Pakistani court frees FBI agent, averting diplomatic spat

Joel Cox, an FBI agent on temporary assignment, was arrested Monday at an airport in Pakistan after a search revealed ammunition in his baggage. A court freed him on bail. 

Mohammad Khalil/AP
An American national (c.), reportedly working for the FBI, leaves a police station in Karachi, Pakistan, Thursday, May 8, 2014. Pakistan released FBI agent Joel Cox (not identified in photo) on bail Thursday after three days in custody, officials said, a move that is likely to prevent the situation from escalating into a diplomatic spat between the US and Pakistan.

A court in Karachi today granted bail to Joel Cox, an FBI agent who was arrested Monday after he tried to board a domestic flight with a magazine of 9mm bullets. 

His detention sparked speculation in Pakistan that he was a CIA agent and triggered memories of Raymond Davis, a contractor who killed two men who allegedly tried to rob him in Lahore in 2011 and was jailed for months. That same year, US forces killed Osama bin Laden in a nighttime raid without informing Pakistan in advance, further straining relations.

US officials say Mr. Cox, who is based in Miami, was on temporary assignment in Pakistan. And his release within three days appeared to quell fears of a diplomatic spat between the US and Pakistan. Moreover, the fact that an FBI agent was working on assignment in Pakistan may point to a steady uptick in the working relationship between police and intelligence counterparts.  

“It's been a very close, collaborative relationship,” says Shamila Chaudhary, a counterterrorism expert at the New America Foundation who served as director for Pakistan and Afghanistan on the National Security Council in Washington from 2010-2011. “It's been very under the radar, not something that makes its way into the headlines, and it's not intended to.  But the ability of the US to capture Al Qaeda operatives [in Pakistan] is due to this cooperation between the FBI and Pakistani law enforcement.”  

Cox's case seems fairly benign, says David Gomez, a retired senior FBI agent in Seattle with experience in counterterrorism cases. “Agents sometimes carry weapons for self-defense while flying from one station to another; weapons are usually shipped by diplomatic pouch, over land,” he says, adding that Cox likely just forgot to declare he was carrying ammunition with him.

Given the global reach of criminal and terrorist networks, the FBI is increasingly pursuing leads in other countries. The bureau has a presence at more than 70 embassies worldwide, usually in the form of a legal attaché – an agent who works with local authorities to track local leads in cases in the US but has no powers of arrest. The State Department has said that Cox was providing “routine assistance to the legal attaché” in Pakistan.

Gomez says agents routinely apply for foreign postings that can last 60-90 days, usually in the summer, when embassy staff take vacation.  An attaché is assisted by a handful of other agents, but it is not clear how many such agents are posted in Pakistan. Gomez says before 2011, he knew of six FBI agents working in Pakistan. 

Joint investigations

In 1995, the FBI's work with Pakistani police in Islamabad resulted in the arrest of Ramzi Yousef, a Kuwaiti behind the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. In 1997, another joint investigation turned up Mir Qazi, a Pakistani who had killed two CIA workers in 1993 outside the agency’s headquarters. 

In 2002, Pakistani police arrested Abu Zubaydah, a Saudi Arabian national who was allegedly one of Al Qaeda's top leaders. Information he supplied led to the arrest of more than 60 Al Qaeda members in Pakistan who were handed to the US.

Ms. Chaudhary says the collaboration “slowed down” by 2009, as Pakistan began to focus on domestic terror groups. The CIA, which often worked with the FBI but ran its own operations in Pakistan as well, built an independent intelligence network around this time, fearing Pakistan may no longer cooperate.

Law-enforcement cooperation hasn’t all been one-way: the US has extradited around a dozen people to Pakistan to face terrorism and corruption charges. 

However, Mr. Davis’s case left many Pakistanis wary of allowing US security officials to operate here. Dozens of American officials were expelled in the aftermath. Pakistan now grants fewer diplomatic visas to American officials, so personnel from the Defense Department, the State Department, the FBI, and the CIA are often assigned non-diplomatic visas, says Gomez.

Gomez speculates that Cox was probably traveling on an Official US Passport, which is not the same as a diplomatic passport.  “To the US, it means he is on official business, but it has no legal meaning to Pakistani officials,” he says.

Pakistani authorities are scrutinizing Cox closely. His laptop has been seized and sent to a forensics laboratory. “That's the kind of thing you do in an intelligence gathering operation,” says Gomez, who says Pakistan's wariness is understandable. “The Pakistani government doesn't even necessarily know everything the US government is doing there,” he says.

Megan Gregonis, a US embassy spokesperson in Islamabad, says US officials are “working closely with Pakistani authorities to resolve the matter.”  

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