“I want to assure all those who have been victims of terrorism,” Pakistan’s Interior Ministry Chief Rehman Malik told journalists in February, “that we mean business.”

Less than a year on, charges filed by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation against Pakistani-American jihadist David Headley for his alleged role in plotting the November 2008 jihadist attack in Mumbai have cast serious doubt on the integrity of Mr. Rehman’s claim — and also seem certain to cause embarrassment to Mumbai Police investigators.

Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency, the FBI’s charges suggest, was either cursory in its questioning of key suspects or, worse, actively worked to suppress evidence. Despite holding the principal architect of November’s carnage, Lashkar-e-Taiba military chief Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi, the FIA failed to identify the Lashkar operatives responsible for pre-attack reconnaissance.

Instead, Pakistani authorities repeatedly suggested that Indian nationals were involved in the operation — a trap Mumbai Police investigators seem to have walked into.

FIA investigators also failed to identify Lashkar commander Sajid Mir, who is emerging as the key figure in organising pre-attack reconnaissance, as well as his associate, former Pakistan Army officer-turned-terrorist Abdul Rehman Hashim Syed.

Headley-Lashkar-Mir link

Correspondence between Headley and Sajid Mir — identified in FBI documents only as Lashkar-e-Taiba Member A, since he is still a fugitive — it is evident both men worked closely together on the Mumbai attack.

On July 3, 2009, documents filed by the FBI show, Mir e-mailed Headley saying he wished to discuss “some new investment plans.” Five days later, Headley wrote back asking where Mir was “interested in making investments.” The same day, Headley again e-mailed Mir suggesting that “when we get a chance, we should revisit our last location again and say hi to Rahul.”

The Rahul referred to, Indian investigators believe, may be film-maker Mahesh Bhatt’s son, Rahul Bhatt, who had been befriended by Headley during the Lashkar secret agent’s reconnaissance missions in the city.

National Intelligence Agency detectives believe Mir’s “investment plans” included a plot to target the National Defence College in New Delhi, using an assault team that was to be sent in from Bangladesh, as well as a separate operation directed at Pune.

Later, in a July 10 e-mail, Headley requested more details on the plot. “The visit to Rahul’s place,” he asked, “is it for checking out real estate property like before or something different and if so tell me what you can please. Also is it exactly in Rahul’s city or different one?”

Early this week, the FBI filed documents asserting that Headley had travelled to India after his Lashkar handlers instructed him to initiate surveillance operations in Mumbai. In order to obtain an Indian visa, Pakistan-born Headley changed his name from Dawood Geelani and obtained documents identifying him as a representative of a Chicago-based firm, First World Immigration Services.

Headley made five visits to India between September 2006 and July 2008. “Following each trip to India,” the FBI has stated, “Headley returned to Pakistan, met with other co-conspirators, and provided the results of his surveillance, including photographs, videos and oral descriptions of various locations.”

This summer, Pakistan briefly detained Abdul Rehman Saeed, a retired Pakistan Army officer who worked closely with Headley in this enterprise. For reasons that are unclear, he was released shortly afterwards.

Embarrassing questions

Evidence that Headley carried out pre-attack reconnaissance for November’s Lashkar assault on Mumbai, however, also holds out embarrassing questions for investigators in India.

Early this year, Maharashtra prosecutors had charged Mumbai resident Fahim Arshad Ansari on charges of having carried out the reconnaissance which prepared the way for the assault team. Held early in 2008, Ansari was alleged to have been an undercover Lashkar operative who had been tasked with carrying out pre-attack surveillance at the Bombay Stock Exchange.

Maharashtra prosecutors claimed that a map found on the body of a killed terrorist known by the code-name Abu Ismail was drawn in Ansari’s hand.

Prosecutors also relied on police claims that surviving terrorist Mohammad Ajmal Amir ‘Kasab’ had tied Ansari to November’s attacks. Amir, the Mumbai Police say, asserted he had obtained his information from an instructor at the Lashkar’s Shawai Nullah camp, known only by the alias Abu Kahafa.

Abu Kahafa had earlier been identified by the Uttar Pradesh Police as Ansari’s instructor. Mumbai Police investigators claimed Amir told them that Lashkar operations commander Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi had corroborated these claims.

From the outset, though, many investigators had been sceptical of this account. For one, it was unclear why the assault team would have carried a hand-drawn map, since it was equipped with global positioning systems embedded with highly accurate maps of Mumbai.

Moreover, it became clear from hours of painstaking questioning that Ansari had never visited the interiors of several targets, notably the Taj Mahal Hotel and Oberoi Hotel. He was also unaware of the existence of a Jewish religious centre at Nariman House, which is tucked away in the lanes of Mumbai’s Colaba area.

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