The US DEA agent who ran amuck in the terrorist underworld of Pak-Afghan border region and might have played a role in Mumbai attacks
The Taj Mahal burning after the 2008 attacks
India’s blame game
Two years later, the Mumbai terrorist attack continues to cast a shadow on Pakistan-India relations. Indians struggle to find answers to the bloody drama played out in Mumbai. Meanwhile, their establishment and the media continue to lay unsubstantiated blame at Pakistan’s doorstep.
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Indian leadership refused to understand that not only was such an act out of character with Pakistan but also against its interests. Pakistan has been going through a difficult political transition and its military has been engaged with the fallout of the Afghan war and its fight against terrorist forces that threatened the country’s internal security. In this state of affairs, Pakistan could not have committed the monumental blunder of becoming involved in anything like ‘Mumbai’. In doing so it would have risked further complicating its relationship with India and initiating an unwanted military conflict in what was already a difficult security environment.
Pakistan cooperated by investigating and prosecuting elements of the outlawed Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) that India blamed. LeT denies involvement, but it is possible that some rogue elements within LeT might have undertaken this adventure.
With the arrest of David Headley, a US citizen, by FBI and his confession that he assisted perpetrators of Mumbai attack, the Indian propaganda machine again went into overdrive, dubbing Headley as ISI agent, financed and directed by ISI. Why? Simply because Headley had a Pakistani connection.
David Coleman Headley initially pled not guilty before U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber in Chicago but later pled guilty in a plea bargain with the U.S.(Verna Sadock/AP Drawing/Photo)
Who is David Headley?
Influenced by the negative environment of the tavern his mother owned and where he spent his youth, he slipped into drug addiction and then into drug smuggling.
A paid informant for US DEA
After his arrest in Germany in 1988 for smuggling drugs to the US, Headley landed with US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for which he worked as paid informant in exchange for a lighter sentence. With his outreach in the drug underworld, he helped bust several big drug deals. But he was again arrested in 1999 for drug smuggling, ended up in jail and again taken under the wings of the DEA as an asset.
Between 2001 and 2005, he travelled to Pak-Afghan tribal areas multiple times to conduct the DEA’s undercover surveillance. The DEA agents with whom he worked as an operative described him as an "opportunist," someone who knew how to forget about loyalty, cut his losses and get the best deal.
With a changed identity
In 2006, he changed his name to David Coleman Headley, using his mother’s family name, to make travel to Pakistan, India and other countries easier. Between 2006 and 2008, he is reported to have done five spying missions to Mumbai, scouting targets for the 2008 Mumbai attacks on behalf of some rogue elements of Lashkar-e-Taiba. In 2009, Headley travelled to Britain to help plan an attack against a Danish newspaper that had published cartoons of Prophet Muhammad. On being tipped by the British intelligence about his activities in Europe, the FBI arrested him in October 2009 while on his way to Pakistan.
Who else was he working for?
Related: US agencies had warnings before Mumbai terrorist attack
Within two months Headley was training with LeT, which had been designated a terrorist organization by the US and Pakistan. The unusual ease, with which he was released from prison in the US and dispatched to Pakistan’s tribal region, reinforces the belief that he was working with the US government in some capacity.
Besides developing excellent connections with drug mafia, he befriended and trained with different outlawed terrorist groups using his old-boy network in Pak-Afghan tribal areas. These groups found him useful because of his acceptability everywhere and ease of undetected travel between the US, India, Pakistan and elsewhere. A chameleon-like figure with a taste for risk and a talent for deception, he could successfully alternate between an American David Headley and a Pakistani Daood Gilani, depending on the setting.
All this could not be happening without prompting by DEA handlers and knowledge of other US agencies such as CIA and FBI, because they invest and share valuable assets like Headley.
Both these agencies deny using Headley. But then how does one explain the extended scope of his activities and the deep knowledge that US counterterrorism officials have about him? One official described him “as a mercenary, not ideologically driven”. Another said, “He's not an Islamic terrorist in the classic sense." Yet another said Headley was “dangerously engaging” and as someone “who knew how to manipulate the system to get what he wanted”.
Was Headley good for ISI to use?
An Indian report, leaked in October 2010 after Headley's interrogation by Indian investigators in Chicago, again accused ISI for having planned and financed some of Headley's scouting trips to Mumbai. Pakistan rejected these allegations, arguing that if such a statement was indeed made by Headley it might have been done to deflect the pressure on his American handlers due to Indian investigators breathing down Headley’s neck and that its veracity should be determined in the light of Headley’s character, credibility and past record.
Dismissing the Indian propaganda, ISI says it faces such allegations quite frequently, because the Indian agencies suspect an ISI agent under every rock in the region – whether it be Kashmir, Afghanistan or India.
While the murky world of intelligence is too complex to fathom, it is a norm for intelligence agencies not to compromise their information by inducting an agent who works for another agency and pursues divergent interests. Even if ISI was to stage the Mumbai saga, would it be so naïve as to share such top secret information with Headley when he is known to be a dubious and slippery customer and a paid agent for DEA, and possibly CIA and FBI.
It is important to note that US officials are quoted by the US media as having admitted that the US has no evidence to counter the denial by ISI.
Warnings by Headley’s wives go unheeded
Quoting officials and sources close to the case, ProPublica writes that in August 2005, when Headley was arrested in New York for domestic violence, his then wife (identity is withheld for security reasons), told federal agents in three interviews that Gilani was an active militant of Lashkar-e-Taiba for which he had been shopping for night-vision goggles and other equipment.
ProPublica reports that she also told agents that Headley had bragged of working as a paid US informant while he worked with the terrorists in “Pakistan’s Wild West.” Federal officials said later the FBI "looked into" the tip, but they declined to say what, if any, action was taken.
