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Behind killing of Arshad Sharif lies ISI’s deepest secret—an empire of heroin in East Africa

There's a strange story of how the Generals who ran the ISI worked with Afghan and Pakistani drug cartels to raise funds for global jihadists—and to enrich themselves.

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The end came on Blood Street in Amsterdam’s seedy Red Light District, delivered by a hitman who put four bullets into the face of the ageing mafia patriarch and three more through his heart. For a generation, Ibrahim Abdalla Akasha had ruled a criminal empire that stretched across the western Indian Ocean, running heroin and marijuana from Pakistan through Kenya into Europe. Life sometimes mimics movies: Egyptian-born Gazi Hayat, beloved second wife of the drug king, cradled him in her arms as his blood pooled on the sidewalk.

Late last month, Pakistani journalist Arshad Sharif, an Imran Khan supporter, was shot dead on a deserted dirt road outside Nairobi in still-unexplained circumstances—an execution engineered by his friends to end his ongoing investigation of corruption at the highest levels of Pakistan’s military.

Authoritative voices are supporting these allegations. The former commander of Pakistan’s elite I Strike Corps, Lieutenant General Tariq Khan, wrote that the killing was carried out by an “unscrupulous, insignificant hired hand”. The killer, he asserted, acted “at the behest of those patriots who would rather kill than be exposed”.

Twenty-two years apart, the murders of the mafioso and the journalist are tied together by one common thread: The strange story of how the Generals who ran the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) worked together with Afghan and Pakistani drug cartels to raise funds for global jihadists—and to enrich themselves.

The ISI’s heroin empire

Even though it engaged in the unglamorous business of trading rice, Magnum Africa Limited protected its privacy like an offshore bank. The company registration records bore just a post-office box number, and the column for the nationality of the directors had been left blank. The owner, Anwar Muhammad, held a Pakistani passport, but that wasn’t his name or nationality. Magnum Africa’s owner was Munaf Halari, sought by authorities for providing three vehicles used in the Mumbai bombings of 1993, which claimed 257 lives.

Following the bombings, the Gujarat Police alleges, Halari relocated to Kenya with a passport provided by ganglord Ibrahim ‘Tiger’ Memon with the help of the ISI. There, he set up the rice business to act as a front for running heroin from Pakistan, which was routed onwards to markets in Europe.

Ever since the Afghan jihad erupted in 1979, the ISI had encouraged mujahideen groups to raise cash through running heroin. Large landowners and drug cartels cooperated with the mujahideen to ensure smooth movement of the opium crop to Karachi port. The mujahideen commander, Mullah Nasim Akhundzada, expert Gretchen Peters reports, threatened farmers who refused to plant poppy with castration. The crop surged.

The regime of military ruler General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in Pakistan, expert David Winston recorded in a study published by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), “engaged heavily in the heroin trade”. Zia, he wrote, “fostered an ecosystem of government protection of heroin dealers, government officials profiting off of the heroin trade, and significant political influence of heroin syndicates in the government”. After the assassination of General Zia, the ISI continued to tap drug money to pay for its growing operations in Kashmir.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif would later allege that he had been approached by Chief of Army Staff Lieutenant General Mirza Aslam Beg and ISI Director General Asad Durrani to authorise large-scale drug deals to fund “a series of covert military operations in desperate need of money”.

The United States chose to ignore the ISI drug-running and focussed on defeating the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The director of the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) Afghanistan operations, Charles Cogan, later told journalist Loretta Nepoleoni that the US sacrificed its war on drugs to win the Cold War.

Also read: Imran Khan has Pakistani army ducking & defending. Why it’s a historic moment for the subcontinent

The poppy entrepreneurs

Two kilograms of heroin packed into his suitcases, the tall young man made his way through transit at Frankfurt airport. The son of a free-spirited American socialite and a Pakistani broadcaster—one eye blue, the other brown, bearing striking evidence of his mixed heritage—David Coleman Headley hoped ferrying drugs from Pakistan to the US would solve mounting financial problems. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) had other ideas, though, and Headley received a four-year prison sentence in 1988.

