CHICAGO (CN) – Opening statements kicked off the trial Monday of a Pakistani-Canadian businessman accused of funding a host of terrorist plots, including the attacks that rocked Mumbai in November 2008. Prosecutors and defense attorneys for Tahawwur Rana offered similar versions of the “international nightmare” that took place in 2008: armed with small arms, grenades and explosives, 10 men broke into teams and dispersed throughout Mumbai, leaving 160 people dead.
Rana, who was born in Pakistan, is also accused of supporting a plot to attack the offices of Jyllands-Posten, the newspaper that published controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in 2005. The prosecution emphasized the grisly details of the plot, which centered on “beheading people and throwing their heads out of the Jyllands-Posten building.”
A conviction against Rana will likely revolve around the reliability of David Headley, a longtime drug smuggler and Drug Enforcement Administration informant turned jihadist, who helped conceive the Mumbai assault and also planned attacks on targets in Denmark. The 50-year-old Pakistani-American will testify against Rana as part of a plea bargain that saved him from the death penalty. In spite of Headley’s checkered past, he will be the prosecution’s key witness, as he appears to have been Rana’s only direct link to the activities of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group that carried out the attacks.
Prosecutors described Rana as Headley’s “best friend in the world.” Headley met Rana as a young cadet in Pakistan, and they stayed in close contact through the years of plotting the attacks, according to the government.
Headley allegedly used the Mumbai office of Rana’s Chicago-based company, First World Immigration, “as a base to take photos and videos of places of significance in Mumbai.” Rana “knew and approved of what Headley was doing,” and provided his business as “a cover for Headley’s terrorist plotting.”
Prosecutors say the Washington, D.C.-born Headley never failed to stop in Chicago and update Rana about his activities, spending years shuttling back and forth between Mumbai and the United States.
Meanwhile, Headley stayed in contact with leaders of Lashkar, including the so-called Major Iqbal, who is thought to be an officer of the Pakistani military or Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, and Ilyas Kashmiri, a man who analysts suspect may succeed Osama bin Ladin as the leader of al-Qaida.
Exploring this timeline is expected to further strain the United States’ attempts to count Pakistan as an ally, a relationship left in doubt after U.S. forces captured and killed bin Laden earlier this month hiding in a Pakistan military town.
Each side’s opening statement implied that the ISI both sanctioned and provided intimate support to Lashkar-e-Taiba for the Mumbai attacks.
Aside from Headley’s testimony, the prosecution promised to offer documentary evidence and other witnesses to prove Rana’s guilt. Rana and Headley communicated in code, with the only example provided thus far being an email in which Rana mentions several of his “brothers,” allegedly signaling to Headley that he would be creating some new covert email accounts.
When Rana learned about the Mumbai attacks, prosecutors say he laughed and said “the Indians deserved it” and that a Denmark attack was “long overdue.”
“In a complicated and sophisticated plot, not everyone carries a weapon,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Streicker said.
Defense attorney Charles Swift summed up the case in his opening line, calling Headley a “master manipulator who, through half truths, outright lies and charm, made a fool of Rana.”
Headley’s past as a globetrotting drug smuggler and DEA informant, barely mentioned by the prosecution, took up several minutes of Swift’s opening statement. Swift also delved into Headley’s personal life, mentioning that the man had three wives who were each unknown to the other. “Headley was living multiple lives with multiple people, and he was very, very good at it,” Swift said.
In contrast, Rana, a military doctor and businessman, moved to Canada from Pakistan because “he loved the West,” his attorney said.
As a formerly AWOL soldier, Rana could not do business in his homeland, so he opened an immigration firm in India, Swift explained.
Neither narrative yet explains how the two men came into contact as adults, but Rana eventually hired Headley to run his Mumbai immigration office. As Rana sank into debt, he turned to Headley for financial support, delegated more control of the business to him and ultimately owed Headley thousands of dollars.
Swift acknowledged that Rana did go to Mumbai shortly before the attacks, a fact prosecutors had emphasized, but he said the trip simply marked “a desperate attempt to save the business.”
Headley warned Rana to stay out of Mumbai, but told other friends to keep away as well, the defense attorney claimed. “I acknowledge that I made a fool out of him,” Headley allegedly told his wife as the plot concluded.
Crucially, the defense argues that Headley’s story changed significantly after he was first apprehended. When attempts to give up his wife and others failed, Headley “knew he ha[d] to give them someone, or he would get the death penalty.”
“He needed a home run, a touchdown,” Swift said. The innocent, credulous Rana fit the bill.
Both sides’ statements touched upon questions of nationality and identity, common themes since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. The prosecution repeatedly emphasized that Headley’s work was only possible because he was a “clean-cut man with an English-sounding name.”
Though Headley was born in the United States with the name Daood Gilani, he “disguised his Pakistani heritage and Muslim faith” to “act like an American.”
Swift also noted that Rana’s business partner, Ray Sanders, was “a former army officer, a Christian … hardly a jihad type” – a statement that implies the trial will also tackle the question of immigrants-made-good versus immigrants-gone-bad.
Although the prosecution emphasized repeatedly that “this case is not all about Headley’s testimony,” all eyes will remain on him as testimony continues Tuesday.
The enigmatic Headley has long been characterized as willing to sell out childhood friends, sworn compatriots, American agents and everyone in between to save his own skin, and jurors will have to determine whether he can be trusted this time around.