Reconnaissance man

Print edition : March 18, 2016

David Headley, (from left, first row) Tahawwur Rana, Hafiz Saeed, Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, (second row) Ilyas Kashmiri, Sajjid Majid and Abdur Rehman Pasha, who were charge-sheeted by the National Investigation Agency in 2011 for plotting terror attacks in India. Photo: PTI

Three Pictures of the CST railway station and one of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel (above, right) taken by Headley, which were presented by the prosecution before the Chicago Trial Court in the United States. Photo: PTI

Ishrat Jahan, who Headley said was an LeT operative, and three others, killed by the Gujarat Police in what was claimed to be an encounter in 2004. Photo: PTI

David Headley, the LeT operative, does not reveal anything new in his video deposition from the United States in the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks case other than the fact that he mapped out Mumbai for the attackers.

DAVID COLEMAN HEADLEY, 56, played a critical role in the November 26, 2008, terrorist attack on Mumbai. He was not a handler, planter or attacker, but was the reconnaissance man sent to Mumbai by the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) to scout for possible targets. He reportedly spent a considerable amount of time in the city mapping entry points and locations, several of which were targeted on that fateful night.

Therefore, when the Indian authorities finally secured an arrangement with the United States to have Headley, its citizen, testify through videoconferencing, it was expected that his testimony would reveal the key conspirators behind the 26/11 attack as well as provide fresh information on the larger agenda against India. The authorities believed that his testimony could be used to pin down Pakistan, which has denied any involvement in the 26/11 attack.

Unfortunately, Headley’s deposition, which began on February 8, exposed little. Speaking from an undisclosed location in the U.S., Headley corroborated information that was already in the public domain. Some of the statements he made were definitely explosive and controversial, which led to some political sparring. But largely officials believe that he did not give out anything they did not already know.

The Public Prosecutor, Ujwal Nikam, however, does not agree. “It is important to get Headley’s deposition. The information he gives puts Pakistan in a tight spot.” He said Pakistan had maintained that there was not enough evidence to prosecute the terror outfit or its leaders, but now, India would have one of their own people say who was behind the conspiracy. “There will be people who question the use of Headley’s deposition. But one must understand that the statement of an accused as an approver has far more legal footing and implications than stories which come from the investigating agencies,” Nikam told media persons outside the special court in Mumbai.

The former National Security Adviser, M.K. Narayanan, who was in the thick of the investigation, wrote in The Hindu (February 18): “What many, however, do not realise is that what Headley said in his deposition may not be new or original, but what he concealed is vital.” He pointed out that “the most glaring omission in Headley’s deposition was his unwillingness to identify Sayed Zabiuddin Ansari alias Abu Jundal, currently languishing in an Indian prison. The Headley deposition had little in terms of evidentiary value.” Abu Jundal is allegedly the mastermind of the 26/11 operation.

Narayanan continues: “The value of Headley’s deposition lies partly in exposing to the world the extent of Pakistan’s perfidy and the workings of the Pakistani deep state but more significantly, it serves to remind us of something the world has tended to forget of late, viz. the 1980s-1990s Afghan jehad and the lasting impact it had on the spread of Islamist extremism. By attracting volunteers from around the Islamic world, it served as a take-off point for global jehad.” Additionally, he says: “Headley’s case is thus very instructive for us. Training camps that programmed Headley are well situated to produce many others to wage jehad against India.” Headley’s deposition began at 7:30 a.m. at a special court and took five days to complete. According to eyewitnesses, most of the time he wore a stoic, almost remorseless, expression during questioning. From time to time, he mocked Nikam’s pronunciation by mimicking him.

Headley’s disclosures

Headley made the following disclosures during questioning:

He joined the LeT at its headquarters in Muzaffarabad in Pakistan in 2002. He was a true follower of the LeT. He said he underwent preliminary and advanced weapons and explosives training when he joined the organisation. Headley confirmed that he had met Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi and Hafiz Saeed, both leaders of the LeT, and was influenced by their jehadi speeches. Lakhvi is a key operative wanted by India. He was released from a Pakistan prison recently.

Headley admitted to coming to India eight times; seven times before the 26/11 attack and once post-26/11. Apart from reconnoitring the luxury hotels, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), and Colaba eateries, he had also surveyed the massive Siddhivinayak Temple complex, the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, the Shiv Sena Bhavan and the naval air base as possible targets. He said there were two botched terror strikes on Mumbai in 2006.

Headley’s most explosive revelation was that Ishrat Jahan, the woman killed in an alleged fake encounter operation in Gujarat in 2004 along with three accomplices, was an LeT suicide bomber. The information caused some political brouhaha. The Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) has consistently maintained that Ishrat Jahan was an LeT operative, but rights activists have fought against this by saying that her death was an extra-judicial killing and was illegal. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president, Amit Shah, who was then Gujarat’s Home Minister, was under investigation in the Ishrat Jahan case. He was later given a clean chit by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

After Headley revealed that Ishrat Jahan was an LeT operative, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh said: “I want to ask the Congress, the Communists and other parties who had continuously launched a malicious campaign to mislead people on this issue, whether they are prepared to tender an apology to the people of the country?”

To this, the Congress leader, Manish Tewari, said the “fundamental question” is the killing of Ishrat Jahan in a fake encounter and not whether she and her accomplices were terrorists. “If a person is a terrorist, he needs to be arrested, he needs to be tried, he needs to be brought to justice like Afzal Guru was brought to justice or Ajmal Kasab was brought to justice. But to try and justify a fake encounter, I am afraid, is something which the law does not permit.”

