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Inside the strange life of David Coleman Headley

Now, as 26/11 reconnaissance operative David Headley’s testimony to a Mumbai court transfixes India, stories of what happened to those men is important to recount.

Written by Praveen Swami | Updated: February 12, 2016 9:01:35 am
david headley, 2008 mumbai attack, 26/11 attack, 26/11 mumbai attack, 26/11 mumbai attack trails, headley LeT links, Lashkar-e-Taiba, mumbai attack lakhvi, Ishrat Jahan, david headley Ishrat Jahan, Pakistan Mumbai attack trials, india news, latest news, David Headley, who had visited Mumbai seven times to scout for targets, revealed that plans to target Mumbai had started over a year before 26/11. (Source: PTI)

In 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Gen Pervez Musharraf sat at the Feroz Shah Kotla, watching the seeds of India-Pakistan détente they had planted flower under a gentle April sun. With Pakistani fans, granted visas in unprecedented numbers, packing the stands, Pakistan romped to a 159-run victory. Also in the stands, intelligence officers would later learn, were two men playing a game of their own.

Sajid Mir, whose visa application photograph shows him wearing a formal white shirt and red tie below a neatly-clipped beard, was the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s commander for transnational operations. Near him stood Abdur Rehman Hashim, a former Pakistani military intelligence official charged with training the men who carried out 26/11.

Now, as 26/11 reconnaissance operative David Headley’s testimony to a Mumbai court transfixes India, stories of what happened to those men is important to recount.

Last year, men recently held by the National Investigation Agency on suspicion of seeking to build an al-Qaeda cell in India have revealed, Mir received recruits from Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, passing them on to training camps in Pakistan’s war-torn northwest.

Hashim, known inside the Lashkar by the pseudonym “Pasha”, was held along Muzammil Bhat, the jihadist who directly trained the attack team. Both were soon freed; neither has ever been prosecuted.

Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, the Lashkar military chief who commanded them, is now out on bail, after a prison term during which he managed to father a child.

For years now, countries across the world have pressed Pakistan to act against these men — with no success. Headley’s testimony has very little chance of changing that.

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BORN Daood Gilani, to Philadelphia socialite Serill Headley and Pakistani poet and diplomat Syed Salim Gilani, the man who has become the face of 26/11, grew up with his mother, after his parents divorced. Headley was admitted to a boarding school, but moved to the US in 1977. He rebelled against his mother’s heavy drinking and multiple sexual relationships by expressing a loathing for all non-Muslims — even though his personal life, by many accounts, wasn’t very different from hers.

“Most people have contradictions in their lives, but they learn to reconcile them,” William Headley, Headley’s uncle, told The New York Times. “But Daood could never do that.”

In the wake of 9/11, the FBI interviewed Headley for information. He had been for a time an agent for the US Drug Enforcement Agency, with which he had cut a deal after being arrested for smuggling heroin in 1988. In a 1998 letter, prosecutors said he “helped the DEA infiltrate the very close-knit Pakistani narcotics dealing community in New York”.

While on probation, he travelled to Pakistan in 1999 for an arranged marriage with Lahore resident Shazia Geelani. Following a domestic violence incident in 2005, Geelani — with whom Headley has four children, Haider, Osama, Sumya and Hafsa — told police in New York that her husband bragged of training with the Lashkar.

The police questioned Headley on Shazia’s charges, but did nothing: “he smooth-talked them into believing his work was DEA-sanctioned”, a source familiar with the case says. He had successfully done the same thing a decade earlier, when similar allegations were made by his first wife, Portia Geelani.

Later, in 2006, Headley spent eight days in the custody at Lahore’s Race Course police station, after his lover, Moroccan medical student Faiza Outhalla, complained that Headley had reneged on a promise to marry her. Shazia Geelani’s father bailed him out, but, under pressure from Lakhvi, Headley married Outhalla weeks later. He never informed his wife.

