The Headley factor

Published : Jul 01, 2011 00:00 IST

The Shyam Niwas building in Mumbai, where Headley is believed to have stayed. - SANTOSH HIRLEKAR/PTI

The Shyam Niwas building in Mumbai, where Headley is believed to have stayed. - SANTOSH HIRLEKAR/PTI

David Headley keeps harping on his links with the Pakistani establishment, but there is not a word about his links with U.S. agencies.

THE trial of Chicago businessman Tahawwur Rana, accused of helping David Coleman Headley in the planning of the Mumbai terror attacks of November 2008, has once again brought into focus Pakistan and the terror networks that are active within its borders.

Headley has been in American custody for more than a year and has since become a star witness for the prosecution. To escape the death penalty, the man who claims to have played a key role in the Mumbai massacre has negotiated a plea bargain with the United States' Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The arrangement apparently suits both sides. As the proceedings in the Chicago trial court showed, Headley only talked about the alleged complicity of Pakistani intelligence agencies in the terror attacks against India. His past as an agent for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), which has close links with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), has been conveniently glossed over.

During his testimony on the witness stand, Headley provided no new information. But the trial, coming as it does in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden and the terror attacks against a Pakistani naval base in Karachi, brought more unwelcome attention on Pakistan. The Obama administration is deeply suspicious about sections of the Pakistani army and intelligence services after the Al Qaeda leader was discovered to have been living undisturbed for around six years in the balmy cantonment town of Abbottabad, near Islamabad, the capital. Rana is on trial, but in many ways the Pakistani army and the Pakistani intelligence is on trial, Bruce Riedel, a former senior CIA officer currently working at the Brookings Institute, told The New York Times.

In the open courtroom, Headley once again named Major Iqbal as his Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) contact in Pakistan and Sajid Mir as his handler from the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Headley admitted that he had no contacts with any senior ISI officer. The Pakistani government denies the existence of the mysterious Major in the ISI. Headley also admitted under cross-examination from the defence lawyer Charles Swift that he could neither identify Major Iqbal nor help in efforts to locate him. (Despite the persisting confusion over his identity, the U.S. authorities have put Major Iqbal on their most wanted terror list.)

The well-known American lawyer reminded the court of Headley's track record. Headley, he said, was working for the DEA when he started training with the Lashkar and allegedly started taking orders from the ISI. He described Headley as a master manipulator who had pleaded guilty on earlier occasions in order to escape severe sentences. Swift is the lawyer who successfully got the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the military commissions set up under the Bush administration to try the Guantanamo Bay detainees.

Headley also told the court that he had met with Ilyas Kashmiri, the leader of the Harakat-ul-Jihad al-Islami, during his frequent trips to the Indian subcontinent. Kashmiri, according to Headley, had wanted militant groups to target the offices of Lockheed Martin, the American armaments company that manufactures the drones that have been running havoc all over Pakistan. Kashmiri has been held responsible for many acts of terror in India and Pakistan. He claimed responsibility for the attack on the Pakistani naval base in Karachi, which was apparently carried out to avenge the death of Osama. A few days after Headley named him in the Chicago court, Kashmiri was reported killed in a U.S. drone attack in Southern Waziristan. Pakistani authorities claimed that they helped the U.S. forces locate his whereabouts. I understood these [militant] groups operated under the umbrella of the ISI and the Lashkar, Headley had told the Chicago trial court.

The Lashkar has now become the common enemy of both the U.S. and India. A recent U.S. government report describes the Lashkar as one of the most dangerous and well-organised terror groups that consider it legitimate to attack American targets. According to Headley, both the ISI and the Lashkar wanted him to conduct surveillance on targets in India. During his plea bargain hearings, Headley admitted to having made five reconnaissance missions to India between 2006 and 2008. On all the five occasions, he returned to the U.S. via Pakistan after meeting various co-conspirators, including but not just those belonging to the Lashkar.

The Obama administration has so far not officially acknowledged Headley's contention that the ISI top brass was not involved in planning the Mumbai attacks. Neither has Washington accepted the suggestion that at the most only a handful of rogue elements from Pakistan's security establishment were involved in them.

Headley, from all available accounts, is not a credible witness. He is an admitted drug user who has spent more than six years in an American prison. He was released only after he agreed to work as an undercover agent for the DEA. He has admitted to lying to the FBI and has been diagnosed by psychiatrists as suffering from mixed personality disorder. Under relentless cross-examination by the defence, Headley admitted that on more than one occasion he had used Rana for his nefarious activities but kept his friend from his school-going days in the dark. The defence is arguing that Rana was unaware of Headley's terror links.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Home Minister P. Chidambaram have both said that no new actionable information has emerged from Headley's testimony. The U.S. authorities had allowed Indian investigators to politely question but not interrogate Headley on his role in the Mumbai terror attacks. The information he provided first to the U.S. authorities and then to the Chicago court tallied with the information that was already with the Indian government and in the public domain. The U.S. authorities have ensured that Headley sticks to the script he has been given and not divulge details about his role as a double agent working both for the American and Pakistani secret services. Many American reporters covering the Chicago court proceedings got the impression that Headley's deposition was a tutored one.

The agreement between the U.S. federal agencies and Headley stipulates that no evidence on his links with American intelligence agencies be brought under the ambit of the court. Headley's links with U.S. intelligence will remain classified.

The FBI has also made it clear that it will not allow Headley to be extradited to India to face justice for the massacre of 166 people during the Mumbai terror attack. It has not even bothered to share actionable intelligence with India. Close cooperation in counterterrorism is at the heart of the close U.S.-India strategic ties forged by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. But so far, the U.S., still walking the diplomatic tightrope with Pakistan, has refused to share most of the information it has on terror networks in that country. U.S. interests seem to supersede India's interests when it comes to terrorism-related issues affecting the continent. There is speculation that the U.S. knew about Headley's repeated visits to India and had enough information to forewarn India about the imminence of an attack on Mumbai.

All this has, however, not stopped the Indian government from further strengthening the existing counter-terrorism links with it. U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitino was in Delhi in May to hold talks with Chidambaram. After the end of what was billed as a homeland security dialogue, the two sides issued a statement reaffirming their common resolve to defeat terrorism and called for effective steps by all countries to eliminate safe havens of terror. Janet Napolitino said that the two governments had agreed to strengthen our strategic partnerships, to share best practices and to identify future areas of collaboration.

She told the media in Delhi that she viewed the Lashkar as being as dangerous as the Al Qaeda network. She also held forth a promise that Indian law enforcement agencies would be given further access to Headley.

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