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New faces of terror

New faces of terror

Author: Mayank Chhaya, Sandeep Unnithan
Publication: India Today
Date: November 30, 2009
URL: http://indiatoday.intoday.in/site/story?sId=71552&secid=30

Introduction: Apart from Mumbai, the North American duo of Pakistani origin sought other targets in India. The worry is more attacks may have been set in motion.

It has been one of the biggest unsolved mysteries of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. How did the 10-member Lashkar suicide commando team so effortlessly navigate around landmarks in a city which they hadn't visited? Now with the arrest of two persons by the FBI, David Coleman Headley, a white American of mixed Pakistani descent, and Tahawwur Hussain Rana, a Canadian national residing in Chicago, Indian investigators believe the smoke may finally be clearing.

The suspected Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) activists Headley and his accomplice Rana may have conducted a detailed hostile reconnaissance of the three targets- the Taj and Oberoi hotels and the Jewish centre at Nariman House-and possibly even had a hand in planning the attack and several other strikes across the country.

The National Investigation Agency (NIA) which has registered a case against the duo under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and for conspiring to wage war against the country is now building up the home ministry's case asking for the duo's extradition. Transcripts of e-mails and phone taps supplied by the FBI show Rana and Headley plotting fresh mass casualty attacks in India, including defence installations and elite boarding schools in north India.

When Headley applied for an Indian visa in July 2007, nothing seemed out of the ordinary and no red flags went up. He was granted a five-year multiple entry visa by the Indian consulate in Chicago. A little over two years later, Headley, also known as Daood Gilani, is in federal custody in the city facing charges of having links with the LeT and conspiring to commit "murder and maiming".

Arrested by the FBI on October 3, his "multiple trips" to India, Pakistan and Denmark are subject of a detailed investigation by the FBI. Swept up along with him is Rana, a "medically trained" owner of an immigration business at Chicago's Devon Avenue, in the midst of a small stretch called "Little India". Rana is a Canadian citizen of Pakistani origin, who also has a permanent US residency and lives primarily in Chicago.

It is not entirely clear how the two Chicagoans, a Pakistani and the other a white American convert to Islam, met and struck up what according to the FBI was a potentially murderous alliance. Details about their personal backgrounds are not available in the criminal complaints but reports suggest that Headley was born in the US and he had visited Pakistan as a young man.

The complaint says, "Headley changed his name from Daood Gilani in or about 2006 when he acquired his US passport". Headley told a Customs and Border Patrol official that he changed his name so as to raise less suspicion when he travelled.

Security analysts see Headley as part of a worrying new trend among Islamic terror groups of recruiting 'white skins', European converts who could escape enhanced scrutiny scanners while easily blending into Western society to carry out terror missions. In 2003, the FBI arrested and convicted five members of a LeT-trained group, dubbed the 'Virginia Jehad'. The group included white converts to Islam who received weapons training in Pakistan and planned to fight in Kashmir.

Carrying his new passport, the 6'2", well-built Headley, whom an acquaintance described as a dead ringer for action star Steven Seagal, raised no red flags when he made nearly a dozen trips to India, the first in 2006 and the last one soon after the Mumbai terror attacks. He was ostensibly running a branch of First World Immigration Services owned by Rana. The trips took him to Lahore, Karachi, Dubai and even Colombo.

The fitness freak Headley did have an active social life while in Mumbai. He socialised with Rahul Bhatt, a personal trainer and son of film producer-director Mahesh Bhatt, whom he met at upmarket gymnasium Moksh. Rahul nicknamed the American 'Agent Headley' for his near obsession with spies and covert forces. He is believed to have introduced him to cousin and film actor Emraan Hashmi. Headley is reported to even have dated a Bollywood starlet.

The FBI complaint says both Headley and Rana were alumni of a military school called Cadet College Hasan Abdal and participated in an online group 'Abdalians'. Both have been accused of providing "material support and resources for terrorist acts outside the US".

In Mumbai, Headley ran a small visa consultation firm from an office in South Mumbai's Tardeo area, not far from the Breach Candy flat where he stayed as a paying guest. He even employed a receptionist but did not fit the profile of a globe-trotting businessman; he didn't carry a phone and was evidently uncomfortable using the Internet in his office.

He is said to have stayed at the Taj twice in the first half of 2007, but the evidence linking him to the 26/11 attacks is thus far purely circumstantial. But why was Headley visiting cities like Mumbai, Pune, Kochi and Goa? One line of investigation the NIA is pursuing has to do with the LeT setting up sleeper cells in these cities for future terror attacks.

As fresh revelations emerge in the case, there are indications that the trail of 26/11 may well lead to state actors in Pakistan. What has lent credence to this is that the duo was in touch with the Pakistan consul general in Chicago, Dr Aman Rashid, and that Rana's two brothers are serving officers of the Pakistan Army.

