CHICAGO (CN) – In her closing argument, a federal prosecutor said the government has made “a simple case” against Tahawwur Rana, the Pakistani-Canadian businessman charged with supporting the 2008 bloody terrorist attacks in Mumbai. With days of complex and conflicted evidence in the books, however, this will likely be the easiest argument for the jury to discard.
Before jurors retired Tuesday to determine whether Rana was an active accomplice or an unsuspecting dupe, they heard two contrasting narratives of Rana’s connection to the terrorist group behind the Mumbai attacks and other plots, known as Lashkar-e-Taiba, and of Rana’s relationship with admitted Lashkar member David Headley, who had also been Rana’s lifelong friend.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Vicki Peters began summations by recounting the 2009 conversation in which Headley and Rana allegedly discussed the attacks, calling it the most incontrovertible “piece of evidence that Rana was fully aware of and supported these activities.”
Throughout the trial, the parties have hotly debated whether Rana had claimed members of Lashkar deserved to be rewarded. He expressly refers to “the nine” – and it is well known that nine Lashkar members died while carrying out the 26/11 attacks. Rana also laughs as Headley lists his favorite “targets” in India.
Rana’s team has described the government’s reliance on Headley as a “tragedy,” but Peters defended his testimony.
“What would you have your government do,” Peters asked. “Tell Mr. Headley, ‘You’re a terrorist; we’re not interested in your information’?”
Furthermore, the government’s case against Rana “is not just about Headley,” Peters said, noting an email showed that other Lashkar members asked Headley to pass along their regards to Rana.
“How crazy would it be for [a Lashkar leader] to send his regards to [Rana] if [Rana] was not a part of the inner circle,” Peters asked. Lashkar members also asked Headley about Rana’s state of mind as the FBI and Indian authorities began to round up suspects who might talk.
Allegedly coded language runs throughout this message and other email correspondence on which the prosecution has heavily relied. In one email, the so-called Major Iqbal, a Lashkar affiliate and possible member of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, asks Rana about “any progress made on the project,” which Peters claimed referred to the Mumbai plot. Opposing testimony, however, ascribed this to a business deal.
The government says Rana knowingly provided his business, First World Immigration, as a cover for Headley’s surveillance activities in Mumbai and in Denmark, the site of the Jyllands-Posten newspaper that published controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in 2005.
Rana also set up various clandestine email accounts for Headley, though the defense argues that these were merely created so Headley could access Internet forums dedicated to Muslim issues.
While Rana claims that he considered Headley a mere business partner, Peters emphasized that the jury has heard evidence of far too many decisions that make no sense in the business context. For example, even if Rana had long hoped to open an office in Europe, it would make little sense to try to place an ad in the Jyllands-Posten, the very newspaper that “insulted Muslims all over the world,” Peters said.
She repeatedly emphasized that the most illuminating words came from Rana himself in his recorded interrogation by the FBI after his arrest. During six hours of questioning, Rana acknowledged that he knew Headley had trained with Lashkar, which the United States designated as a foreign terrorist organization in December 2001.
The closing argument for Rana’s defense was less straightforward but started on a very clear point.
“Nothing is simple when it comes to David Headley,” attorney Patrick Blegen said, referring to Headley’s long history of lying to friends, family and law enforcement, as well as a penchant for blowing his own cover.
Though prosecutors made much of a secretly recorded conversation in which Headley tells Rana a list of locations known to have been targeted by Lashkar, Blegen pointed out that Headley recounts the list in a singsong voice.
“This wasn’t conspiratorial,” Blegen said, but rather the kind of “joking” and “loose talk” for which Headley is well known.
Three key points raise reasonable doubt as to whether Rana knowingly took part in the conspiracies underlying the Mumbai and Copenhagen plots, Blegen argued.
First, Rana planned to travel to Mumbai with his wife less than a week prior to the attacks, and even advertised his visit to promote his immigration consultancy in a local newspaper. This took place while the known Mumbai plotters “were laying low” in Pakistan. Headley warned Rana – a fact that prosecutors say proves Rana was in the know – but he also warned Rahul Bhatt, a gym buddy and aspiring Bollywood actor who was ignorant of Headley’s Lashkar ties.
Second, while Headley was performing surveillance in Denmark, Rana suggested that he bring along Ray Sanders, Rana’s 75-year-old American business partner. Both sides agree that it would be absurd to assume Sanders was in any way aware of Headley’s plans, indicating that Rana would not have made this suggestion had he known Headley’s true motivation for traveling to Copenhagen. Headley confirmed that Rana never knew the code name for the Denmark plot – the Mickey Mouse Project – and that Rana “never saw a single one” of Headley’s surveillance videos.
Third, various evidence shows that Headley used Rana to get money. He “took advantage of [Rana’s] dream” to open offices all over the world, and, while on the stand, falsely claimed that he had paid for aspects of the Mumbai office that Rana covered.
Overall, the defense depicted Headley as an audacious “manipulator” who “controls the flow of information” to “get what he wants” out of Rana and Lashkar.
“If he weren’t such a despicable human being, you might want to give him credit for having a lot of guts,” Blegen mused toward the conclusion of his argument.
U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber had barely asked the prosecution for its rebuttal before Assistant U.S. Attorney Dan Collins indignantly jumped from his seat, beginning to speak before even reaching the podium. Collins accused the defense of deviously shifting the focus to Headley “to distract [the jury] from the defendant.”
“I’m going to talk to you about all of the evidence,” Collins stressed. “I’m not going to cherry-pick and make up excuses. … Think about the wiggles you have seen.”
Blegen objected to this characterization of the defense’s arguments as “wiggles” as improper, causing Leinenweber to lightly admonish Collins.
As Collins continued, he emphasized that, singsong voice or not, Headley explicitly used the word “targets” when talking to Rana in that fateful 2009 conversation, which the FBI secretly recorded as the pair drove out to Rana’s farm in rural Kinsman, Ill.
Collins also reiterated the question of why, of all newspapers in the world, Rana would sanction Headley’s decision to advertise First World Immigration in the Jyllands-Posten, and why sending a representative to the paper’s physical offices was even necessary.
Complicity extends past firing a gun or procuring weapons, Collins argued. “Regardless of what your role is, you’ve got to be held responsible,” Collins said.
In jury instructions, Judge Leinenweber echoed the emphasis of closing arguments on Rana’s “knowledge” that his alleged actions aided the conspiracy to assist Lashkar in carrying out terrorist attacks.
Rana must have “realized what he was doing and [been] aware of the nature of his conduct,” Leinenweber said. Guilt by association reasoning will not cut it, even if Rana should have been more discerning.
With that, the jury filed out to determine whether Rana was ignorant that Headley used First World Immigration to further terrorist attacks or whether the defense was nothing more than a series of “wiggles.”