Early last month, when Federal Bureau of Investigation detectives searched David Headley’s luggage, they discovered a data stick with footage carefully documenting the environment around the Jyllands Posten newspaper’s office — the target of an operation intended to punish the newspaper for publishing satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
A growing number of experts in India’s intelligence community believe that Pakistan-born Headley, or his associate Tahawwur Rana, may have generated similar footage from Mumbai and other cities. It may have facilitated the training of the fidayeen who carried out last November’s tragic attacks in Mumbai — and strikes yet to come.
Later this week, National Investigation Agency detectives, when they arrive in Mumbai, will be seeking to map what many in the intelligence community begin to see as the Lashkar’s most successful covert network targeting India.
Behind the façade of a legitimate business, and armed with a United States passport that allowed him to easily obtain a multiple-entry, long-term business visa, Headley is suspected to have carried out reconnaissance for multiple Lashkar operations.
The NIA will be working to locate Headley’s Lashkar contacts in India — a task that will require weeks of painstaking work. Headley’s secretary, his neighbours and landlords, staff at hotels he stayed in Mumbai as well as the dozens of individuals he called on trips to India will be questioned.
Investigators believe that Headley’s arrest pre-empted an imminent attack on New Delhi, which was to be executed by a Lashkar unit in Bangladesh.
Headley, however, was determined to push ahead with a separate plan to execute attacks in Copenhagen targeting the publishers of cartoons claimed to be defamatory to Prophet Muhammad. He opened communication with Pakistan-based jihadist commander Illyas Kashmiri, seeking logistics support for the Denmark attack. That decision delayed the New Delhi attack plan — an attack which could have pushed India and Pakistan to the edge of war and beyond.
Immigration firm’s role
NIA detectives, who have now been assigned charge of the Headley investigation in India, will be focussing on two core issues: his possible role in harvesting footage in Mumbai to assist in the November 26, 2008 Lashkar attack, and the activities of the immigration consultancy he set up in the city.
Mumbai police investigators say they have already made progress in mapping Headley’s contacts, based on interviews with his secretary, casual acquaintances and — most important — his cellphone records. But, the sources said, the process could take weeks, or even months.
Based on their initial assessment, though, the investigators suspect that Headley could have been sent to India to replace an enigmatic Lashkar who escaped a botched plot in May 2006, by jumping out of his second-floor apartment window and disappearing into the crowds on Mumbai’s Grant Road.
Rahil Abdul Rehman Sheikh ran a travel services firm that funnelled dozens of Lashkar operatives — among them key members of terror cells who participated in attacks in Maharashtra and Gujarat — to training camps in Pakistan.
Drawn from the Students Islamic Movement of India and right-wing televangelist Zakir Naik’s Islamic Research Foundation, Sheikh’s clients travelled to Tehran on legitimate Indian passports and Iranian pilgrimage visas, before crossing through the Zahedan border into Pakistan.
Later, Sheikh facilitated the escape of Zabiuddin Ansari, who is wanted for an abortive 2006 Lashkar plot targeting Gujarat, and Zulfikar Fayyaz Ahmad ‘Kagazi’, who placed a bomb on a Mumbai-Ahmedabad train that year.
Eleven SIMI-linked Lashkar operatives were held in the course of investigations into the 2006 plot, for which the Lashkar landed assault rifles and explosives off the Mumbai coast, but Sheikh’s network succeeded in ensuring that the key suspects were never located.
Headley, who was born Dawood Gilani, changed his name before leaving for India in 2006, shortly after Sheikh disappeared. He introduced himself to neighbours in Mumbai’s Breach Candy area as a Jewish-American. Rana, who had known Headley ever since the two were students at a military school in Pakistan, visited the city in April 2009 along with his wife.
The investigators say Headley’s front company, the Tardeo-headquartered Immigrant Law Centre, may have provided key Mumbai-based jihadists — among them fugitive Indian Mujahideen commanders Abdul Subhan Qureshi and Riyaz Shahbandri —passports and tickets to escape from India.
Little hard evidence has emerged, however, on whether the ILC had any role in helping the Indian Mujahideen leadership escape. Staff interviewed by the Mumbai police told the investigators that Headley paid salaries in cash, and rarely came in to work for more than two or three hours a day.