U.S. Terror Conviction Raises Questions in India

Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is based in New Delhi. His novel "Arzee the Dwarf" is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter at @Hashestweets.
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On Jan. 24, a federal district court in Chicago sentenced David Coleman Headley -- born Daood Gilani in Washington, D.C., in 1960 -- to 35 years in prison for his role in plotting the terror attacks that killed 164 people in Mumbai in 2008.

Headley's trial was widely watched for many reasons. Unusually among terrorists wanted for attacks on Indian civilians, Headley was a U.S. citizen. But uniquely among them, he had also served as an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. He made his first visit to Pakistan to spy on heroin traffickers before turning rogue and joining a plot hatched by the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Headley's U.S. passport allowed him to elude detection on several reconnaissance trips to Mumbai to gather intelligence for the gruesome bloodbath on the night of Nov. 26, 2008. Six Americans were among those killed. Late last year, the one surviving Pakistani militant from the actual attack, Mohammed Ajmal Kasab, was sentenced to death in India and executed.

Headley was spared a life sentence and extradition to India after agreeing to turn into an informer in a plea-bargain deal. His sentence was the maximum sought by public prosecutors, a fact that caused outrage in some quarters but was described as balancing a "very heinous crime" and "very significant cooperation."

An engrossing eyewitness account of the trial -- and all the crisscrossing lines of alliances, aliases, terrorism and counter-terrorism beneath Headley's movements over the last decade -- was provided in 2011 by Liz Mermin, who wrote in the Indian long-form narrative journalism magazine The Caravan:

This seducer-fundamentalist, the child of a beautiful and rebellious Philadelphia socialite and a charming Pakistani diplomat and poet, couldn't be invented. With one brown eye and one green, he embodied the cliché "torn between two worlds"....

Perhaps the most astonishing element of Headley's story is just how frequently and willingly the US government has used him as a source. His first job as an informant involved the heroin trade, but after September 2001 the US had bigger concerns in Pakistan than drug smuggling. In November 2001 the government granted him an early release from his probation, apparently so he could go do additional work for the DEA in Pakistan. This was a year after he'd attended his first LeT meeting in Lahore, and only a month before his first stay in an LeT training camp.

Somewhere along the way, Headley slipped out of the DEA's sights and began to work for the Lashkar-e-Taiba, who had much use for a man with his nationality and ethnicity. A report on the Indian news site NDTV.com explained:

After receiving instructions in late 2005 to conduct surveillance in India, Headley changed his given name from Daood Gilani in February 2006 in Philadelphia to facilitate his activities on behalf of Lashkar by portraying himself in India as an American who was neither Muslim nor Pakistani. In the early summer of 2006, Headley and two Lashkar members discussed opening an immigration office in Mumbai as a cover for his surveillance activities.

Headley eventually made five extended trips to Mumbai...each time making videotapes of various potential targets, including those attacked in November 2008. Before each trip, Lashkar members and associates instructed Headley regarding specific locations where he was to conduct surveillance. After each trip, Headley traveled to Pakistan to meet with Lashkar members and associates, report on the results of his surveillance, and provide the surveillance videos.

A story last week by Sebastian Rotella on the website Propublica.com tried to investigate the links between Headley's involvement with U.S. intelligence operations and Pakistani terrorist ones. Rotella concluded in "The American Behind India's 9/11":

The trial shed little light on Headley’s past as a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration informant and the failure of U.S. agencies to pursue repeated warnings over seven years that could have stopped his lethal odyssey sooner — and perhaps prevented the Mumbai attack.

U.S. officials say Headley simply slipped through the cracks. If that is true, his story is a trail of bureaucratic dysfunction. But if his ties to the U.S. government were more extensive than disclosed — as widely believed in India — an operative may have gone rogue with tragic results. Both scenarios reveal the kind of breakdowns that the government has spent billions to correct since the Sept. 11 attacks.

The Obama administration has not discussed results of an internal review of the case conducted last year, or disclosed whether any officials have been held accountable.

Although much information has emerged about Headley's connections and stratagems, what we still don't know is potentially much more interesting. The hard questions about these cover-ups, and about the U.S.'s role in endangering India's national security through the pursuit of its own perceived interests, were asked in 2010 by Vinod Jose in "The Headley Lessons":

Last year marked several arrests of homegrowns like Headley in the US. Some of them may be innocent, some guilty. US Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said: “We face real threats from homegrown terrorists.” It must be true about domestic threats, but what about the roles of these homegrowns in the attacks on civilian targets in Mumbai, Islamabad, and Kabul?...

If India and Pakistan ever hope to have a clean slate from which to negotiate, there first needs to be a reckoning about the role of the United States. While Washington, DC is 6,500 nautical miles from the subcontinent, its actions here, both past and present, have clearly affected the relationship between India and Pakistan.

It's more likely that Headley's story will be pursued further by Hollywood rather than by prosecutors or journalists. As Mermin writes in her essay on the trial, Bruce Willis's uncanny resemblance to Headley makes him a shoo-in for the role.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter @Hashestweets. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author of this story:
Chandrahas Choudhury at chandrahas.choudhury@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net