Islamabad, May 12: The twin towers in New York were still smoldering in September 2001 when Pakistan spy chief Gen Mahmood Ahmed went to Afghanistan with the task of urging the Taliban to hand over al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
The message he actually gave Mullah Mohammed Omar was quite different: "Protect Osama. Hide him. We will help you," according to former Taliban deputy interior minister Mullah Mohammed Khaksar. His version has been confirmed by US officials and former Pakistani spies.
A decade later, the US has raised a stinging question: Did Pakistan's premier spy agency, the ISI, know that bin Laden had been living for at least five years near a military garrison in Abbottabad?
The answer is quite likely yes, according to ex-ISI agents, military men and analysts, but the issue is really who knew and how close they might have been to the top.
A week after Navy SEALS killed bin Laden, the US has demanded the names of ISI operatives from Pakistan to investigate what dealings they may have had with al-Qaida.
An ISI official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said no formal inquiry was being held, and that it was "no one's concern" whether Pakistan investigated how bin Laden had lived under the nose of the military without detection.
At the heart of the matter is the long, complicated relationship between the ISI and various militant groups.
The ISI, which is part of Pakistan's military, has a history of spawning and funding jihadi groups to fight India, in particular for the disputed territory of Kashmir.
Pakistan's military relies heavily on these groups in the absence of the conventional might to take on India, said defence analyst Ayesha Siddiqua.
For example, Pakistan has hosted training camps for militants and has sent them across the border into India, according to US intelligence reports.
"How else do you fight?" Siddiqua asked. "It is the Pakistan version of private security guards."
However, some of these jihadi groups have links to al-Qaida and share with it a militant Islamic philosophy.
Harakat-ul-jihad-Islam, the leader of the Illyas Kashmiri group against India, is also believed by Western intelligence to be al-Qaida's operational chief in Pakistan.
And Lashkar e-Taiba, which the US calls a terrorist group, is thought to have close funding and operational ties to al-Qaida.
Former President Pervez Musharraf long ago promised to cut off close ties with militants, but there is no evidence that he followed through. Pakistan also claims that it has purged religious extremists from the ISI over the past decade.
The ISI did drop Gen Ahmed soon after the 9/11 attacks, at the insistence of the United States, and Musharraf has handed over senior al-Qaida operatives such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubayda and Ramzi Binalshib to the United States.
In a WikiLeaks diplomatic cable dating to May 12, 2008, a US delegation asked Musharraf for his views on reports that the Pakistan army and ISI were complicit in allowing militant activities to continue.
Musharraf did not give a direct response, but talked instead about the job of catching militants. "Musharraf said that it wasn't as easy as it appeared," the cable notes.
"The mountainous terrain, poor communications, and local supporters impeded efforts to capture and kill these militants."
Despite his protests, experts say, Musharraf grew up under a religious regime and understands the power of religiously motivated uprisings.
If anything, the ISI may be as fundamentalist as ever, partly because military personnel from a time when the army was openly involved with militants still work in operations, Siddiqua said.
The ISI also falls under suspicion because bin Laden went undetected despite the many security guards and officers in Abbottabad, a leafy city of 400,000 people close to Islamabad.
Al-Qaida has a history in the area: Senior Indonesian al-Qaida operative Umar Patek was arrested there in January, based on information from a captured al-Qaida member, an intelligence official said.
And in 2003, raids were conducted in Abbottabad looking for al-Qaida senior lieutenant Abu Laith al-Libi, who was eventually caught not far away in Mardan in 2005. AP