In April 2007, Outhalla accompanied Headley to Mumbai. Less than a month later, Headley enjoyed a holiday in Dubai with Shazia. When Outhalla discovered that Headley was already married, she visited the US embassy in Islamabad and informed them of his links to jihadists. “They told me to get lost,” she told The New York Times.

The United Kingdom’s domestic intelligence service, MI5, finally sparked off action against Headley when it reported to the FBI that he had made contact with two jihadist suspects in the town of Derby — seeking help for an attack on a newspaper in Denmark.

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LASHKAR leaders, aware that Headley’s freewheeling lifestyle was better suited to reel-life spies than real life ones, excluded him from a planning role in 26/11, and kept him clear of key facilities. His job was to conduct reconnaissance and pass on images. Lakhvi, at their first meeting, told Headley he would be working with Muzammil Bhat, the full-bearded 6’4” giant in the room, who counted among the Lashkar’s most able operatives.

Bhat’s achievements, FBI interrogators recorded Headley as being told, included multiple strikes in Kashmir, and recruiting a “female suicide bomber named Ishrat Jahaan [sic]”. “Zaki”, Headley went on, “mentioned Muzammil’s plans to attack Akshardham temple, Somnath and Siddhi temples”.

In an October 2010 letter to the Home Ministry, the NIA said Headley had given its interrogators the same information. The NIA later told Gujarat High Court judges Jayant Patel and Abhilasha Kumari they had nothing but “hearsay” on Ishrat. This was legally correct — but the UPA government excised Headley’s testimony from a summary of his interrogation it leaked to the media.

Now, during his testimony in Mumbai, the central government has had the political satisfaction of bringing Headley’s testimony on record. The revelation, though, is of little legal value: irrespective of whether Ishrat Jahan was a terrorist or not, murdering her was illegal.

Headley’s evidence on other issues isn’t of much greater use. Headley never learned the real names of ISI officers he met. He had no knowledge of the links of his Lashkar bosses with the ISI, either. In essence, this means Headley’s testimony pushes the case no further than it was in 2009, when he testified to the FBI.

The significance of his Gujarat story, though, is that it shows the Lashkar kept up offensive operations against India, even as Musharraf sought to scale them back after 2002, fearful of precipitating war with India.

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EVIDENCE from a string of cases against Sajid Mir, filed long before 26/11, shows why. Mir, the son of a Partition-refugee textile merchant, was among a new generation of Lashkar leaders who believed the organisation needed to go global. The ISI backed the cause — hoping to draw jihadists away from organisations hostile to the state. In December 1998, the Pakistani newspaper Jang reported that jihadists from more than 50 countries had attended a convention organised by the Lashkar.

French national Willie Brigitte, a Guadeloupe-born convert who was drawn to the Islamist movement in Paris, was among Mir’s first finds. In the wake of 9/11, Brigitte travelled to the Lashkar’s headquarters in Muridke. Later, he was assigned to a combat training camp in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

The evidence, the French judge who invested the Brigitte case, Jean Louis Bruguiére, later recorded, showed “that Sajid Mir was a high-ranking officer in the Pakistani Army and apparently also was in the ISI”.

Mir’s recruits also included four jihadists from the suburbs of Washington DC, who were inspired to fight against ISAF troops in Afghanistan by a local cleric, Ali al-Tamimi.

US pressure led the ISI to shut the Lashkar’s camps to Western jihadists — but not to shut down its transnational plans. In 2004, British troops in Basra held Danish Ahmad, a Lashkar commander who had earlier served in Kashmir. He, and another Lashkar operative who sought to fight in Iraq, are now believed to be held in Kabul.

“In meeting after meeting with United States authorities after 2008”, a top Indian intelligence official told The Indian Express, “the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate claimed it was dangerous to act against Lashkar’s military leadership. They said it would lead the rank-and-file to rebel, and join anti-West jihadist movements.”

“And that”, he concluded, “was that”.

praveen.swami@expressindia.com

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