The Headley saga

Print edition : August 19, 2016
The book provides an excellent perspective on global terrorism via the story of David Headley.

IN times when terror strikes occur with frightening regularity, it would seem almost the need of the hour to understand where these brutal plans originate and why. The Mind of a Terrorist: The Strange Case of David Headley, written by Kaare Sorensen, a journalist who has extensively covered Islamist terrorism and international affairs, is a book that provides an excellent insight into terrorism via the story of David Headley, who is considered one of the most dangerous terrorists alive today.

Published originally in Danish, the book is about the journey of Headley, the reconnaissance man behind the November 2008 terror attack in Mumbai and the master strategist of a failed strike on Jyllands-Posten, a Danish daily that published a controversial set of cartoons on the Prophet Mohammed in 2005. Sorensen traces Headley’s life from his early and turbulent days in Pakistan to his move to the United States (he was born to an American mother), his drug-peddling years and eventually his attraction to jehadis. The writer skilfully puts it together like a racy thriller, though this is the true story of a crucial cog in the treacherous world of terrorism.

Sorensen has written the book after extensive reporting from the field, from eyewitness interviews and by analysing 300 previously unpublished emails that Headley sent to friends and acquaintances in 2008-09. The documentation collected also included court transcripts, wiretaps and a chat room cache of 9,000 messages that Headley accessed. From this has emerged an account so detailed that it brings clarity to an attack that took terror to an unprecedented realm.

This book explains why Headley is considered dangerous and why it is critical to understand him. Sorensen says: “Before a terror attack becomes an item on a breaking news ticker or social media, before the first shot is fired, even before the attackers pack their weapons, you will find a guy like David Headley. He could be the person sitting next to you in the hotel lobby or at a bar in any major city of the world. And he would fit in…. David Headley is one of those creators of fear. He is the designer.” Headley’s story is critical to understanding the mind of a terrorist, says the author.

Headley was not just a reconnaissance man, he was also a double agent who apparently moved freely between countries even though the U.S. authorities had arrested him and knew about his illegal activities. Sorensen brings out this baffling aspect through various examples that leave the reader wondering why the authorities were so lax. However, it is clear quite soon why it took so long for him to be put behind bars. Each time Headley was caught, he would unflinchingly turn traitor and reveal the people behind his nefarious actions. This paid off because he became a useful tool for the U.S. authorities who were tracking drug routes and subsequently jehadi militants.

For instance, in 1988, the first time he was detained, at Frankfurt airport, the authorities seized $5 million worth of heroin from the lining of his suitcase. Headley not only confessed but helped the U.S. Drug Enforcement Authority (DEA) arrest two drug operatives in the U.S. He did this again in 1997. In this case he earned himself a lesser sentence by leading the DEA to the Pakistani drug world. When he was eventually caught boarding a flight from Chicago to Pakistan (towards the end of the book) in 2009, Headley sang like a canary. According to Sorensen’s reports, Headley spoke for more than a week. He told them everything—from his training in Waziristan to the project in Denmark.

Sorensen sets the scene with the attack on Mumbai, in which 10 men entered via the sea and went on a killing spree in the southern part of the island city. It is widely known that Headley had been to India several times on reconnaissance missions for this attack on behalf of the Laskhkar-e-Taiba (LeT). The book describes these missions, his time in Mumbai and the people he befriended.

There are numerous accounts of the 26/11 attack, yet Sorensen manages to reveal fresh information. The detailed phone conversations between the LeT control room and terrorists in Mumbai are especially chilling. Here is a sample: An LeT leader, Sajid Mir, is speaking to two terrorists in Nariman House, or the Jewish Chabad House. The hostages are two Jewish women.

“Have you done the job yet or not?”

“We were just waiting for you to call back, so we could do it while you’re on the phone.”

“Do it in God’s name,” said Sajid impatiently.

The roar of a machine gun could be heard from Nariman House. There were no screams.


“That was one of them, right?”

“Both,” said [Abu] Akasha softly.

