The Man Behind Pakistani Spy Agency's Plot to Influence Washington

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Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai came to the U.S. on Saudi money with hopes of helping people in the disputed Indian territory of Kashmir. But he found himself spending millions on behalf of Pakistan's notorious Inter-Services Intelligence and, now, under arrest

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Indian troops patrol in Kashmir, the disputed territory Fai wanted to help / Reuters

The night should have been a coup for Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai. Once a poor villager from halfway around the world, Fai had become the go-to man in Washington, D.C., for his cause, Kashmir, the Himalayan region long caught in a tug of war between Pakistan and India.

And there he was on March 4, 2010, hosting a fundraiser for Rep. Dan Burton, the Indiana Republican who had been the chief supporter in Congress of Fai's Kashmiri American Council for 20 years. In some ways, the event inside Fai's home in Fairfax, Va., symbolized everything that Fai had become, featuring speeches in the living room and kebabs and curries in the basement.

But it barely camouflaged how Fai's carefully built world was collapsing.

The FBI was monitoring almost every move Fai made, every e-mail he sent, every call he received. Investigators believed Fai's main donors were not well-meaning idealists, but members of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI, the most powerful of Pakistan's spy agencies.

Within weeks, the Justice Department would send Fai a letter of warning. Within months, he would be pulled over by New York police with $35,000 in cash in his car. And by the next year, Fai would be arrested, the unlikely central character in a scheme by a foreign government to pay more than $4 million to sway U.S. politicians and policy on Kashmir, the Justice Department says.

Fai's tale of rags to riches to arrest this summer is a lesson in how easy it is to win influence in Washington. Fai mingled with some of America's top politicians, meeting President Bill Clinton and drawing as many as 32 members of Congress to his annual conference on Kashmir. His access to power illustrates an issue that could become even more significant in this election cycle: foreign money illegally coming into U.S. political campaigns.

But the case, the first known criminal prosecution of its kind, could also involve much more. It is unfolding at a particularly sour moment in the relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan, once a key ally in the war on terror. Fai's alleged accomplice, Zaheer Ahmad, is a prominent Pakistani-American who runs one of the nicest hospitals in Pakistan. The FBI has allegedly questioned at least one witness about Ahmad's ties to a Pakistani nuclear scientist who once met with Osama bin Laden.

Fai long denied being an agent of Pakistan to the Indian press, the FBI and the Justice Department. That changed the day he was arrested. Then, the FBI says, he told an agent that for 15 years, the ISI had funneled money to him and directed him to attend certain conferences and even to report back on certain people.

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Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai / AP

"He was living a lie," Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Kromberg said at Fai's initial court hearing. "When he spoke to politicians, when he spoke to members of Congress, when he spoke to heads of state, he didn't say, 'I get my money from the ISI.'"

A Pakistani embassy official in Washington, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case, said allegations that Fai and Ahmad were working for the ISI were false. "The ISI has no connection with these two persons," he said, adding that the FBI has not talked to anyone at the embassy about the investigation.

So far, Fai, 62, and Ahmad, 63, have been accused of failing to register as foreign agents, punishable by a maximum of five years in prison. Fai also has been accused of making false statements. But Ahmad--who is free in Pakistan--and Fai, released on $100,000 bond and under house arrest, may soon face other charges. A grand jury has been hearing evidence, and a recent deadline to indict the men or drop the case was extended by two months.

Typically, people at the center of such cases remain a mystery, refusing to speak about their predicament or what led up to it. Fai, a birdlike man with a sing-song voice and thinning hair combed to the side, declined to talk about the case against him. But in his only interview since his arrest, Fai offered a detailed account of his journey from being a victim of world events to, in some small way, a shaper of them. Another U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia, played a pivotal role in his transformation, he explained. Mostly, though, Fai spoke about Kashmir, which remains his focus even as his legal troubles rise.

"[My wife] said, 'You are not doing anything wrong, so you are helping your people of Kashmir,'" said Fai, sitting on a floral-patterned couch beneath a framed verse of the Holy Quran. "And we know it's not an easy job, but we have to live with it."

•       •       •       •       •


Fai was born in 1949, just after the first war between Pakistan and India over Kashmir. India had held onto the Muslim-majority territory during its partition with Pakistan, even though Pakistan claimed it. The U.N. brokered a truce and called for a plebiscite for Kashmiris, which never happened. Kashmir remained split.

Fai grew up in a poor farming village near poplars and rice paddies about 25 miles outside Srinagar, the summer capital of India's state of Jammu and Kashmir. His father was an Islamic cleric.

The struggle over Kashmir consumed Fai: He listened to speeches from Pakistan on an illicit transistor radio. He waited outside for eight hours to see a leader just released from jail. By 1965, India and Pakistan were again at war over Kashmir, and Fai recalled watching his family slaughter sheep and chickens, then taking food and clothes to Pakistani soldiers hiding in the forest.

That same year, at age 16, Fai married, his first wife said. The couple had two children. Both died young.

Fai attended college in Srinagar and fell in with the Jamaat-e-Islami, a fundamentalist South Asian Islamic group later linked to militant groups. He worked as the executive assistant to the local Jamaat founder, said Syed Atiqullah Ashiq, a Jamaat colleague and friend.

In 1976, shortly after India's prime minister declared an emergency and banned groups like Jamaat, Fai left home for a university outside Delhi and eventually for Saudi Arabia.

There, his life changed with one chance encounter in July 1980. A university dean encouraged Fai to reach out to the imam of Kaaba, the cleric who leads prayers at the holiest site in Islam. Fai recalled inviting the imam to a Kashmir conference sponsored by Jamaat in Srinagar. The cleric agreed. At the age of 31, Fai returned to Kashmir, escorting perhaps the most influential Islamic leader in the world.

Tens of thousands of people showed up to hear the imam give a series of speeches. At one point, the scene was so chaotic, Fai lost a shoe.

"It really revolutionized the whole thinking of the people of Kashmir: We are not alone," Fai recalled.

Fai and the imam of Kaaba played a pivotal role in introducing the strict Saudi vision of Islam to Kashmir, which traditionally had been more moderate, said Arif Jamal, a Pakistani journalist who has written a book on the shadow war in Kashmir and researched Fai's role.

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Kim Barker, Habiba Nosheen, and Raheel Khursheed / ProPublica

Kim Barker and Habiba Nosheen are reporters for ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit newsroom in New York City that produces investigative journalism. Raheel Khursheed is a Kashmir-based freelancer.

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