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Updated: December 16, 2009 00:50 IST

New details emerge on David Headley’s jihad plans

Praveen Swami
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The apartment of David Coleman Headley is seen in Chicago on December 8, 2009.
The apartment of David Coleman Headley is seen in Chicago on December 8, 2009.

FBI documents state the American jihadist discussed with his alleged partner, Canadian businessman Tahawwur Rana, about attacks on four targets in India.

In court documents filed on Monday, the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation has offered new details of Pakistani-American jihadist David Headley’s plans to carry out strikes in India for the Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Key among them is a tape-recorded September 7, 2009 conversation, in which Headley and his alleged partner, Canadian businessman Tahawwur Rana, discussed details of operational plans for the attacks.

Both men were held earlier this year on charges of planning attacks in India and Denmark. Headley was separately charged with having carried out pre-attack surveillance that facilitated the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai.

The documents were filed before an Illinois court to oppose an application by Rana seeking release on bond before his trial. He argued that his beliefs were akin to those of Mahatma Gandhi, and that he had been duped by Headley.

Attack plans

Headley and Rana, the FBI says, discussed the attack plans during a long drive on September 7, 2009. The targets included the offices of the Jyllands Posten newspaper in Copenhagen, the Somnath temple in Gujarat, the Shiv Sena, facilities lined to the film industry in Mumbai, and the National Defence College in New Delhi.

Rana appeared to know that an individual identified by the FBI only as Lashkar-e-Taiba Member A had already chosen the NDC the first facility to be targeted. “Right, this is it,” Rana responded when Headley mentioned the NDC. When Headley explained that he would ask Lashkar-e-Taiba Member A to “do that first” — that is, target the NDC — Rana responded with praise for the terrorist group. “They should be really commended,” he said, “I appreciate them from my heart.”

“In his post-arrest statement,” the FBI argued, “Rana falsely claimed that these were references to potential business ventures. It is difficult to imagine why a person who praises the work of a designated terrorist group that attacks India would look at an Indian temple or a Hindu nationalist party as a business venture.”

During the September 7 conversation, the FBI states, Rana also asked Headley if he had been in touch with Lashkar-e-Taiba Member A — who, Indian intelligence sources told The Hindu, is the organisation’s key commander for transnational operations, Sajid Mir.

When told that Headley had indeed been in touch with the Lashkar commander, Rana suggested that he ought to be given a “medal for command.” Referring to the Lashkar commander as Khalid bin-Waleed — the commander of Prophet Muhammad’s armies, Rana proceeded to describe the Mumbai operation as “top class.” Headley then added the military training of the assault team had been carried out by another Lashkar operative, code-named Abu Kahafa.

Rana, the FBI states, acknowledged during questioning that he had indeed referred to Lashkar-e-Taiba Member A as a latter-day Khalid bin-Waleed — but he had only done so because of his role in organising “freedom fighting” in Jammu and Kashmir.

However, the FBI argues, the recorded September 7 conversation also establishes that Rana had prior knowledge that the Lashkar was planning to stage an attack on Mumbai.

From the FBI’s documents, it is unclear just how the investigators obtained a recording of the Headley-Rana conversation. One possibility is that FBI officers planted a recording device in the car used by the duo. A second is that Headley carried a recording device, possibly in cooperation with the FBI.

Headley served as an informant for the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, after he was held with two kg of heroin in 1997. In return for his cooperation, Headley received a reduced sentence of 15 months in prison and five years probation. However, in November 2001— just weeks after al-Qaeda’s massive attacks on the U.S. — Headley was released from probation three weeks early.

Investigative journalist Gerald Posner said in a recent article that the timing of Headley’s release suggests he was used by the DEA or a United States intelligence agency to infiltrate Lashkar camps. The Pakistani-American is charged with having attended Lashkar camps in 2002-2003, and received training in the clandestine skills which he later used to carry out pre-attack reconnaissance in Mumbai.

Headley, this version of events would suggest, either double-crossed his paymasters by facilitating the Mumbai attacks, or, alternatively, was the source of warnings the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency gave India in September 2008 that attacks on targets in Mumbai were imminent.

However, a senior intelligence source in New Delhi familiar with the case said it was improbable that Headley reported on the Mumbai conspiracy to the CIA or other U.S. agencies. “If he was the source of the warnings,” the official said, “we ought to be pushing for his being given a medal, not his extradition. It is entirely probable the DEA was using him as an agent, but there is no real evidence of that yet. Had Headley been working for them, he’d have raised that in his defence by now.”

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