Early in 1997, the DEA again arrested Headley—this time releasing him only after he signed up as an informant. This journey would eventually take Headley into the dark world of Pakistan’s jihadists and 26/11.

A new generation of poppy entrepreneurs like Headley was setting up businesses around the same time—most important among them, Dawood Ibrahim lieutenants like Halari who had fled India after the 1993 bombings.

Ethnic Asians—with ties of kinship and trade to Karachi, and often involved in smuggling gold or consumer electronics—provided the backbone for this expansion, Simone Haysom recorded. The Akasha and Tahir Sheikh Said family in Kenya, Ali Khatib Haji Hassan in Tanzania, Gulam Rassul Moti, and Mommade Rassul in Mozambique: Little empires of drugs mushroomed across the East Africa coast.

The Taliban rule in Afghanistan saw a dramatic surge in heroin production. Early on, the trafficking lines to Europe ran north through Iran into eastern Turkey and from Central Asia to Russia. The Dawood cartel pushed south into the Indian Ocean using the services of traffickers like Mir Yakub Bizenjo—a vocal supporter of former military ruler General Pervez Musharraf who was named as head of one of the world’s top four cartels.

Faced with growing pressure from the US, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto occasionally threw Washington a bone, extraditing notorious traffickers like Muhammed Anwar Khattak and Mirza Iqbal Baig.

Islamabad, though, became mired in drug money. Waris Khan Afridi, appointed minister for tribal affairs by Bhutto, was later arrested for trafficking heroin. Haji Ayub Afridi, once a key figure in Nawaz Sharif’s Islami Jamhoori Ittehad, also played a key role in building narcotics networks.

The ISI’s guarantee of impunity allowed the cartels to flourish. Karachi businessman Jabir ‘Motiwala’ Siddiq, who narrowly evaded extradition to the US last year on a technicality, is believed to have invested cartel funds in the Karachi Stock Exchange as well as property and businesses in Dubai and East Africa. The wealth was generously shared with senior Generals, Indian intelligence officials say, leading Pakistan’s government to lobby hard for Siddiq’s release.

In Karachi, journalist Ghulam Hasnain wrote in 2001, Dawood capitalised on this patronage to live the high life. The Don’s evenings, he noted, were spent in revelry—”usually comprising drinks, mujras and gambling”. “Carousing through the night, Dawood and his companions quit only at dawn and then collectively offer prayers.”

The tide of blood

The murder on Blood Street led to a wave of killings. The first to die was Magdi Yusuf, an Egyptian-born cartel member who Ibrahim Akasha had planned to visit for coffee to discuss a long-pending $2.5 million-dollar payment. Magdi’s brother, Mounir, was murdered in 2004. Sam Klepper, a Dutch drug dealer, who owed the money to the Magdis, and his lieutenant John Flemer, ended up dead too. Kamaldin, Akasha’s second-born son, was killed in family feud over payments.

Fifteen years after Ibrahim Akasha’s killing, a crack team of elite special forces personnel surrounded his palm-fringed mansion outside Mombasa. The US-led sting operation resulted in the arrest of Akasha’s sons, Baktash Ibrahim as well as their Indian aide, Vijaygiri Goswami. The brothers will spend the next two decades in prison for trafficking drugs and weapons.

Killings and arrests, though, have left the heroin trade untouched. The United Nations warned this month that Afghan production has surged again under the Taliban. There has been a surge in seizures across the Indian Ocean rim.

In Karachi, police sources say, the Dawood cartel is working to ensure an orderly succession after its patriarch dies, with control being shared by his son, Moeen, and brothers Anis and Mustaquim—as well as the ISI.

Arshad Sharif’s killing could prove further evidence of how far the ISI will go to protect its deepest secrets. The ethnic-Baloch journalist Sajid Hussain, who reported on druglord Bizenjo, was found dead in unexplained circumstances. The journalist Ahmad Waqas Goraya, among the most vocal critics of the ISI, escaped what is credibly suspected to be a State-sponsored assassination attempt. The scholar Ayesha Siddiqa, and journalist Taha Siddiqui, have received threats to their life.

The toxic fragrance of poppies has helped the Generals hide the stench of blood.

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(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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