may open up a pandora’s box about the extra-constitutional activities of the country’s intelligence agencies, and about the manner in which they were used by successive governments against their opponents.

Pakistan’s chequered political history is full of incidents where they country’s top intelligence agencies have been involved in the shameful practice of making and breaking governments. At the same time, many a ruling party has been guilty of using these same agencies to suppress the opposition. But even in the murky history of these undercover manouevres, Operation Midnight Jackal stands out as a unique incident. It has not only highlighted the level of rivalry between the various intelligence agencies of the country, but has also raised the alarming possibility that some individuals within these organisations may be acting on their own, without taking their superiors into confidence regarding their real intentions.

Both Brigadier Imtiaz and Major Amir were forcibly retired by the then army chief, General Mirza Aslam Beg, on Premier Bhutto’s complaint. The two officers, however, have always maintained that they did nothing wrong, going so far as to claim that the so-called operation was actually a conspiracy to trap them. In fact, Amir and his supporters are accusing the then government of playing into the hands of enemy agents by getting him removed, as he had been involved in serious counter-intelligence work.

For the army leadership, the incident became history once these officers were retired. But it seems that Nanwaz Sharif had not forgotten their contribution to his cause. The moment Brigadier Imtiaz was retired from the army, he was immediately taken on as Sharif’s advisor in the Punjab government he then headed. And with the removal of the first Benazir government, and the induction of Nawaz Sharif as prime minister, the two former ISI officers became major celebrities almost overnight – Brigadier Imtiaz was appointed as the head of the Intelligence Bureau, while Major Amir assumed the charge of Director, Immigration in the FIA.

But despite the political ups and downs of the last few years, the mystery surrounding Operation Midnight Jackal has remained unresolved, with none of the sides involved being able to come up with satisfactory answers regarding one of the most intriguing episodes in the history of democracy in Pakistan. In September 1992, when PPP information secretary Salman Taseer first distributed the transcript of the audio tapes of the so called operation, it made the whole episode appear even more confusing. Although Taseer never revealed his sources, it was widely believed at the time that the tapes, or their transcript, reached him through the intelligence channel, probably via Lt. General Asad Durrani.

Brigadier Imtiaz led away by men in plain clothes | Photo from the August 1994 issue of the Herald
Brigadier Imtiaz led away by men in plain clothes | Photo from the August 1994 issue of the Herald

The startling disclosure did to some extent embarrass Nawaz Sharif and his DIB, Brigadier Imtiaz, and later Taseer was made to pay for his actions. But these revelations clearly did not provide all the answers.

For instance, no one knows for sure as to who was laying the trap and who was the prey. Were Brigadier Imtiaz and Major Amir operating on their own, or were they acting on the instructions of one or more of their superiors? If the latter was the case, who were these superiors? And if Brigadier Imtiaz and Major Amir were indeed involved, why didn’t General Aslam Beg go for a court martial instead of summarily dismissing the case by ordering their retirement? Brigadier Imtiaz’s presence in these meetings becomes all the more intriguing given that he had already been removed from the ISI by then and was serving in the Corps of Engineers at Risalpur. His clarification apart, it remains to be seen if there was any connection between the opposition leaders and these seemingly errant army officers. If there wasn’t any connection, why did they suddenly became the darlings of the next IJI-led government?

At the same time, there is many a puzzling question about the manner in which the prime minister’s secretariat had acted, using the Intelligence Bureau and its bugging devices to trap ISI personnel and their contacts in the opposition. Does resorting to such tactics imply that the prime minister, or her appointed director general of the ISI, General (retd) S. R. Kallue, had no control over these officers or the events that were taking place at the time? And last, but certainly no less significantly, what was the role in all this of General Beg himself, or for that matter his Military Intelligence chief, General Asad Durrani, both of whom were later named as key players in the drama surrounding the dismissal of Benazir Bhutto’s first government.

Five years after the event, the case has been re-opened at a critical time, and this makes it all the more intriguing. The present action has coincided with Nawaz Sharif’s move to pressurize the government, and many analysts believe that this is a counter-attack aimed at putting opposition on the defensive. Brigadier Imtiaz’s arrest, though predictable, did create a stir in opposition circles. The first one to react publicly was the Muslim League leader, Chaudry Nisar Ali, who condemned the arrest and described it as part of the government’s campaign to victimise the opposition.

As special assistant to the prime minister in the Sharif government, Chaudry Nisar had developed close links with Birgadier Imtiaz and, as a result, had first-hand knowledge of the IB’s activities. Sources within the Muslin League claim that he even had access to surveillance reports about the extra-curricular activities of some of the government’s own MNAs such as Sattar Lalika and, more surprisingly, Sheikh Rasheed. So all in all, it was quite natural for him to react and voice his support for Brigadier Imtiaz.