Headley told the court that he had opened an immigration consultancy office in Mumbai’s Tardeo AC market in September 2006 as a cover. This was done with the blessing of what seemed like his boss, Major Iqbal of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). He said the LeT members Sajid Mir, Abu Khaffa and Muzzabil Butt had told him to set up offices in Bengaluru and Delhi as well.

Major Iqbal and Sajid Mir were the names he would often take during the questioning. He said Iqbal gave him funds, including $25,000, to spend in India. Mir was his main contact in the LeT along with his LeT associate, Tahawwur Rana, who was caught along with him in the U.S. in 2009. Headley told Nikam that the ISI provided financial, military and moral support to terror outfits such as the Jaish-e-Mohammad, the LeT and the Hizbul Mujahideen. He named Lieutenant Colonel Hamza, Colonel Shah, and Major Samir Ali as the Pakistan Army officers whom he had met.

Another significant disclosure was that Al Qaeda sponsored the reconnaissance mission. This was the first time the extremist outfit Al Qaeda’s name came up in the context of the Mumbai attacks. Headley told the court that the Al Qaeda operative Illyas Kashmiri had asked him to scout for possible targets in Mumbai, Goa, Pushkar and Pune. Additionally, he met the Al Qaeda leader Abdul Rehman Pasha who was keen that he stake out the National Defence College in Delhi as well.

Headley said he would record the locations and readings on a geographical positioning system (GPS) device, which was given to the LeT and later to Al Qaeda. He said the LeT had made a model of the Taj Mahal Hotel and familiarised itself with several locations.

Providing some personal information, Headley said he changed his name from Daood Gilani to David Headley in 2005 in order to pass off as a Westerner while applying for an Indian visa. He said although he gave false information for his visas he had no trouble getting visas to India. He said his wife congratulated him on the success of the 26/11 attacks by sending him a coded message that read “Yaar you did great.” And “Congratulations on your graduation, the ceremony was great.”

The double agent

“David Headley was one of an unusual and dangerous breed. At one level, he was ideological—a closet jehadi; at another, he was an agent for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency; and at yet another level, he was working for the LeT. He was much more than the quintessential double agent, a triple agent working for several masters at one and the same time. He was thus able to pave the way and provide an opening for one of the most serious terrorist attacks in recent years,” Narayanan wrote in The Hindu.

Ten terrorists, allegedly trained in Pakistan, attacked Mumbai on November 26, 2008. They came from the sea and stormed two luxury hotels; the CST railway station; Chabad or Nariman House, a Jewish community centre; and Café Leopold in south Mumbai. They went on a killing spree, shooting indiscriminately in every location. As many as 173 people were killed and hundreds injured in the attacks. Several people were held hostage for three days in these buildings before the Indian security forces killed the attackers and brought the crisis to an end. Only one terrorist, Ajmal Kasab, was captured alive. He disclosed some parts of the conspiracy, but he was essentially a foot soldier of a deadly organisation and as such had limited information. Kasab was executed in November 2012 after he was sentenced to death by a court. It was the arrest of Headley and Tahawwur Rana in Chicago in 2009 for plotting an attack on a Danish newspaper that eventually led to the unravelling of the 26/11 plot. During his interrogation, Headley revealed to the U.S. authorities that he was sent on a reconnaissance mission to India.

Official material gathered on Headley says he is a U.S. national born to Serill Headley, an American, and the Pakistani poet and diplomat Syed Salim Gilani. Named Daood Gilani, he initially grew up in Pakistan but moved to the U.S. in 1977. For at least a decade until the late 1980s, Headley was a drug user and dealer who would smuggle heroin from Pakistan with the help of Rana. When he was caught in 1988, he squealed on his associates to earn a lighter sentence. This would become a pattern with him. In 1998, when he was arrested again for drug smuggling, he struck a deal with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (USDEA) to help them bust drug gangs, if he was released, earning himself the double agent tag.

According to a senior I.B. official, Headley was a rabid believer. However, following his frequent trips to Pakistan as an informer for the USDEA, he began to be drawn towards extremist groups. He would attend meetings conducted by LeT leaders, which encouraged him to enrol for militancy training. In 1999, in an arranged set-up, he married Shazia Geelani, the daughter of a retired Pakistan soldier, and had four children by her. Shazia Geelani moved to the U.S. In 2007, Headley married a Moroccan medical student, Faiza Outhalla. This would be his third marriage; there had been one early in his life to an American which ended in divorce. Shazia Geelani and Faiza Outhalla did not know each other’s relationship with Headley. This led to an interesting situation, as Faiza Outhalla, in a fit of revenge and anger on learning about the other woman, complained to the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad about Headley’s militant connections and nefarious activities. The embassy dismissed the complaint.

Following his arrest in 2010, Headley pleaded guilty to 12 counts of terror charges, including the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai. He managed to negotiate a 35-year-imprisonment sentence and avoid the death sentence by promising information on terrorist organisations. In December 2015, he turned approver in the 26/11 case. While the U.S. refused to extradite him to India, it agreed to a video deposition.

The case is at a critical juncture: will Headley address the involvement of Abu Jundal in 26/11? Although I.B. officials say that Headley’s deposition is definitely a shot in the arm for India, it is unlikely that Pakistan will rein in the terror groups in the near future. On the contrary, Narayanan writes: “It is thus possible that at a not-too-distant date he would be back in business—directly or by proxy. It takes several years to train an intelligence agent—especially one who can function autonomously and with proficiency in languages in use in the Islamic world. Headley fits this bill, and it is not unlikely that he may be released by U.S. authorities before his term is over, due to ‘reasons of state’.”

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