David Headley and law of diminishing returns

One cannot fault India for persisting with its request to extradite David Coleman Headley, a key plotter behind the November, 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. The Press Trust of India (PTI) reports that New Delhi has now asked that Washington “temporarily” handover Headley to its investigators for a year.

"The US interlocutors assured us to actively consider the request," the PTI quoted a top Indian official, who participated in the meeting, as saying.

The Indian government is also asking the US to extradite Headley’s childhood friend and fellow convict Tahawwur Hussain Rana. The PTI story says Washington has assured New Delhi that it would positively consider that request.

Having closely followed the Chicago-end of the plot and reported frequently on the very subject of Headley’s extradition, I am not entirely sure about the quality of information that Headley can provide to India at this stage. Since his arrest on October 3, 2009, Headley has been subjected to days of interrogation both by the U.S. authorities as well as Indian investigators. In order to meet the condition of his plea bargain, which spared him the death penalty and extradition to India, Headley had had to tell the interrogators every little detail that he might have known about not just the Mumbai terror attacks but also about the very operations of the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba.

It has been close to four years since he has been under a tight grip of the authorities here and it is conceivable that he is frequently pumped for more information. With this as the backdrop, I am not entirely certain what it is that the Indian investigators hope to find. At some point the law of diminishing returns has to kick in. That point may already have been reached.

Of course, India can always argue that its interrogators understand the cultural groundings of people like Headley and Rana much better than their American counterparts and may be able to zero in on nuances which might have been lost on the prosecutors here. Also, there may be some validity to the point of view that the interrogations by the U.S. investigators could have been informed primarily by America’s interests rather than India’s. To the extent that there may still be some marginal intelligence to be had from Headley, it is likely that India would be granted access one more time. It seems highly unlikely that the US would actually physically  handover Headley to India albeit “temporarily.” It could be that New Delhi would be granted extended access to Headley here in America. One does not know where he has been incarcerated.

At the time of his 35-year-long sentencing on January 25 this year I had written an analysis which said the following among other things:

“From India’s perspective the sentence may seem relatively light. However, the next nearly 30 years that he will have to be in prison coupled with a plea bargain deal that mandates him to basically do whatever the government directs him to do in perpetuity is way tougher than it might seem on paper. What New Delhi will have to bear in mind is that at any time the US government can rescind his plea bargain if it determines that Headley is deliberately holding back information because he no longer has any incentive of a reduced sentence after the pronouncement. He waved his right to appeal soon after his arrest on Oct 3, 2009.

Gary Shapiro, acting US attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, told the local Hi India newspaper (That would be me) that plea bargain deals are essentially for life. It means that Headley will have to cooperate in the best possible way throughout his incarceration. Of course, the value of any information or intelligence he provides will naturally diminish over time and a stage will be reached when he will no longer be useful as a source of actionable intelligence.

The most striking aspect of the points made before Headley’s sentencing was the great and repeated emphasis that both the prosecution and the defense put on the extent and quality of his cooperation. His attorney John Theis, in requesting for a lighter sentence, said the information that Headley provided was "so profound that it calls for extraordinary downward departure."
He also said because of the information provided by Headley barely 30 minutes after his arrest, lives were saved not just in India and the United States but elsewhere in the world.

For its part even the defense described Headley’s case as "uniquely aggravating" and "uniquely mitigating" and frequently pointed out his unprecedented cooperation. It is perhaps for the first time in a major case of global terrorism that one of the key players chose to cooperate without any coercion and so immediately after his arrest.

According to Hi India (That would be me), Headley was arrested only in connection with the plot for planning to carry out a spectacular attack on the Danish newspaper Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten for its 2005 publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed which many Muslims found offensive. The information about his involvement in the Mumbai attacks came solely from him. It was only after his arrest that the investigators became aware of his involvement in the Mumbai terror attacks as disclosed by him.

The cynical explanation of his extraordinary cooperation is that he was merely trying to save his skin by volunteering so much, so easily. Some of the interrogation videos, which were played during his testimony, showed a man almost desperate to cooperate. So much so that at one point he sounded upset that the federal investigators were not fully utilizing his information to make major arrests. To many Headley’s eagerness to cooperate and help effect major arrests looked to be part of a strategy to mitigate his own complicity.

Nothing highlighted his extraordinary push to cooperate more than when it came to the whereabouts of Ilyas Kashmiri, the Al Qaeda/Harkat ul Jihad al Islami leader Ilyas Kashmiri who was killed June 3, 2011, during a drone strike on an orchard in South Waziristan. Regarded as one of the fiercest commanders, Kashmiri was one of the seven people to have been charged them with involvement in both the Mumbai case as well as the abortive attack on the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten which published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed offensive to Muslims in September, 2005.”

As for Rana, I am not certain whether the U.S. would stand as steadfastly against his extradition to India as it has so far behind Headley’s. Rana was given no such deal and his conviction and sentencing to 14 years in prison was for his involvement in the Danish newspaper cartoon case. It is possible that Rana may still have some broad but significant information about various terrorist outfits in Pakistan. For all you know he might be offered to India by the U.S. as a sort of compromise even as New Delhi is allowed more questioning of Headley within this country.

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About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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