David Headley, who surveyed targets for the 26/11 attacks, gave Indian interrogators a step-by-step account of his training with Laskhar-e-Taiba. The details are in a new book, Headley and I, written by S. Hussain Zaidi with filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt’s son Rahul Bhatt, whom Headley befriended on his visits to India

After a couple of days of interrogating David Headley, Behera thought he had more or less figured him out. He knew that Headley would tell him much of what he knew and had done, primarily because he had a boastful streak in him. All Behera had to do was egg him on. So far, the strategy was working beautifully.

‘Tell me about your training, Mr Headley,’ Behera said. ‘You clearly had a lot of training with Lashkar-e-Taiba, and they must have trusted you a lot.’

Headley beamed. ‘Yeah, they trusted me.’

‘So what kind of training did you get exactly?’

After the first two preliminary stages — the Daura-e-Amma and Daura-e-Sufa — I progressed to the next. The training became much more practical, and I learned to translate my acceptance and belief in Salafi Islam and radical ideology into action.

In April 2003, I volunteered for the Daura-e-Khaassa in Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. There were thirty or forty of us in the group that underwent the Daura-e-Khaassa training, which lasted for a full three months. During that time, we were taught the importance of being soldiers of Islam...

But the one thing that some individuals in the group had trouble dealing with was the bloodshed. They kept asking themselves, and each other, and our masters and trainers and teachers, if it was acceptable to kill human beings, and if so, why.

Movies on atrocities

This was what Daura-e-Khaassa was all about. The earlier Dauras were orientation programmes, this was the real induction into jehad. We were told that it was not just okay to kill others, it was actually an act of worship—it needed to be done to avenge the wrongdoings against Muslims. The LeT established this primarily by showing us very gory and violent movies about atrocities against Muslims.

One of those movies that I still remember vividly was the one on Babu Bajrangi and atrocities in Gujarat. He was involved in killing innocent Muslims in Gujarat; he had been caught on a hidden camera saying that he didn’t mind if he was hanged, but before he was, he wanted to be given a couple of days so he could go and kill as many Muslims as he could. Despite overwhelming evidence, the Gujarat state and the Indian government did not act against him.

My hatred for and rage at India increased manifold during those three months.

We were also shown some of the innumerable inflammatory speeches made by the Maharashtrian goondas of the Shiv Sena and their supremo Bal Thackeray. Hafiz Saeed was the one who showed us the damage that Bal Thackeray had done to the Muslim ummah.

I know now that they were shown to us primarily to motivate us. And after everything that we saw on those videos, all our reservations were washed away, and we were fuelled by an unnatural, powerful rage. As it is, I had nursed a hatred against India ever since I was a child and my school had been bombed, but now, my loathing and animosity towards it were reinforced and with good reason.

Finally, after graduating from the Daura-e-Khaassa, we were taken to a mountain in Muzaffarabad. At first, I thought the next part of our training would be in a cave, as it looked like that was where we were headed. We soon found out that it was much more. It was a self-sustained branch of the Lashkar-e-Taiba. The sheer grandeur of the place took my breath away — it appeared to be more like a palatial fortress than anything else.

It was a safe house, and it was called Bait-ul Mujahideen, meaning the ‘house of the crusaders’. Whenever mujahideens would cross over from India’s Jammu and Kashmir or from Pakistan, they would be stationed here and taken care of. Here, they lived a life of luxury until they were ready to leave, or were given details of their next mission. They would then cross the border to India.

I also met a frogman while I was in Muzaffarabad; he was introduced to me as Abdur Rehman. He seemed to be from the Pakistan Navy. In that Lashkar camp, Bait-ul Mujahideen, we received intensive all-round training. The emphasis was primarily on urban warfare, and we were trained in two-man, body-attack operations. We learned to cover our partners and work with them seamlessly. We were taught all kinds of urban warfare skills — two-man entry, two-man firing from cover, and covering jams and reloads. We also had situational training — stair work, hall work, combat, first aid, and even unarmed hand-to-hand combat.

We were taught to shoot with all kinds of weapons — pistols, rifles, shotguns, everything. I handled the M-16, Heckler and Koch, FNAR rifles, Steyr AUG, submachine guns and even a Dragunov sniper rifle. I was also taught how to use hand grenades and antipersonnel fragmentation grenades. But the one weapon that all of us had to master was the AK-47 and its derivatives.

I mentioned the name of Abu Kahafa earlier. He was present at the safe house. He is one of the fattest fellows I’ve ever seen. But appearances are deceptive, as I soon found out. Despite his obesity, he was extremely fit, as strong as a bull, and had amazingly sharp reflexes. I went through various modes of combat with him, including hand to hand and using knives. Apart from him, there were several others who gave us weapons training, and they were all from the ISI, Pakistan’s Special Security Guard, or the counter-terrorism unit of the Pakistan Army, the Zarar Company. But their identities were never revealed to us at any point of time. We went through another Daura, called Daura-e-Ribat, meaning communication. This is a derivative of the root word rabt, meaning connect. Another important skill we had to learn was counter-interrogation techniques. We had to keep our minds in perfect shape in all kinds of situations so that if we were ever captured alive, we would be able to deflect the attention of our interrogators, and confuse and mislead them.

