Of all the players in the plotting and execution of the November 26, 2008, Mumbai terror attacks, David Coleman Headley remains remarkable both as a perfect fit and a perfect incongruity. I have written extensively about him, for the IANS wire and on this blog.
Reading a story yesterday in The New York Times about the Mumbai terror attacks, I have been compelled to return to my original perspective about how Headley managed to do unmolested all that he did as part of the meticulous planning.
Operating in the midst of the thick post 9/11 paranoia, with a history of serious brush with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and conviction on drug-related charges, Headley, a half Pakistani and half American, should have been a text book case for profiling. There should have been red flags all over his body as he traveled to India and Pakistan several times before 2008.
The only theory that makes most sense to me is that Headley was indeed monitored closely but for some strange reason he was on an extended leash by the US authorities to see where he might lead them. If that was indeed the case—and I have no specific proof to make that assertion—then it is equally obvious that somewhere along Headley stepped well outside the bounds as marked by his handlers. That the Mumbai terror attacks happened is evidence of why that monitoring failed.
Among the main points that the Times story makes is how despite having extensive intelligence data, the intelligence agencies of the United States, Britain and India never quite managed to complete the puzzle. It has always been my case that Headley is a very significant part of that puzzle. That he is now serving a 35-year-long sentence for his involvement in the Mumbai attacks and plotting of an abortive plan to carry out grisly killings in Copenhagen against a Danish newspaper that published cartoons offensive to some Muslims shows that.
Curiously, the Times story points out quoting Anish Goel, former director for South Asia at the National Security Council and now a senior South Asia Fellow at the New America Foundation, that one name that did not appear in all the pile of intelligence data was that of Headley’s. “None of the intelligence streams from the United States, Britain or India had yet identified him as a conspirator,” the story says.
It says, “The N.S.A. collected some of his emails, but did not realize he was involved in terrorist plotting until he became the target of an F.B.I. investigation, officials said.”
On June 11, 2013, I had made a passing reference to the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance program and whether it managed to track Headley.
June 11, 2013
On a tangential point, since the NSA surveillance program is so extensive I wonder whether the communication of key Mumbai terror plotter David Coleman Headley was monitored under it and, if so, what specific patterns and mapping resulted from that. I know from having followed the case that Headley was very actively communicating throughout the run-up to the November, 2008, terrorist attacks. He was already being watched because of his past drug-related involvement and visits to Pakistan. In many ways someone like Headley constitutes a perfect target to monitor. Hence my curiosity.
Having extensively reported the Headley angle I continue to be intrigued by how he got around despite having three wives, drug related conviction, life as a DEA informant, changed his name from Daood Gilani, and frequently traveled to Pakistan and India. One of the stories that I find particularly instructive was what I wrote for the IANS wire on May 24, 2011. Here:
May 24, 2011
By Mayank Chhaya
Chicago, May 24 (IANS) From how to pray without leaving the forehead indurated to the language of the train announcements at the Victoria Terminus station, the Pakistani planners of the Mumbai terror attacks paid meticulous attention to every detail, key plotter David Coleman Headley testified here.
The 50-year-old Pakistani American, who has pleaded guilty to all 12 charges of his involvement in planning the attacks, Monday offered a rare and extraordinary look inside the behind-the-scenes planning of an operation that left the Indian state practically paralyzed for three days starting Nov 26, 2008.
Under a plea bargain deal that requires him to cooperate fully with the federal prosecutors, Headley was expected to disclose all that he knows about the planning of the attack and he lived up to that obligation as Assistant US Attorney Daniel Collins carefully walked him through all major and minor details of the plot.
Headley’s attorney John Theis sat in the front row as his client answered questions in somewhat muffled tones even while disclosing remarkable details.
At one point as he discussed the kind of conversations he had had with his Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) handler Sajid Mir, Headley said he was even told how to pray in order to avoid "mihrab", the dark spot that devout Muslim men have on their foreheads because of the regular friction with the floor while praying.
The significance of this particular detail being that since Headley was to travel to Mumbai as a white American on a US passport, a mark like that on his forehead may arouse suspicion. As a result, he was advised to pray without touching his forehead to the ground.
Another seemingly minor but crucial detail that came to light during his four-hour-long testimony concerned the train arrival and departure announcements at Mumbai’s Victoria Terminus or Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus.
Headley told the court that he pointed out to both Sajid Mir and Major Iqbal, a shadowy figure reportedly belonging to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), that the announcements were made in English and Marathi. If the attackers did not know English, they could run into difficulty trying to find out when trains were arriving.
The overriding theme of prosecutor Collins’ questioning was to establish how closely the LeT, as represented by Sajid Mir, and the ISI, as represented by Major Iqbal were involved every step of the way, directing Headley what to do, when, where and how. So much so that Mir and Headley even discussed which Islamic denomination the latter’s fellow accused Tahawwur Hussain Rana belonged to as well as the need to win him over to the Salafi side of Islam.
Salafi adherents treat the companions of the Prophet Mohammed and the two immediate generations of Muslims that followed as their role model. Headley said LeT believes being a Salafi "is a prerequisite to jihad". He said he was told by Mir that only when Rana, a Pakistani military physician turned businessman at whose trial Headley testified, was made a Salafi can the real agenda be pushed.
Headley and Rana even debated who should declare jihad, whether a head of an Islamic state, as Rana believed, or someone else. Headley explained to Rana that a head of state was necessary only if it was to be "offensive" jihad but for "defensive" jihad of the kind currently underway it was not necessary.
Another striking disclosure that Headley made relates to the 2002 Muslim massacre in Gujarat in the aftermath of the killings of 50 Hindu pilgrims at Godhra. In fact, he cited that massacre as one of the triggers for him personally to get involved in the Mumbai attacks.
He said between 2002 and 2007 the LeT had received hundreds of letters from Muslims in Gujarat to help them. He even referred to an undercover video recording of a Hindu activist called Babu Bajrangi who had bragged about personally killing many Muslims.
The broad focus of his testimony was also on the number of times he met Major Iqbal and Sajid Mir to fine-tune plans for the Mumbai attacks as well as watch many video surveillance tapes of the city that Headley personally shot during his visits prior to the attack.
From discussing landing sites to the schedule of a major conference of defense industry which was to be organized at the Taj Mahal Hotel and from how to transfer attackers from a Pakistani boat to an Indian vessel to determining the nearest taxi stand, the three men discussed everything in great detail.