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.”
Headley says he appealed to “patriotism,” noting that Rana had not returned to his native country in two decades. Over time, Rana allegedly changed his mind, though it is unclear what brought him around. Rana provided a letter to help Headley get a business visa to go to India.
“Did he know what your true purpose was?” a prosecutor asked.
Headley paused then answered with a decisive “yes.” He added that Rana’s partner, Ray Sanders, was kept in the dark.
Headley eventually set up a First World Immigration office in Mumbai, which he used as a base “scouting out landing sites” and “sites of interest” like the Taj Mahal Hotel. The prosecution submitted several pictures of the areas Headley photographed and videotaped for Lashkar.
Headley’s network of contacts expanded thanks to the office. “We need to open this office,” he remembers telling Rana, “because [through it] I could meet a lot of influential people.”
Headley managed to do just that, eventually infiltrating Shiv Sena, a right-wing, anti-Islamic group, and one of India’s most powerful political parties. Working with the aforementioned Lashkar associates, he used GPS and contacts to gather intelligence for the attacks.
At this time, Rana was holding possibly tens of thousands of dollars of Headley’s money, sending it to Pakistan as requested, though he may not have known the specific details of the plan.
In 2008, Lashkar produced mockups of the Taj Mahal Hotel and other targets, which Headley claimed he showed to Rana.
When asked if he spoke to Rana about an assault on the Taj, Headley noticeably paused for a moment before another decisive “yes.”
Headley says Rana pointed out that the attack “seem[ed] to be a shift from the original plan,” but he nevertheless did not object. Ominously recalling a shared laugh over the low quality of the mockups, Headley ended his testimony for the day.
Just a fraction of Headley’s testimony dealt specifically with Rana, but this is to be expected. In cases like this, the American judiciary faces tasks more like those of an international tribunal than those dealt with by the average federal court. Attorneys must build up an enormous amount of context to clarify the parties’ activities and intrigues.
Monday’s proceedings were shadowed by the India-Pakistan conflict and mounting tensions between Pakistan and the United States. Headley attested to a resentment of India stemming from a childhood marred by the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War, rekindled by the 2002 massacres in Gujarat and his contact with Shiv Sena.
Another specter in the trial is Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, which critics argue may have been complicit in undermining American counterterrorism efforts and hiding Osama bin Ladin. Headley once told Rana that he “had been drafted, as it were, by the ISI.”
Major Iqbal, who could belong to the ISI, provided Headley with $25,000 and much of the guidance that fostered his activities in Mumbai.
The case also calls into question various understandings of “jihad” and who counts as a “terrorist,” terms that have proved rather malleable. The good-versus-evil talk that animates both Western and militant Islamic rhetoric places a high priority on such definitions.
Before planning violent attacks, for example, Headley says he thought Lashkar should “take the U.S. government to court for designating it a foreign terrorist organization.”
Under Saeed’s influence, Headley says he came to believe that “one second spent conducting jihad was superior to 100 years of worship, praying.”
And yet he defined jihad as any effort, peaceful or violent, to “help people who are needy or helpless.”