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What Was David Headley's Role in the Mumbai Terrorist Attacks?

What Was David Headley's Role in the Mumbai Terrorist Attacks?

Author: Jyoti Thottam
Publication: Yahoo.com
Date: December 12, 2009
URL: http://news.yahoo.com/s/time/20091212/wl_time/08599194720300

The case against David Headley, 49, the American accused of helping plan the November 2008 terrorist strikes in Mumbai, fills in several of the missing links about how the attacks were planned and executed with such precision. Because two Indian men on trial in Mumbai for providing intelligence were arrested months before the attacks took place - before the Mumbai strategy was even finalized - security analysts here have long assumed that the plotters must have had other sources of information. The complaint against Headley claims that he was that source. If true, it opens a window into how the global jihadi network operates.

Headley was born Daood Gilani in Washington, D.C. His father was Pakistani; his mother, American. The Chicago resident's alleged involvement with the radical Pakistani Islamist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) began nearly three years before the Mumbai attacks. In late 2005 he was told by his handlers to travel to India to do surveillance, so he changed his name in February 2006 to David Headley "in order to present himself in India as an American who was neither Muslim nor Pakistani," according to the complaint filed in U.S. district court in Chicago. He allegedly made the first of several trips to India in September 2006, using the cover of working for an immigration agency. But according to investigators, he actually spent his time in Mumbai "taking pictures and making videotapes of various targets," including those that would eventually be attacked - the Taj and Oberoi hotels, Leopold CafÉ, Nariman House and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the city's main railway hub.

At that point, the other alleged participants in the plot had not yet been activated. Mohammed Ajmal Amir Qasab, the surviving gunman from the Mumbai attacks, was still struggling as a day laborer for a catering business in Lahore, according to his statement to Mumbai police. Fahim Ansari, who is on trial in Mumbai for providing maps and logistical help to the attackers, was working at a printing press in Dubai, waiting to be called up for his first session at an LeT training camp, according to a dossier on Ansari prepared by Indian authorities. Sabahuddin Ahmed, the other co-accused, was a Bangalore-based operative for LeT, according to his statement to police, but he allegedly spent the fall of 2006 scouting targets in Bangalore - not Mumbai - and meeting other LeT operatives in Dhaka, Kathmandu, Colombo and Muzaffarabad in Pakistani Kashmir to discuss them.

That plot supposedly gelled with Headley's contributions. By late 2007, he had allegedly made three sets of "photographs, videos and oral descriptions" of targets in Mumbai, providing enough information to set the rest of the plan in motion. A native of Mumbai, Ansari, investigators said, returned from his LeT training in November 2007, found an apartment and was told by his LeT handlers to get a van driver's license. Ansari then allegedly scoped out more targets in Mumbai: a long list of prominent buildings from the U.S. consulate to the state legislature building. According to the official dossier on his case, the van was meant to ferry AK-47s and hand grenades. But "the delivery of weapons could not materialize and the plan was postponed," Ansari told investigators. He and Ahmed, who had helped him cross into India without a passport, were both arrested in February 2008. Plan A had fizzled.

It isn't clear what derailed that original strategy - it was a virtually identical scheme to the one used to transport the weapons used in a December 2005 attack on the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore - but Headley allegedly played a key role in Plan B. "In March 2008, Headley and his co-conspirators discussed potential landing sites for a team of attackers who would arrive by sea," according to a statement by the U.S. Attorney's office. From April to July 2008, Headley took "boat trips in and around the Mumbai harbor" to find a suitable landing spot.

During those same months, Qasab was allegedly attending a jihadi camp in Pakistani Kashmir, progressing from indoctrination and physical-fitness training to the handling of grenades and machine guns. It wasn't until September that Qasab was "selected for some confidential operations," according to his statement to Indian authorities. According to the same document, he and the others started a new round of training in swimming and navigation for an operation at sea, and on Sept. 15 they learned that their target was Mumbai. The 10 gunmen who arrived in Mumbai on Nov. 26 would land at the jetty at Budhwar Park, an unguarded fishing spot near the southern end of Mumbai, carrying their weapons with them. The Mumbai attack - which paralyzed a city of 18 million for nearly three days - was a terrifying example of jihadi groups effectively using small, decentralized cells to plan and execute a complex operation.

Although Headley and Ansari were in Mumbai at the same time, it is not clear whether they ever met. Headley is believed to have handed over his surveillance videos of Mumbai to handlers in Pakistan, but he may not have had any knowledge of the 10 young men elsewhere in Pakistan who authorities say used those videos as guides to Mumbai months later. LeT is allegedly utilizing this model around the world. "LeT started out as a provincial group in southern Punjab," says Wilson John, an expert on terrorism at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. "It's now networked across the globe."

But the case against Headley reveals some of the weaknesses of a loose network of highly motivated radicals: the allegiances of individual members can be just as decentralized. The FBI's investigation of him includes e-mails in which he expresses ongoing frustration with his LeT handlers and complains that they seem insufficiently interested in his goal of attacking a Danish newspaper that had printed cartoons he considered offensive to Islam - a plan that he refers to in code as "the Mickey Mouse project" or "the Northern project." Shortly after the Mumbai attacks, Headley allegedly planned a trip to Denmark. By the time he returned to Chicago in June 2009, he appeared anxious about the lack of progress. "What is the status with the Northern project, is it still postponed indefinitely?" he allegedly asked his LeT handlers in a July 2009 e-mail that was quoted in the complaint filed with the U.S. district court.

When the LeT seemed too focused on a new attack in India, the official complaint says, Headley shifted his allegiance to another jihadi group willing to support him. "He was incorporated into LeT but not indoctrinated into the cause," John says. "David Headley had a mind of his own." In the end, it was that single-mindedness - his vehement Internet postings about the cartoons and his frequent trips to Denmark without any apparent business interests there - that tipped off investigators to begin watching him. He was arrested in October shortly before another planned trip to Denmark. Headley is now reportedly cooperating with the investigations of the Danish plot and the attacks of Nov. 26, 2008. He may be the best source yet for India's many unanswered questions about Mumbai.

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