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If Americans had connected the dots… maybe Mumbai attack would have called off, says Kaare Sorensen, Danish journalist

The author of The Mind Of A Terrorist tells The Indian Express how he assessed the way 26/11 scout David Headley saw himself.

Written by Ritu Sarin |
Updated: June 13, 2016 11:46:02 am
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How did you think of David Headley as the subject for your book? What is the exclusivity you are offering readers?

I was working as a US correspondent for the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, when we got word that Headley was arrested. Headley wanted to bomb or attack our main office in Denmark, so I was assigned to cover the case in Chicago. So you could say that my way to David Headley was coincidental. I think I pretty fast realised that Headley’s story was something very special. His background, his role in the hideous attack on Mumbai and the plans for an attack in Denmark were so special that I pretty fast started to think: This could actually be a book… My book contains information from more than 300 emails that Headley sent to his friends at a military academy in Pakistan. I think that these emails are the best [insight] yet as to how Headley saw himself and his role in the world.

You have profiled Headley as the tourist in the next hotel room and a dreaded terrorist who has worked the networks of al-Qaida and Lashkar. How would you describe him?

So it seems clear to me that Headley is a rather complex person. But I don’t doubt that deep inside Headley has — or at least had —very hardcore jihadi beliefs. He does believe that there is a battle going on between the West and the Muslims of the world. His emails are all very long and filled with rage against the Western world and India in particular. But Headley is also an opportunist. He will change his clothes and his identity, if he feels that it will benefit him in any way. He’s the kind of guy, who will always be able to help you. In that way he was a trusted friend for a lot of people.

You have recounted a number of occasions when US authorities intercepted Headley at airports but let him off, also because he was working with drug enforcement. Do you think an earlier arrest could have prevented the Mumbai attacks?

There seems to be no doubt that the Americans should have noticed Headley much earlier than they did. Information from different agencies was never connected, and no doubt the Americans underestimated Headley’s abilities and connections. I have found no evidence that the Americans on purpose withheld information that could have prevented the Mumbai attacks, but yes, it seems clear that if the Americans had connected the dots before the attack (and not just after) and had they arrested Headley much earlier, then the attack would at least have been that much more complicated to do. And yes, maybe it would have been called off. But we will never know.


Since Headley had been making frequent trips to Pakistan, do you think Indian intelligence should have been alerted earlier by the US authorities?

I don’t think the Americans had full information about Headley’s many trips. Had they known, they would probably have arrested him earlier — and not just alerted Indian intelligence.

Do you think that in the end, Headley has succeeded as an ace manipulator? He was, as you have described, solely responsible for planning and plotting a terrorist attack that killed 166 people but has escaped the dealth penalty or being extradited to India…

For sure Headley was an ace manipulator. A con man. One of the best I’ve ever heard of. And he has been able to bargain for many things, that others would never have got. One could easily ask if his punishment was hard enough, but I don’t want to be the judge of that. But in the end, Headley lost. He couldn’t beat the system. He is now in a high-security jail somewhere within the US, and it’s not very likely that he will ever be a free man.

Do you think Tahawwur Rana was unfairly treated by the American judicial system given the fact that he was never Headley’s accomplice but got 14 years imprisonment?

The case of Tahawwur Rana is very special. I’m no judicial expert but to me the big question is still: did Rana basically try to help his friend? Or was he knowingly part of a larger terror plot? I think the first. Now, this of course doesn’t make Rana a saint. And he should have shared his information about his friend with the proper authorities. But we have yet to see any evidence that Rana participated in any terror-related activity without his good friend Headley.

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Do you think if Headley had not been detained in August 2009, the Copenhagen attack would have taken place? Would Headley have died as he had wanted to?

I have no doubt that Headley’s plans for Denmark was very real. This is something that he wanted to do, and it’s something that he said that was willing to give his life for. Would he have been successful? Hopefully the Danish authorities and the security arrangements at the newspaper would have stopped him. But I don’t doubt that Headley would have loved the idea of dying for what he believes is a noble cause.

Did you try to interview Headley prior to completing this book?

Yes, I did. I wrote several letters, and never got an answer back. Then just a few weeks before we were to publish the book in Denmark, I got an email from Headley’s lawyer in Chicago, who said that Headley had received a letter, and he might would consider giving an interview. I talked to the lawyer and told him some of the questions that I would be interested in asking Headley — I had made up a list in advance, should I ever get the chance to talk to him — and the lawyer met Headley in prison to discuss this. Ultimately they came back with a “no, thanks” for an interview. I think there are still many things that Headley wouldn’t be able to talk about.

What is your next project/ book?

I’m currently working on several projects, so it’s to early to tell. But I have not lost my interest in this project — even if it’s been almost seven years since I first heard the name David Headley.

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