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Monday, November 29, 2021

The Headley Plan

A book on 26/11 examines the complicity of David Coleman Headley,and the US silence on him.

November 23, 2013 12:44:16 am

On November 26,2008,a 10-man squad travelled to Mumbai by sea from Karachi,hijacked an Indian trawler,slaughtering its captain as they “jumped into a yellow dinghy that pulled them towards the glistening Indian city”. What happened after the men sneaked into Mumbai went live on television,generating shock and anger across India. The story of 26/11 was told and retold as investigators pieced together the terror plot. The arrest of Ajmal Kasab provided New Delhi irrefutable proof of Pakistan’s link to the attack.

But once David Coleman Headley or Daood Gilani — a US citizen,and son of noted Pakistani broadcaster Syed Saleem Gilani and his American wife Serrill Headley — was arrested by the Americans at O’Hare international airport in October 2009,the plot started to widen. The Americans refused to hand Headley over to India and instead tried him for his role in 26/11,convicted and sentenced him to 35 years in prison. More than four years later,British journalists Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark have written The Siege,an exhaustive account of the attack. Written in the modern tradition of narrative journalism,the book is a great mix of description and investigative reportage.

It brings out individual tales of courage and survival and shows how ill-prepared the Indian security machinery was to resist such an attack. But,most importantly,while the emphasis of the 26/11 probe has been on unravelling the Lashkar-e-Toiba and ISI’s complicity in the attack,The Siege examines the role of US agent David Coleman Headley. It shows how the Americans ignored multiple warnings,complaints from Headley’s two wives,his mother and other family friends about him. Although Headley was questioned by the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) and probed by the FBI before the attack,the Americans didn’t alert New Delhi about his frequent and suspicious Mumbai visits. The Americans had sent Headley to Pakistan to infiltrate the Lashkar. The purpose,however,was not to keep tabs on Lashkar’s plans in India but to get access to Al Qaeda through Lashkar cadres.

Though born in the US,Headley was raised in Pakistan till the age of 16. Once in the US,he set up a video store in Manhattan,which was to become a front for his adventure: travelling to Pakistan and smuggling heroin to the US. His first brush with the American agencies was when he was caught by custom officers at Frankfurt airport on his way to Philadelphia “with two kilograms of heroin”. Headley’s father disowned him. But once he was handed over to the authorities,he offered the Drug Enforcement Adminstration(DEA) a deal: his American co-conspirators. This is how Headley became a paid DEA agent,“with instructions to infiltrate the Pak-US heroin trafficking networks”.

But he would go on to become a more important informant in the war against Al Qaeda. “In August 1999,Headley returned to Pakistan,his ticket paid for by the US government”. He married a conservative Pakistani woman,settled in Lahore and donated fifty thousand rupees to the Lashkar Jihad fund,“buying himself entry to a private lecture by Hafiz Saeed,amir of Lashkar’s parent organization,Jamaat-ud-Dawa”. The authors leave us in no doubt that Headley was an important asset of the US intelligence agencies,groomed to penetrate Lashkar only to reach Al Qaeda. “Six years into the hunt for the Al Qaeda leader (Osama Bin Laden),Daood was classified as ‘significant’ in counter-terrorism circles,one of the few American passport holders who could claim,with any credibility,to be moving in the same circles as America’s most wanted,” the book says. And even when Headley’s suspicious dealings were reported to the JTTF and the FBI,the “official view on Daood was that he might be an erratic source but he had massive potential”.

By the fall of 2002,back in the US,Headley’s mother’s friend reported him to the FBI. Serrill,according to the book,had told her friend that her son was “attending training camps in Pakistan and talking about how much he hates India”. In August 2005,Headley’s Canadian wife Portia Peter was enraged after she learnt that Headley had a wife and two children in Pakistan. “She called the terror tip line,repeating everything he had told her about Pakistani training camps and Lashkar,’’ the book reveals. “The JTFF interviewed her three times”. Again,nothing changed. Soon after 9/11,Peter spoke about his suspicious behavior to a friend,who reported him to the police. Though questioned by the JTTF,he wasn’t touched and was instead sent on a spying mission to Pakistan.

In 2006,Headley married a Moroccan medical student in Lahore,Faiza Outalha,who even accompanied Headley on one of his trips to Mumbai in March 2007. Later,when he wished to divorce her,she was enraged. “She talked her way into the heavily fortified US embassy compound in Islamabad’s diplomatic zone,where she accused Headley of being a jihadi…,’’ the book reveals.

Faiza told American officials that she was most worried about his (Headley’s) frequent trips to Mumbai. “Her husband was back and forth to that city,she said,even though at home,he cursed India..She had photos to prove it,including copies of all those shot inside the Taj,in April and May 2007…Was he planning something over there? No response,’’ the book says. “The US embassy later categorised the incident as a domestic row”. The authors also detail a much more serious warning in 2007 that the Americans ignored: a dossier hand-delivered to President Bush’s National Security Team at the White House in 2007.

Why did the Americans ignore so many explicit warnings about Headley’s conduct? Why didn’t they alert New Delhi,when Headley’s frequent and suspicious trips to Mumbai were brought to their notice? The answers to these questions have never been sought. There is another major revelation in the book that could substantially alter the official 26/11 narrative. The plan to attack Mumbai,and especially the Taj,was not conceived by the Lashkar. It was Headley who sold the plan to a reluctant Lashkar.

Lashkar’s chief Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi alias Chacha had reservations about the execution of the Mumbai plan. But in July 2007,the attack on militants inside Lal Masjid in Islamabad by the Pakistan army led to a new and vicious war within that country. A sizeable section within the Lashkar argued that the group should join Al Qaeda and shift its focus from Kashmir to a fight against the US and NATO in Afghanistan. To avoid an imminent split,the Lashkar needed a spectacular attack — 26/11 certainly was one.

If Headley’s American handlers had sent him on a mission to infiltrate the Lashkar,who authorised his idea to plan and help execute an attack on Mumbai? Did Headley dissuade the Lashkar leadership from shifting its war to Afghanistan because it would have harmed US interests? Why wasn’t Headley handed over to India for a detailed interrogation? The authors’ account lead us to these questions,which have not been answered. Unravelling such inconvenient truths do not seem to be in anyone’s interests.

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