Of the many dramas to grip Pakistan since the death of Osama bin Laden on 2 May, a cameo appearance by the country's most notorious spymaster had to be among the most intriguing.
Last week Afghan intelligence put out a story that General Hamid Gul, a retired chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI), had been caught shunting the one-eyed Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, between safe houses in Pakistan's border badlands.
It seemed to make sense. The ISI, which on Tuesday faced angry questions over the death of a journalist who allegedly died in its custody, has long been accused of covertly aiding the Taliban. Gul is Pakistan's guardian angel of jihad – an outspoken Islamist who supports the Taliban and spends much of his time peddling lurid conspiracy theories on television.
But the story quickly crumbled. First the Afghans changed their account, saying Omar had been captured, not killed. Then the Taliban insisted their leader was active and well. Finally Gul popped up, like a puppet show villain, to nay-say his detractors. "Ridiculous, rubbish, a joke frankly. What else can I say?" the 74-year-old, arching an eyebrow, told the Guardian at his office near army headquarters in Rawalpindi. "Those people need to find a scapegoat and I am a convenient symbol."
But a symbol of what, exactly? Gul's name has featured prominently in dispatches before. In 2006, when President Pervez Musharraf suggested a cabal of "rogue" ex-ISI officers was helping the Taliban, Gul was thought to be on the list. In 2008 Sindh government named him on a police charge sheet related to a plot to kill Benazir Bhutto.
Then last summer Gul was named nine times in the Afghan "war logs" – US military records, released through WikiLeaks, which painted the retired general as a major Taliban puppetmaster.
Intelligence reports from Afghan informants accused him of running weapons, visiting a school for suicide bombers, plotting to kidnap UN officials and huddling with al-Qaida fugitives in Waziristan. "Make the snow warm in Kabul," he reportedly told one group of insurgents.
Experts pooh-poohed the reports as low-grade intelligence and Gul shot into the limelight again, apparently basking in the attention. "Why would I burn Kabul? I love the Afghans," he says smoothly. "They are a rare species that needs to be protected – particularly those who stand up and fight."
The reports highlighted how Gul has become a bogeyman of sorts to Pakistan's neighbours – the incarnation of ISI meddling and support for jihadi groups such as the Taliban.
But some Pakistanis laugh at his reputation for skulduggery in retirement, describing him as little more than a windbag provocateur to whom foreigners – including many western journalists – give too much importance.
It has even triggered a new school of jokes, Naheed Mustafa noted in Foreign Policy this week. "How many Afghans does it take to screw in a lightbulb?" goes one. "None! Hamid Gul won't let them have electricity!"
It's hard to image Gul, with his coiffed hair, pressed shirts and back-to-back media appearances, skulking in the mountains of Waziristan. Yet there is little doubt he has an impact on Islamist opinion – if not operations – in south Asia. Although he was a key player in covert ISI operations in the 80s and 90s – he headed the ISI between 1988 and 1990 – since 2001 his main area of operations has been the media. On television chat shows, he denies al-Qaida carried out the September 2001 attacks and asserts that the raid that killed Bin Laden – a man he proudly admits he once lunched with – is nothing but a figment of US propaganda.
"Fear is no policy, surrender is no option" reads the banner on his website.
He is a big draw in India, a country he openly despises, where he has "become a metaphor for what the ISI does", said Barkha Dutta, a presenter with New Delhi TV. "He's never short of a quotable quote, no matter how unpalatable it may be."
Some western countries take Gul rather seriously. The UK has refused him a visa since 2000 – the Home office sent a letter advising him not even to apply, he complains – while the US has lobbied to add his name to a UN sanctions list of people with ties to al-Qaida or the Taliban.
"This is just the product of their own failure in Afghanistan," said Gul. "They are faced with defeat."
His most serious impact, perhaps, is as the flag-bearer of hardline Islamist opinion within the army. Although he cloaks his opinions in religion, Gul's core political interest is military power. And he is controversial among the generals – he clashed virulently with Musharraf, a man he hopes "goes to the gallows" for having sided with America.
These days Gul shares a platform with figures such as the cricketer turned politician Imran Khan, the Jamaat-e-Islami religious party and a media tycoon named Majid Nizami who once expressed a desire to strap himself to a nuclear missile bound for India. Their views help shape public opinion – 49% of Pakistanis polled by Gallup say Bin Laden's death was faked by the US.
But that conspiracy-laced rhetoric has come under fire since Bin Laden's death. The army has faced a storm of unprecedented criticism, as have champions of covert jihad such as Gul. "Let's face facts and stop living in denial," read an editorial in Friday's Dawn.
The general is unapologetic. He refuses to stand for election, believing religion, not democracy, holds the key to Pakistan's revival. "The ills of an Islamic society can be rectified with more Islam, not less," he said, pulling a Qur'an from his drawer.
But, as fresh turmoil looms over Pakistan, the number of people that truly agree with that idea is less certain than ever.