Faiza Outalha, Headley’s Moroccan ex-wife claimed she accompanied Headley thrice to Mumbai in 2007 and 2008 and stayed with him in the Taj Mahal Hotel and Oberoi Trident, both of which came under attack in 2008. She said that in her two meetings with US embassy officials in Islamabad, she informed them about her husband having friends among members of Lashkar-e-Taiba and that he was plotting a terror act in Mumbai. She claimed she even showed them photographs of the two hotels where they had stayed.
"I told them, he's either a terrorist, or he's working for you," she recalled having told the American officials at the US embassy in Islamabad. "Indirectly, they told me to get lost," she was quoted as saying.
"Despite those warnings by two of his three wives, Mr. Headley roamed far and wide on Lashkar's [LeT] behalf between 2002 and 2009, receiving training in small arms and counter surveillance, scouting targets for attacks, and building a network of connections that extended from Chicago to Pakistan's lawless northwestern frontier," said New York Times.
There are several questions that continue to intrigue analysts. Was FBI aware of the David Headley’s activities? Was Headley acting as the go-between for DEA/CIA and rogue elements of Lashkar-e-Taiba? Is that why FBI stonewalled those who were trying to expose him?.
Did the US fail to share information with the Indians?
News reports in October 2010 revealed that despite having received plenty of advance knowledge about David Headley's terrorist associations and activities for several years, the U.S. intelligence agencies failed to prevent him from proceeding with his designs. This has caused the Indians to complain that the US kept them in the dark about the impending attack.
Mike Hammer, spokesman of the National Security Council, White House, responding to the investigative report by ProPublica told PTI : “The US "regularly provided threat information" to Indian officials in 2008 before the attacks in Mumbai”.
ProPublica and the Daily Beast claim that US anti-terrorism officials had warned Indian counterparts at least thrice in 2008 about a possible attack on Mumbai. According to an anti-terrorism official with knowledge of the warnings, the first warning about LeT plans was given in early 2008. In May, U.S. officials warned that the attack should be expected in September and also identified potential targets such as the Taj Mahal hotel and nearby sites frequented by foreigners. Then came the warning in September.
No link has been established between Headley and these warnings, but based on the knowledge that DEA and CIA had close relationship with Headley, anti-terrorism officials conclude that the US got this information by monitoring Headley, either as an informant, an ex-informant or a suspect. It is doubtful if any other source could regularly give such precise information from within the ranks of LeT.
Why were these warnings not heeded by Indian intelligence agencies?
Despite the US claim about information sharing, the 3-day slaughter in Mumbai caught Indian security forces unprepared. This is quite intriguing.
There are several theories floating around. According to one, since the strike did not occur in September as per the warning, the Indian security forces lowered their guard.
Another theory comes from secular elements, particularly from within the ruling Congress party. According to them there are linkages between the Indian Intelligence Bureau (IB), which they claim, is heavily infiltrated by RSS (a communal organization that opposes improvement of relations with Pakistan and targets Indian minorities) and the ‘Mumbai conspiracy’. They claim this had a twofold objective: one, to sabotage Indo-Pakistan relations and scuttle the ongoing dialogue by slapping the blame for the incident on Pakistan, and two, using this tragedy as a pretext unleash a wave of Muslim massacre in Maharashtra, as was done several times in the past. The threat warnings were therefore simply swept under the carpet.
Amaresh Misra, a historian and chief of the Anti-Communal Front of the All India Congress Committee (AICC), in his article “Headley Saga: Mumbai attack was a joint IB-CIA-Mossad- RSS project”, says “…basically Headley and the CIA cannot be de-linked. He writes:
“The IB knew about Headley - this is proved by the fact that the SIM cards used by the ten 26/11 terrorists were purchased by an IB informer. Till date, the investigations into the 26/11 case, which the IB is handling, have been unable to state as to how the ten terrorists got hold of the SIM cards. “
He goes on to say:
“It beats one’s imagination as to how the IB did not know about Headley and his movements. There can only be two scenarios: that the IB is totally incompetent–or that the IB is heavily infiltrated by RSS, CIA and Mossad: the agency knew about 26/11 and did nothing to stop it.”
Misra points out that the Headley saga also had links to Abhinav Bharat and pro-Hindutva terror groups which are widely believed to be behind the Pune blasts. This, according to him, was also corroborated by the Maharashtra state home secretary.
The mystery surrounding the assassination of police officer Hemant Karkare, who was close to unraveling the role of these terrorist groups in Samjhota Express and the Pune blasts, also appears to be part of this conspiracy and hence has remained unresolved.
The US keeps its mole under wraps
Meanwhile, the US authorities have refused to extradite Headley to India, citing plea bargain with him as the reason. They were initially reluctant to even allow India’s National Investigation Agency to interrogate Headley in the US. This gave rise to suspicions in India about the U.S. government's motives in keeping Headley under wraps. Indian officials suspected that US agencies declined to share intelligence to avoid compromising other secret operations and to be able to deny any link with Headley.
“The feeling in India is that the US has not been transparent,” said B. Raman, a former counter-terrorism chief in the Indian foreign intelligence service, the RAW. “That Headley was an agent for the DEA is known. Whether he was being used by the CIA as well is a matter of speculation, but it is almost certain that the CIA was aware of him and his movements across the subcontinent.”
What about the truth?
With such a large numbers of players involved in varying degrees and with too many overlapping internal and external interests, the truth behind the Mumbai saga will perhaps never come out. If he chooses to speak the truth, and interested parties decide to allow that truth to surface, perhaps David Headley will have the last word.