No amount of information is ever enough, and some of those who lived through the attack believe it is a form of catharsis to understand what happened. This is where Sorensen’s graphic descriptions set his book apart from other reports on the terror strike. Through the transcripts of phone calls, he constructs vivid descriptions of the violence at the targeted sites. The Dane Jesper Bornak’s eyewitness account of the shootout at Cafe Leopold on Colaba Causeway is particularly graphic but helps one understand what happened in the restaurant on that fateful night.

From the Mumbai attack, the book moves to Headley’s indoctrination into the LeT in 2002, a year after the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. For the LeT, Headley was an asset. He held an American passport and could travel in and out of countries reasonably easily. It is while writing about this training that Sorensen introduces India and, subsequently, Headley’s hatred for the country.

Hatred for India

An interesting few chapters deal with why Headley harbours this hatred for India. Sorensen traces some of it to Headley’s childhood years in Pakistan, where his school was bombed by Indian missiles. He was not even a teenager yet, but he no longer had any doubt about who his enemy was. He learned to spit on the street when he saw an Indian, the book says in the chapter titled “The Prince”. Extensive information on Headley’s thoughts on Islam and the pull he felt towards Salafists (fundamentalists who believe in a return to the original ways of Islam), which led him to believe in jehad, fill chapters that are particularly riveting as the writer explores what made Headley the man he is.

Sorensen’s documentation seems to indicate that Headley had a wide circle of friends in Pakistan with whom he would hold discussions in chat groups or via email. The subject was Islam. He seemed to have the ability to cultivate people, including some of the top and most elusive leaders of the LeT. Tahawwur Rana, his closest friend and confidant, was one of those who fell victim to Headley’s agenda and is someone Headley used and indoctrinated. He is the only person Headley does not inform on.

Headley’s Achilles heel was women. By quoting Osama Bin Laden’s views on polygamy, Headley would, the book says, justify his actions with regard to women. Eventually, he married Shazia, the daughter of a Pakistani friend of his father’s. A few years later, he married a Moroccan student, Faiza Outalla, with whom he had a volatile relationship. While Shazia was his confidant and applauded his work in the Mumbai attack, Faiza had complained twice to the U.S. authorities about her husband’s involvement with terrorists. This is another instance where the authorities “ignored” information on Headley.

Sorensen’s deep research comes out in the chapters that deal with the militants. While Sajid Mir figures in Headley’s early days, it is the dreaded Illiyas Kashmiri, a wanted terrorist, who seems to have had a striking influence on Headley. Kashmiri appears to be the one who guided Headley on the Denmark project, and Headley seems to have placed all his faith in this terrorist’s network and methods.

The disappearance of Kashmiri (believed to be dead or in hiding) around 2009 eventually caused Headley to become desperate. The attack on Denmark was delayed and the lack of contact with the LeT top brass saw Headley floundering. At this time, the U.S. authorities fed by tips from intelligence bureaus in Europe and the United Kingdom decided to home in on Headley.

Sorensen spends a few chapters on the planning behind the attack on Jyllands-Posten. Following the success of Mumbai, Denmark seemed the obvious next target, according to a conversation captured between Headley and Sajid Mir. The book brings out the extremists’ loathing for Denmark. It also seems to scarily imply that in spite of the failure of Headley and his crew to blow up and cut off heads at Jyllands-Posten, Europe has not heard the last of the militants. The book reveals the existence of terror cells across Europe; these are the people Kashmiri guided Headley to. The reader is left with the uncomfortable feeling that these cells continue to operate. The recent terror attacks in Europe could perhaps be a result of this network.

With its easy narrative, the book is a page-turner that can be read by a wide audience. It is also an important narrative as it does not just explain the mind of Headley but is a journey through a critical period of terror, from 1997 to 2010. These years saw the jehadi movement growing and the 9/11 terror attack, which completely changed the global outlook on terror.

For The Mind of a Terrorist, Sorensen won the 2014 FUJ-Prisen, the Danish Association for Investigative Journalism’s prestigious award for best investigative book.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor