Even as millions of people across the world watched the 2008 November carnage unfold in Mumbai, the Lashkar-e-Taiba secret agent who helped plan the massacre was preparing for another murderous attack.
Pakistani-American jihadist David Headley hoped to bomb the offices of Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten, whose publications of cartoons of Prophet Mohammad in 2005 offended many Muslims across the world.
Headley’s temperamental pursuit of what he called the “Mickey Mouse Project” led him to defy his Lashkar commanders, and undermined the jihadist group’s hopes of attacking the National Defence College here — forcing it to launch an alternative operation targeting the Indian High Commission in Dhaka that police in Bangladesh broke up last month.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s documents show Headley began planning the “Mickey Mouse Project” in October 2008 — just days before the 10-man Lashkar assault team used video footage he had gathered in five visits to Mumbai to stage an attack that claimed 163 lives.
That month, Headley initiated an e-mail correspondence on the “Mickey Mouse Project” with Abdul Rehman Hashim Syed, a former Pakistan Army officer, who had become a ranking Lashkar commander in charge of the terror group’s networks in Bangladesh.
During his first visit to Copenhagen in January 2009, Rana visited the offices of Jyllands Posten. He expressed an interest in purchasing advertising space, claiming to be a representative of the Chicago-based First World Immigration. First World’s owner, Tahawwur Rana, was an old school friend of Headley’s, and the firm provided him cover for his operations in Mumbai.
Later that year, Headley travelled to Pakistan at Syed’s invitation. Both are believed to have met with top Harkat ul-Jihad-e-Islami commander Illyas Kashmiri — an al-Qaeda linked jihadist, who is among Pakistan’s most-wanted men — at a training camp near Razmak, in Waziristan.
Headley reacted with ire to a May 4, 2009 post on a web group run by former students of his school in Pakistan, claiming that there was little support for al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the North West Frontier Province.
“The bazaar,” Headley wrote of his own visit, “is bustling with Chechens, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Russians, Bosnians, some from European Union countries and, of course, our Arab brothers. According to my [original emphasis] survey, the foreign population is a little less than a third of the total. Any Waziri or Mehsud I spoke to seemed grateful to God for the privilege of being able to host the Foreign Mujahideen.”
Early on, Headley believed the “Mickey Mouse Project” had the Lashkar’s support. Late this summer though, the Lashkar lost interest in the Danish plot. Lashkar commander Sajid Mir, who played a key role in organising the Mumbai attacks, e-mailed Headley on July 3, asking to meet with him to discuss “some new investment plans”: code, the FBI says, for an attack in India.
However, in correspondence that continued until late August, it became clear that Headley was focussed on the “Mickey Mouse Project.” Late in August, Headley promised Mir he would to travel to Pakistan to discuss the Indian operation — but pushed forward with his Danish project.
In July 2008, Headley flew to Copenhagen and carried out a second round of reconnaissance. He returned to the U.S. on August 5, and was interviewed at Atlanta airport by a customs official — a consequence, it is likely, of his past criminal record for smuggling narcotics. Headley told the authorities he was in Europe on business for Rana’s immigration firm. However, FBI documents record, a search of Headley’s luggage “revealed no papers, flyers or any documents for First World”.
Mir, worried at Headley’s silence during these weeks, sent an e-mail enquiring about his whereabouts on August 7. Syed was briefly detained by the Pakistani authorities during Headley’s European travels, and the Lashkar commander warned he might have betrayed Headley’s plans.
In an extended September 17, 2009 phone conversation with Syed, Headley railed against Lashkar leaders like Mir who, he asserted, had “rotten guts.” Instead of backing the “Mickey Mouse Project,” he complained, “their eyes are again in that direction [India]”. “I am just telling you,” he lectured Syed, “that the companies in your competition have started handling themselves in a far better way.”
FBI agents also heard a frustrated Headley tell a contact in Pakistan that “business must go on.” “I don’t care if I am working for Microsoft or for General Electric or Phillips,” Headley said, an elliptical reference to the fact that he was little concerned with allegiance to particular jihadist groups as long as they offered him a platform to carry out the attacks he wanted.
Headley’s arrest in September compelled the Lashkar to drop its plans to attack the National Defence College. Bangladesh-based Afghan jihad veteran Abdul Mutaliq was charged with organising an attack on the Indian High Commission in Dhaka, timed to coincide with the anniversary of the November 26 attacks. Police in Bangladesh held Mutaliq along with three Pakistani Lashkar operatives despatched by Syed last month, pre-empting the attacks.