The 26/11 terror attack intercepts provided to India by the US agencies did mention a serving Pakistani army officer, which may well be the missing link in the plot. Two other names figure in the criminal complaint. One is referred to as Individual A, "whose identity is known to the government, is an individual with substantial influence and responsibility within the LeT".

Indian intelligence agencies believe this man to be an LeT operative Syed Abdur Rahman and the other is Ilyas Kashmiri, a former Special Services Group commando whom the FBI has described "as the operational chief of the Azad Kashmir section of Harakat-ul-Jihad-Islami (HUJI) with links to Al-Qaeda". The FBI complaints read like the first draft of a 'B' grade Hollywood thriller with all the stereotypes about the shadowy world of Islamist terror groups fronted by dodgy ethnic characters.

"In late 2008, Headley corresponded with Individual B and LeT Member A regarding what they referred to in coded communications as the 'Mickey Mouse Project' and 'the northern project', which involved attacking the offices of Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper which in 2005 had published cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammed," the complaint says. It says as part of the plot, Headley travelled to Denmark posing as an employee of Rana's company, First World Immigration Services.

Less than four months ago, the Denmark plan, was forsaken by the LeT for potential new attacks on India. In an e-mail on July 8, 2009, Headley first mentions "Rahul", who eventually turned out to be filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt's son Rahul Bhatt.

"I think when we get a chance, we should revisit our last location and meet Rahul". The complaint says, "LeT Member A replied to the above e-mail on July 8, 2009, and told Headley in an e-mail that 'to see Rahul is a good idea coz have some work for you over there too. Matters are good enough to move forward'." On July 9, 2009, Headley responded: "When you say move forward, do you mean in the north or towards Rahul?"

On the same day, LeT Member A responded that 'I mean towards Rahul'," the complaint says. Although going by the chronology in the FBI complaint, Headley's interest in Indian targets appears to have been aroused only early this year, the fact that he had been visiting India since 2007 would seem to suggest something else. Asked if that was angle that the FBI or the US Attorney's Northern Illinois district office was pursuing, Assistant US Attorney and Public Information Officer Randall Samborn told India Today, "I would not be able to comment on anything beyond the contents of the complaint."

Related to the question of Headley's India visit is Rana's travel to the country as well. According to Vishvas Sapkal, the head of chancery at the Indian Consulate, Rana and his wife were given Indian business visas on October 31, 2008, with a one-year validity expiring October 30, 2009. It is not clear how many times Rana travelled to India but the last trip he made was in November when he flew back to Chicago just a fortnight before the 26/11 attacks.

To the question whether Rana's visa application was vetted properly considering he is of Pakistani origin and stricter issuance rules apply to him, Sapkal said, "The Consulate General of India, Chicago, issued the above mentioned visa to Tahawwur Rana as per the established procedure for issuance of visas to persons of Pakistani origin. As per the procedure, no prior clearance from the Ministry of Home Affairs was required in such cases. The above mentioned visa was issued with due scrutiny of the available documents and following guidelines."

It is hard to be specific about what it is that Headley and the LeT may have been planning in India but if the exchange between him and Individual A is any indication something was afoot. On July 10, 2009, Individual A told Headley: "There are some investment plans with me, not exactly at Rahul's city but near that."

The FBI believes that in July 2009, LeT Member A was placing a higher priority on using Headley to assist in planning a new attack in India than on completing the planned attack in Denmark. After this time, it appears that Headley and Individual A continued the planning of an attack with Kashmiri, rather than LeT".

Headley was arrested at the O'Hare airport on October 3 while boarding a flight from Chicago to Philadelphia. Fifteen days later Rana was arrested. His arrest was preceded by some 100 agents raiding the farming village of Kinsman in Illinois with a population of 109 where he owned a 'halal' slaughterhouse.

With the two in federal custody at the Metropolitan Correctional Centre in downtown Chicago, it is now matter of the US law specifically dealing with terrorism charges taking its course. According to the Assistant US Attorney Samborn, Rana had sought to be released from the custody on bond. A similar hearing for Headley could take place on December 4. However, given the cross-continental frenzy generated in India, it is anybody's guess when and if the two could be out on bond any time soon.

India Today could not contact Rana's attorney for this report. However, The Washington Post had quoted Patrick W. Blegen, an attorney for Rana, as saying that his client is a "well-respected businessman in the Chicagoland community. He adamantly denied the charges and eagerly awaits his opportunity to contest them in court, and to clear his name and his family's name". John Theis, an attorney for Headley, also declined to comment. With two suspects in the US and the masterminds still in Pakistan, the jury is still out on the 26/11 conspiracy.

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