Fitness regime

There was also a strict fitness regime that we had to stick to. Every day, we had to run five kilometres, do twenty pull-ups, thirty dips and forty push-ups, along with abdominal workouts. It was essential to be physically fit, to handle the different kinds of guns. In fact, I was also taught to handle a shotgun and an RPG, a rocket launcher. These are heavy weapons, so to carry them on the shoulder and fire them required us to be at the peak of our fitness, as well as strength. They refused to teach me how to assemble bombs. I requested my Lashkar masters and the other trainers, but they were firm about it. So I did not get any training on assembly of explosive devices.

After many months of intensive training, our Lashkar masters took us to a place called Bay’at ul Rizwan, which refers to an incident that took place during the time of Prophet Muhammad. The new Muslims of that time had sworn allegiance to the Prophet under a tree. It is said that whoever makes this gesture of pledging allegiance to Prophet Muhammad will go to heaven. That is why it is called Bay’at ul Rizwan, meaning ‘the allegiance to heaven’.

My Salafi masters said that this was a solemn moment, and that we would have to take a momentous decision that would change our lives forever. He said that paying this fealty meant taking an oath of allegiance. That was what Bay’at meant. But there was no hesitation in any of us. All of us took the Bay’at and swore our loyalty to jehad.

By now, we looked like soldiers. We had become hardened jehadis, and were fully committed to the cause. …We were now armed and ready to strike mercilessly at the behest of our masters.

My appearance too had changed completely by this time. Not only did I not have any excess fat, I was wearing only Pathani suits and had grown a long, flowing beard, which made me look like a member of the Taliban.

One day, one of my Lashkar masters took me aside and told me that there was one more Daura that I needed to do, that everyone like me, of my calibre, had to do. Hobnobbing with the Lashkar had awakened me to my spiritual side. But the Daura-e-Tadrib ul Muslimeen in July 2004 gave my spirituality a new momentum. This was at a seminar in Abbottabad. I am sure all of us in this room know about Abbottabad, which houses a large military base.

There were many speakers at the seminar. However, to me, the star speaker was Maulana Masood Azhar. Yes, I’m sure the name strikes a chord. It is the same Maulana Masood Azhar that the Indian government had to release in exchange for the passengers of IC-814 in Kandahar. Hearing him speak was a celestial, deeply spiritual experience. Throughout his discourse, I was riveted. As Azhar was wrapping up his speech, he said to us that our lives had no real meaning, no real purpose, and they should be spent in the cause of jehad. From then on, I was ready to die for my Muslim brothers.

After the seminar, I approached Azhar and told him that I wanted to go to Kashmir to fight alongside my brethren. I told him that I had become leaner, fitter, was much better trained than before, and that I was totally inspired and motivated, and wanted to lay down my life for the cause of jehad and for Islam.

However, the answer was once again the same. Kashmir was a very difficult terrain, Azhar told me, for a man of my age who had already crossed forty. He tried to cheer me up by telling me that I could go anywhere else and that I should be more patient. He hinted that I might soon be given a mission to carry out in India.

In 2005, I was sent to the FATA region in Pakistan, where I met Ayub Afridi, one of the biggest and most powerful drug lords there. I once mentioned his name to Rahul Bhatt, but it was mostly to impress him. I am sure you must have heard from him, Mr Behera, so there’s no need to look so surprised.

By 2005, I had finished my training and had become a full-fledged member of the LeT, a jehadi dedicated to the cause of true Islam. I was itching to start work, and was looking forward to the mission in India that I had been told might be given to me. Within a few days, I was introduced to a retired brigadier of the ISI. They never revealed his full name to me, I only knew him as Retired Brigadier Riyaz.

Riyaz lived in a palatial house in Muzaffarabad, reminiscent of all those palaces that people see in movies and photographs. There were times when I was summoned to the house along with Zaki, one of my LeT masters. It was then that I realized the equation between Pakistan’s ISI and the Lashkar—they were like master and subordinate. Zaki, who was a top figure in the LeT, the man in charge of all operations, was just a subservient servant in front of Brigadier Riyaz.

I figured out that Riyaz was not the only man in the ISI who was dealing with our LeT handlers. Like him, Major Iqbal too was a very powerful and influential figure. His man in the LeT was Hafiz Saeed. Similarly, Major Samir handled biggies like Abu Kahafa, Sajid Mir and others. It was a strange marriage, and I knew that the LeT despised it. To them, jehad was most important. But the ISI were really not interested in jehad. They were only interested in developing and executing strategies to destabilize India.

Change of name

Finally, the ISI masters decided that I was ready for jehad, and my first mission. But they told me that there was one crucial thing I had to do first. I had to go back to the US and change my name. I was still Daood Gilani, and a Daood Gilani flying to and fro between Pakistan and other countries would get noticed, especially in the aftermath of 9/11. I was instructed to choose a name that would not raise any suspicion.

Sometime in September 2005, I called my attorney, Donald Drumpf, and told him that I wanted to change my name. He was surprised, but I told him that I had grown tired of Daood Gilani and the consequent persecution, and wanted to change my name to one that would sound as if it belonged to a white American. He believed what I said. Finally, though my social security number remained the same, I changed my name to David Coleman Headley, using my mother’s middle and last names.

At last, I was ready. This was the first time I was leaving the country on a mission, and I was leaving it a new man, as David Coleman Headley. After all those years of nursing my hatred, it was only fitting that my first mission was going to be in and against India.