But then the incident exploded into a major political issue. Not long after his former spymaster’s arrest, Nawaz Sharif personally visited Brigadier Imtiaz’s family, and declared all-out support for his ex-IB chief, in the process confirming suspicions that Imtiaz was his eyes and ears when he (Sharif) was heading the government. Later, a Muslim League delegation was dispatched to Swabi to offer support for the movement launched by Major Amir’s brother, Maulana Tayyab, who had publicly declared that Amir would not be handed over to the authorities.

The manner in which the opposition leaders declared open support for two former intelligence officers may have surprised many people, but for Muslim League leaders this was nothing more than a natural reaction to what they perceive to be a government campaign to malign the opposition through this case. And as things stand, the opposition’s fears may not be totally ill-founded as the government’s stated aim to “get to the real culprits” does indicate that it may be planning to implicate senior Muslim League leaders in the case.

However, well informed sources maintain that what is really troubling Muslim League leaders is the possibility that after the discovery of several hundred potentially incriminating cassettes from the days when he was DIB, Brigadier Imtiaz may strike a deal in panic and start spilling the beans. In fact, there have been reports suggesting that Imtiaz had once offered to cooperate with the government, but this proposal was turned down by Benazir Bhutto’s previous DIB, Noor Leghari. Now that the government has decided to go for the kill, certain key questions are currently being raised about the outcome of the move. Will the government see it through to its logical conclusion regardless of the consequences? Or will this step merely be an elaborate smokescreen for an attack on the proposition.

Ishaq Khan, Nawaz Sharif and Asif Nawaz | Photo taken from the August 1994 issue of the Herald
Ishaq Khan, Nawaz Sharif and Asif Nawaz | Photo taken from the August 1994 issue of the Herald

Both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif have used the Intelligence Bureau to the best of their abilities, and it would be naïve to believe that the system is any different today. The Intelligence Bureau, sources say, is presently being used with the same zeal and enthusiasm of old against the opposition and, to some extent, the press.

On the other hand, experts in defence matters insist that the ISI’s involvement in politics has been drastically curtailed ever since General Abdul Waheed became the army chief. “You may not believe it, but it is now a completely refurbished ISI,” a source close to the organisation recently said. “In fact, ISI has now virtually reverted to its original role of defence related intelligence work,” he added.

This may well be true, but unless the mystery that shrouds past events is resolved, few will ever be convinced that the ISI or any other agency, has given up its old habits of setting up parallel governments and arbitrarily defining what patriotism really is. Perhaps the answers to all the puzzling questions about the roles played by the country’s intelligence agencies will be revealed if the findings of the long shelved Zulfiqar Commission are implemented. Constituted by Benazir Bhutto soon after she first came to power in 1988 and headed by Air Marshal (retd) Zulfiqar Ali Khan, the Commission was asked to look into means by which the activities of the agencies could be streamlines and their involvement in politics reduced to a bare minimum.

More significantly, a public trial of those involved in the Midnight Jackal case could well clear up the cobwebs. There is every chance that such a trial will bring to light revelations of enormous magnitude, with many hitherto hidden faces and events finally being exposed.

Another attempt to hide the facts in the name of safeguarding national interest will only be seen as a move to protect some members of the ruling party as well as a move to ‘save the system’ – which, in effect, will signal the continuation of the status quo. Holding the trial in camera will almost certainly be counter-productive, and will go a long way towards strengthening the opposition’s claims that reopening the case at this juncture is nothing but an attempt to malign the Muslim League and its leaders.

The government has the opportunity today of finally revealing the secret network of forces that have made or broken governments, subverted and twisted the people’s mandate at will, often with no small measure of contempt. All indicators are, however, that having taken the plunge into these murky waters, the government will now find the going too tough to handle.

In an ideal world all would be revealed, with the villains of the piece quickly taken to task. But in a country where the powerful can get away with murder and where scams and scandals of earthshaking proportions produce little or no aftershocks, it would be naïve in the extreme to believe that the covert workings of a sensitive wing of the armed forces, of all organisations, will be exposed for all to see so that the culprits can be punished according to the laws of the land.

Benazir Bhutto has a choice: she can order an open trial and risk her neck, or choose to endure the ire and accusations of the opposition until the hue and cry dies down, as outrage often does in Pakistan. If the matter boils down to either incurring the wrath of the army or that of Nawaz Sharif, Bhutto will probably opt for the latter course.


This article was published in the Herald's August 1994 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.