A U.S. citizen who served as an advance scout for the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks that killed more than 160 people, including six Americans, was ordered to spend 35 years in prison.
David Coleman Headley, 52, was sentenced yesterday by U.S. District Judge Harry D. Leinenweber in Chicago.
Headley pleaded guilty to 12 criminal counts arising from his efforts in support of the terrorists who carried out the three-day assault in India and those who planned a never-executed attack on a Danish newspaper that printed inflammatory cartoons of the Islamic prophet Muhammad in 2005.
“Mr. Headley is a terrorist,” deserving of a death penalty for his crimes, Leinenweber said before pronouncing the sentence. While acceding to the prosecutors’ request, the judge said he was imposing a term that would “hopefully keep him under lock and key for the rest of his life.”
In a three-day siege in November 2008, a squad of 10 people attacked two Mumbai hotels, a cafe, a train station and a Jewish hostel. Nine of the assailants were killed.
Headley admitted he’d helped identify targets and a water-landing site for the attackers. Linda Ragsdale, who was shot while dining at the Oberoi Hotel, addressed Headley yesterday in court before he was sentenced.
“I don’t know you,” Ragsdale, 53, of Nashville, Tennessee, said. “I know you only from your testimony in this courtroom. I have no understanding of how you came to choose this path.”
“David Headley has lost his right to live as a free man,” she told the judge.
Clothed in a gray tunic and gray pants, Headley stood silently, his eyes alternately closed or looking downward, as Ragsdale spoke.
Citing his willingness to cooperate immediately upon his arrest in 2009, U.S. prosecutors asked the judge to impose a term of 30 to 35 years, a departure from the life sentence he could have received under the advisory federal sentencing guidelines.
His 2010 guilty plea averted a possible death sentence.
Former Chicago U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald addressed the court briefly yesterday, telling Leinenweber that he was appearing as a fact witness and not as a government official.
Headley was captured at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport while Fitzgerald was still the region’s top federal prosecutor. Now in private practice, the attorney told the court Headley “fully admitted to his role” in the Mumbai attacks within 30 minutes of his arrest.
Over the ensuing weeks, Headley told authorities of other terrorist plots with knowledge he could be sentenced to death, Fitzgerald said.
“I think the hardest decision for a federal prosecutor to make is balancing between the seriousness of the crime and the value of the cooperation,” Acting U.S. Attorney Gary S. Shapiro said after the sentencing. “As we said in court today, ‘despicable’ doesn’t begin to capture the horror of the nightmare.”
He said Headley’s cooperation went beyond that of testifying in court and to the provision of intelligence information usable in charging other people and stopping other crimes.
“The only way you get witnesses in this world is by threatening to prosecute them and then offering them some real incentive to provide you with that information,” the prosecutor said. “This was obviously a terrorism case and the number of cooperators you get in terrorism cases is vanishingly small.”
Headley testified against co-defendant Tahawwur Rana, 52, whom he called his “best friend in the world,” at a 2011 trial.
Rana, a Pakistani-born Canadian, was convicted of helping Headley with the newspaper plot and of providing material support to a terrorist group. He received a 14-year sentence last week from Leinenweber.
Headley was born as Daood Gilani, the son of an American woman and a Pakistani man. He changed his name to portray himself in India as an American who was neither Muslim nor Pakistani, according to his plea agreement.
Using his new identity and cover provided by Rana’s immigration-services business, which had offices in Chicago, New York and Toronto, Headley said he traveled to Copenhagen and to India to do reconnaissance for the terror plots.
He admitted to aiding the murder of U.S. nationals and providing material support to the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, the same Kashmiri separatist group aided by Rana.
Seeking a lower sentence than that sought by the U.S., defense lawyer John Theis told the court that information provided by his client aided governments in India, Pakistan, the U.S. and elsewhere, possibly preventing the Danish newspaper attack.
Theis called that ongoing cooperation “so profound it calls for an extraordinary departure from the guidelines.”
Meeting with reporters after the sentencing, Theis declined to say what term he had sought. The defense sentencing memorandum was filed with the court under seal.
Ragsdale, who left the courthouse without addressing the media, relayed in court a letter from one of the mothers that called a 35-year term a “moral outrage.”
“We need to honor those lives that were lost,” Ragsdale said.
While there is no parole in the federal prison system, defendants are required to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence. Leinenweber also imposed a requirement of five years post-prison supervised release.
The six Americans killed were Sandeep Jeswani of Chicago; Alan Scherr of Virginia and his daughter, Naomi, each of whom were killed at the Oberoi Hotel in Mumbai; and Rabbi Aryeh Teitelbaum and Gavriel Holtzberg, both originally of New York, and Rabbi Ben Zion Chroman, an American who was living in Israel at the time, were killed at the city’s Chabad House.
Headley had performed surveillance on those targets and others, according to prosecutors’ sentencing memorandum.
The case is U.S. v. Kashmiri, 09-cr-00830, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois (Chicago).