CHICAGO (CN) – David Headley, who has admitted to plotting the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, did not excel in religious debates, but he masterfully outfoxed others in more practical matters, according to the defense team for Headley’s longtime friend on trial for supporting the attacks.
In his last day of direct examination by prosecutors, Headley recounted a conversation between himself and the accused, Tahawwur Rana, illustrating that Rana was comfortable discussing target details and the aliases of plotters within the Lashkar-e-Taiba, a radical outfit that carried out the Mumbai attacks and planned several others.
Rana’s defense argued Thursday, however, that Headley created connections that did not necessarily have anything to do with the Lashkar’s militant activities, but did further his efforts to recruit – or exploit – Rana.
Headley knew that Rana had long planned to expand the international presence of his Chicago-based business, First World Immigration. At one business meeting in Dubai, he presented the so-called Pasha as a potential partner. Like Rana, Pasha was a clean-cut former military officer and a lifelong devout Muslim. Headley admitted on the stand that, in private conversations, he “exaggerated the degree to which [each man] was interested in [the other].”
Rana thought Pasha could capably screen clients and make appointments, and the interest was mutual since Pasha needed a job for personal reasons, testimony showed. Headley admitted that the potential business was “absolutely not” for shuttling fighters or otherwise contributing to Lashkar’s cause.
In email correspondence obtained by the government, Pasha asks after Rana, but also asks about Ray Sanders, an American business partner and immigration lawyer who is not suspected of any connection to Lashkar.
Rana also had preexisting business motives for opening offices in places later targeted by Lashkar attacks, including Copenhagen, site of the Jyllands-Posten newspaper, which published allegedly blasphemous cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in 2005.
Headley recalled Rana saying that he “always wanted to have an office in Scandinavia,” possibly before any attack on the newspaper came into consideration. Headley convinced Rana to let him scout Copenhagen for business opportunities. Headley’s work was also overseen by Sanders, whose business cards the Lashkar member carried during his time in Mumbai and Denmark.
Aside from Rana’s business interests, religious distinctions played a key role in the defense’s effort to dissociate him from Lashkar. Rana never changed his Islamic denomination to that followed by Lashkar, which Headley describes as a version of Salafism. Headley noted that Rana not only refused to convert, but throughout Headley’s efforts “was launching counterattacks, as it were.”
Headley admitted that he could not outwit Rana in theological debates. When the Lashkar member appealed to Old Testament stories of Abraham’s purging of idolaters as a justification for current violent jihads, Rana rebuffed him: “You have to follow the rules of the most recent prophet [Muhammad].” For Deobandi Muslims, this means taking literally the Quranic commands to never wage jihad without state approval, and to never target women and children.
Prosecutors had made much of Rana’s alleged statement to Headley that Indians “deserved” the Mumbai attack, uttered while the pair drove out to Rana’s farm in rural Illinois. But Rana’s team pointed out Thursday that Headley appears to be lying to Rana in many passages from transcripts and audio. Headley claims that he was only speaking in code, which he cannot completely confirm that Rana understood.
Defense attorney Charlie Swift also noted that the many of the conversation transcripts read by the prosecution are full of “unintelligible” flags – “and there are a lot of [such gaps] in the car ride audio.” Rana’s alleged references to Lashkar attacks seem oblique in this light.
“You never got a single congratulatory message from Rana, did you?” Swift asked. “Even in this long car ride out to rural Illinois?”
The defense also worked on calling Headley’s memory into question. Headley admitted that he was “being careless” when, during his surveillance of the Taj Mahal Hotel, he stayed there with his wife, who wore traditional Muslim dress. He also waffled on whether or how he discouraged Rana from visiting Mumbai shortly before the attacks. Briefing Rana was not possible, Headley said, noting it would go against the teachings of his mentor within Lashkar, a man known only by the alias Major Iqbal.
But if he did not specifically inform Rana about the attacks’ imminence, then Rana certainly did not know when the attacks would take place or if they would even happen at all, according to the defense.
Thursday’s testimony shed more light on the men who join groups like Lashkar and al-Qaida. Headley spoke of befriending Bollywood actor Rahul Bhat, who became his gym buddy and once nearly accompanied him to Pakistan’s tribal area.
Headley admitted that he “personally liked” Bhat, even though making close friendships with possible leads was “definitely” against his training. He mentioned the friendship to Rana, who “wanted to make a movie with Bhat as the action star.” Shortly before the Mumbai attacks, Headley told Bhat to stay out of the city.
This kind of personal detail, along with the reminisced jokes and mundane details that pepper his testimony, complicates the stereotype of the Islamic radical that some may have expected to see on the stand this week. Headley recalled singing old movie tunes with Rana and using his sense of humor to gain popularity among Lashkar and al-Qaida ranks. While conducting reconnaissance in Copenhagen, for example, Headley said he sent Pasha a cheap souvenir hat.
Headley’s wit has been apparent in his testimony. At one point, Swift asked why Headley would use the rather obviously cartoon-based code name “Mickey Mouse” for a plot to retaliate against a cartoonist. Headley curtly replied: “So, I guess I didn’t do a very good job of making a code?”
When Patrick Blegen, another defense attorney, had trouble pronouncing “Ibrahim,” Headley reminded him of their shared religious heritage: “You could just say ‘Abraham.'” He also often corrects mispronunciations – “Chabad” with a hard “ch,” for example.
But Headley certainly took his work seriously. Early on, Swift inquired as to why Headley kept up his surveillance activities in Denmark though he knew American law enforcement was onto him. “I really didn’t care [if I got caught] … I took the chance,” Headley said. He continued his work even after his Pakistan-based contacts ordered him to lie low.
Such remarks further complicate efforts to undermine Headley’s unreliability. Headley defied death and disobeyed superiors in his missions, but on the stand he ultimately chose to betray a lifelong friend and the ideology he was once willing to die for.
“You were very proud of what you were doing, correct?” Blegen asked shortly before court adjourned.
“Yes,” Headley said.
“Are you still proud today?”
“We’ll get to that tomorrow.”
Tuesday, rather, Headley’s testimony continues.