Bigger fish: to fry or to catch?

Published: February 13, 2020
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PHOTO: AFP

PHOTO: AFP

PHOTO: AFP The writer is a political analyst. He can be reached at ijan@uh.edu. Twitter @Imran_Jan

Governments — more precisely, intelligence agencies — around the world sometimes let nefarious actors enter their country and at other times cut them loose. But observation and investigative journalism have helped us all conclude that broadly such actions are done either to tail the nefarious actor so it could lead to catching a bigger fish or to achieve some other greater good because like it or not; countries always have a bigger fish to fry.

Ehsanullah Ehsan has mysteriously disappeared from the custody of Pakistan’s security forces. Many are talking about the incompetence of the security forces and what the consequences of that could be for the fate of Pakistan’s FATF situation. Others are curious as to whether or not this was some bargain in a larger deal that was made in the shadows. However, Mohsin Dawar, Bilawal Bhutto, and the likes should stop using this to gain some relevance for their failed politics.

Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, also known as “the blind sheikh”, was an Egyptian cleric who fled Egypt to escape the wrath unleashed on him by Hosni Mubarak’s regime. He ended up in New York and was the spiritual imam and guide to the bombers who blew up the World Trade Center in 1993, killing six people. He had also approved the killing of the rabbi, Meir Kahane, by El Sayyid Nosair. He called on Muslims to attack the West and to “sink their ships, shoot down their planes, kill them on the sea, air, or land”.

Sheikh Omar was on a terror watch list before arriving in the US. How did he get into the country? This is where it gets juicy. Officially, someone in the US Embassy in Khartoum made an error and that was how he entered the US unnoticed. Unofficially, he was allowed into the country by the CIA as a favour because of his help in fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. Frying of the bigger fish; showing the world the goodies one gets by helping America.

Fast forward to 9/11. In January 2000, two of the bombers named Khalid al Mihdhar and Nawaf al Hazmi arrived in Los Angeles via the LAX airport. The CIA had been tracking them since the time of their now notorious meeting in Kuala Lumpur. When they landed in Los Angeles, the CIA did not alert the FBI about their presence in the country. The aim was to catch the bigger fish. The pursuit led to the worst terrorist attack in American history.

Ehsanullah Ehsan’s escape could have been part of a deal where this could have been that one side of the bargain. We do not know. This is what tradecraft is all about. When Francis Gary Powers of the US Air Force was captured in the USSR after the Soviets shot down his U-2 spy plane, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison by a Soviet court. However, he was released much earlier because he was swapped with a Russian spy named Rudolf Ivanovich Abel. The exchange of spies happened in the shadows but both sides served the greater good of bringing home their men. Bigger fish frying.

In 2014, when the Senate Intelligence Committee was preparing its damning report on the detention and interrogation programme of the CIA, its officers penetrated the computer networks of the Senate panel in order to spy on their work. The body was spying on its own watchdog.

The point is that the slips and sneaks through the cracks are not unique to any country. For elected officials to not know the intelligence is not unique to any country either.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 13th, 2020.

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