CHICAGO (CN) - Right out of the gate in the trial against a man believed to have provided material support for the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, prosecutors called their most important and controversial witness - a man some say would say anything to escape the death penalty for his admitted role in orchestrating the plot.
Prosecutors have hinged their case against Chicago-based businessman Tahawwur Rana, a Pakistan-born citizen of Canada, on the testimony of David Headley, a confessed member of the Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Headley is a fascinating character who eluded serious punishment for two decades by manipulating American law enforcement and international drug smugglers. The 50-year-old Pakistani-American citizen is testifying against Rana as part of a plea bargain that saved him from the death penalty - a fact that Rana's attorneys will be sure to exploit.
Reserved and charismatic on the stand Monday, Headley used smooth, subdued tones to cover a 40-year narrative that culminated in the deadly 2008 attacks on Mumbai.
Headley was born Daood Gilani in Washington D.C. in June 1960. He moved to Pakistan with his family as an infant and met Rana at the prestigious Hasan Abdal military cadet college for children. Headley said he developed a strong "dislike" for India at an early age, having lived through the 1971 war that ended with the "dismemberment" of Pakistan. Hasan Abdal was just one site bombed during the war.
At age 17, Headley moved to Philadelphia and, after owning a series of businesses, became involved in the international heroin trade. Rana bailed him out of jail on at least one occasion, and the two men became financially involved with one another.
About 10 years ago Headley's life took another dramatic turn. Upon returning to Pakistan, Headley became involved with Lashkar, a radical Islamic group that he described as based in the Salafi movement. Other observers prefer the more specific designation Wahhabi, a Salafi subgroup. To ease international travel, Headley soon changed his name from Daood Gilani to the American moniker he uses today.
Though not a household name on the level of al-Qaida, Lashkar is a well-known terrorist group in Pakistan, and its alleged leader, Hafiz Saeed, tops India's most-wanted list.
Around this time, Headley attended several Lashkar training courses on topics ranging from ambush tactics to religious doctrines. He met with Lashkar leaders including founder Saeed, military wing commander Zaki ur Rehman Lakhvi and Ilyas Kashmiri, a man now thought to be next in line to succeed Osama bin Ladin as al-Qaida's figurehead. The meeting also featured two men known only by their aliases: Pasha and Major Iqbal.
The possibility of an attack on Indian soil began to take shape in 2002. Headley spent hours describing training sessions and the conversations between Lashkar members, some of which included him.
By 2006, Headley had mentioned that he had a friend, "rigid and strict in his beliefs," whose immigration business would provide him with a perfect cover to undertake surveillance operations in Mumbai. When asked where he got this idea, Headley said, "I was not discussing this with Dr. Rana at that time."
Rana's name was conspicuously absent from the vast majority of Monday's testimony. Headley said Rana was initially critical of his involvement with Lashkar when the two got reacquainted in 2005, and resisted initial recruitment attempts. Though Headley tried to convince Rana to Salafism, the latter was skeptical of the denomination. He also disputed Headley's characterization of the current struggle as "defensive."