An American in Mumbai

An American in Mumbai

He is one of a breed of extremists with ties to the US and a conservative upbringing.

Mumbai terror attacks, 2008 Mumbai attack, Mumbai massacre, David Headley, Mumbai massacre planner David Headley, al Qaeda, Osama Bin laden, Ayman al Zawahiri, IE column
The PBS-Frontline documentary says two terrorists were pivotal to the 26/11 attack: communications expert Zarrar Shah, who made it possible for another key LeT terrorist, Sajid Mir, to guide the 10 Pakistani terrorists in Mumbai through cellphones.

On May 3, 2015, Nadir Soofi, a Pakistani American born to a conservative, religious Pakistani father from a “military family” and an American mother, was shot dead by Texas police as he and a friend were about to assault a “blaspheming” cartoon contest in Garland, Texas. In 2010, another Pakistani American, Faisal Shahzad, son of an air force officer, was caught trying to blow up Times Square in New York. Their common traits: a military background and the father’s fixation with Islam. Shahzad was claimed by Hakimullah Mehsud, the Taliban chief working for al-Qaeda; Soofi by the Islamic State.

And just as one thought the Mumbai massacre planner, David Headley/ Daood Gilani, had disappeared from the world terror radar to spend 35 years in an American prison, more information about him has surfaced in a documentary by PBS-Frontline. The new lowdown comes from a typed “memoir” apparently put together by him. He says he joined the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), before the 9/11 attacks in the US, and ended up reconnoitring for the November 2008 Mumbai attack, which killed 168. It turns out that without him laying out the “mission map”, the attack wouldn’t have taken place.

Headley went to Pakistan in July 2001 and visited the Qadisiya mosque, then the headquarters of the LeT and now of the renamed Jamaat-ud-Dawa, in Lahore, meeting its head, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, to reveal his interest in covert jihad. He was the son of a senior Pakistani bureaucrat, Salim Gilani, and a well-off American mother, Serrill, an office secretary at the Pakistan embassy in Washington. Headley was born in 1960, just before the couple left for Pakistan. Serrill couldn’t adapt and returned to the US, leaving her son, Daood, and daughter, Syeda, with their father. Gilani lost no time in marrying again and begetting more children. David’s step-brother, Danyal Gilani, was to prosper as a civil servant and become former Pakistan Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani’s spokesman before going as an attaché to the Pakistan embassy in Beijing.

David, brown in one eye and blue in the other, was brought up on a strong diet of Pakistani nationalism, attending the Hasan Abdal Cadet College, a boys’ military prep-school, and forming lasting friendships with schoolmates, some of whom were to become prominent officers in the Pakistan army. He would have joined the army but for the trouble at home with his Pakistani stepmother. In 1977, at 17, he moved to the US to live with Serrill, completely unready for the new American environment and still mourning the 1971 loss of East Pakistan to Indian “perfidy”. He ran his mother’s mysteriously named Khyber Pass Pub before enrolling at Valley Forge Military Academy and College, only to drop out to marry — and soon divorce — a classmate from a Philadelphia community college. He moved to New York to open a video shop but took to drugs instead.


Heroin addiction finally took him to Pakistan, top purveyor of the stuff made from Afghan poppy. In 1988, he was caught on his way back from his frequent trips with 2 kilograms of heroin in his luggage. Next, he became an “informer” for the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). But he played a double game, which the DEA either ignored or was complicit enough in to bail him out repeatedly from court cases, getting his sentences reduced. From early 2001, he was given guerrilla training by Saeed and sent into Indian-administered Kashmir to see action in 2002. In 2006, he changed his name to David Coleman Headley. After 26/11, he confessed to the FBI and “cooperated with it on al-Qaeda”. He could have ended his trail here, but the DEA saved its “informer” from being picked up. As the Dawn reported, “David Headley, a US citizen, was sent on a secret mission to South Asia by American intelligence agencies to join Lashkar-e-Toiba and other such militant organisations”. The FBI said it had hoped to reach top al-Qaeda leaders through him “but Headley slipped from… US control to become a terrorist himself”.

The PBS-Frontline documentary says two terrorists were pivotal to the 26/11 attack: communications expert Zarrar Shah, who made it possible for another key LeT terrorist, Sajid Mir, to guide the 10 Pakistani terrorists in Mumbai through cellphones. Both are supposed to be in custody in Pakistan but no one can be certain about it. The documentary shows the two running the Mumbai operation room in Karachi and then repeats earlier shots, used in a National Geographic documentary, where Mir is issuing orders to kill while the terrorists keep asking him to pray for their place in paradise.

With Mir’s help, Headley chose the spot where the 10 terrorists would land, the hotel they would enter and occupy, the synagogue where they would kill innocent American Jewish hostages and thus involve the US. Mir, talking to the “boys”, betrays his primitive hatred of Jews; but the real giveaway here was the operation’s link with al-Qaeda. It also proved that LeT was interfacing with Osama bin Laden and his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The next phase in the life of Headley was al-Qaeda and his next operation in Denmark to punish the Copenhagen-based newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, for printing blaspheming cartoons. This time, he would be trapped and caught, but only after the US agencies had once again ignored his new Moroccan wife Faiza’s reports to the US embassy in Islamabad on his clearly terrorist pursuits. He carelessly took her “on honeymoon” to Mumbai, where he tried involving a Shiv Sena leader in a business deal, while in fact “casing” the Sena office for a possible attack. When the actual attack came, however, he was safely in Chicago. It was Ilyas Kashmiri — the al-Qaeda Pakistani commander who was to attack the Karachi naval base in 2012, destroying precious military assets — who recruited him for Denmark. This time, all calls and email messages were traced successfully and when Headley arrived in Copenhagen, he was being followed. The network was about to be smashed and Headley to get his comeuppance. He was arrested on arrival in Denmark in October 2009. Ilyas Kashmiri was killed by a drone in June 2011.

In January 2013, Headley was found guilty by the US federal court in Chicago for his part in the 2008 Mumbai attacks and sentenced to 35 years in prison. The judge said that the sentence was sufficient to put him “under lock and key for the rest of his life,” and that he would “never [be] in a position again to commit a terrorist attack”.

The writer is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’.