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Updated: December 15, 2009 00:47 IST

No evidence of Headley role in guiding Mumbai attacks

Praveen Swami
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In this courtroom drawing David Coleman Headley pleads not guilty before U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber on December 9, 2009, in Chicago to charges that accuse him of conspiring in the deadly 2008 terrorist attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai and of planning to launch an armed assault on a Danish newspaper.
AP In this courtroom drawing David Coleman Headley pleads not guilty before U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber on December 9, 2009, in Chicago to charges that accuse him of conspiring in the deadly 2008 terrorist attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai and of planning to launch an armed assault on a Danish newspaper.

Intercepted phone calls show that three Lashkar handlers familiar with Mumbai targets talked with assault team. Headley’s services, the tapes make it clear, were not required to conduct English-language conversations.

Indian intelligence intercepts hold no evidence that Pakistani-American jihadist David Headley was present in the Lashkar-e-Taiba control station from where key military commanders guided the 10-man assault team that attacked Mumbai in November 2008.

Hours of intercepted phone conversations show that the assault team was guided by three men, speaking Punjabi, interspersed occasionally with Urdu and English. However, recent media reports that Headley was among those involved are not supported by the tapes, which are available with The Hindu.

Named by surviving jihadist Mohammad Ajmal Amir — widely identified by his caste-name Kasab — as senior Lashkar military operatives, Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi, Muzammil Bhat and Abu Hamza, the men used voice-over-internet phone connections to communicate with the assault team.

Media speculation on Headley’s presence in the control station rests on periodic conversations where the handlers discussed the layouts of the target venues in detail.

Some commentators are interpreting the discussions to mean the Pakistani-American jihadist arrested by the FBI last month may have been on hand to offer first-hand knowledge of the sites he surveyed during eight trips as a clandestine Lashkar agent.

But the intercepted conversations do not contain any evidence that he was present to assist the handlers. One such conference took place early on the morning of November 28, 2008, when it became clear to the handlers that the National Security Guards was about to storm the Chabad House.

“What we think is, they are trying to arrest you,” ‘Abu Akasha’ was told by an operative in the control station. “They are trying to wear you out with hunger and thirst. That’s why they’ve cut off water and power. One possibility is that you could wait for them to attack. The other is that you should go out and attack.”

“Today is Friday,” Babar replied, “we should confront them. We are going to take Allah’s name, and go outside.”

Inside the Lashkar control room, there was a quick discussion on just how the plan should be implemented, all in Punjabi.

One controller suggested the assault team members head left, since there are “hundreds of soldiers positioned on the right.” Finally, the men were told to head left and hijack a car or a motorcycle.

But the tapes also make clear that all the handlers were familiar with the layout of the buildings. For example, ‘Abu Hamza’ himself broke in during the escape discussion, noting that a wall blocked one of the potential escape routes.

“You have to avoid being arrested,” ‘Hamza’ exhorted the assault team, “at all costs. The way things have headed, they’re willing to sacrifice soldiers to take you alive. You must not allow this to happen. It will hurt you, us and the jihad.”

“I pray to Allah that even our dead bodies not be found,” ‘Abu Akasha’ replied.

“Bhaijaan,” the handler told ‘Abu Akasha,’ “the work you had come for is over, and you have to end it properly. You have left this world. Now it is question of honour, of Islam and kufr [disbelief]. You have to show you are better than the unbelievers who worship shameful idols of women and men, and who drink their own urine.”

But the escape plan was interrupted by the arrival of a helicopter carrying a National Security Guards team.

Headley’s services, the tapes also make clear, were not required to conduct English-language conversations—notably, an exchange between ‘Hamza’ and Mexican national Norma Rabinovich.

“Listen, Norma,” the handler on November 27 said, “we want you to talk to the media right now. We will speak to some news channel and we will let you tell them that we want to negotiate. We want some way to solve this problem. Nothing has been done by your Embassy, and nothing has been done by [the] Indian government. All we want is to stop [this] operation, and let’s negotiate.”

He followed this up with a warning. “Don’t try to be over-smart, don’t try to tell them your position, don’t tell them how many you are.”

“Can I talk from my heart,” the 50 year old Ms. Rabinovich pleaded, “[because] I do believe dialogue is good”?

“What will you say?” said Hamza.

“Nothing that will make anybody lose,” she promised.

The proposed interview to television did not materialise.

In a subsequent conversation with ‘Akasha,’ ‘Hamza’ made clear the hostages had no chance of survival. “Inko zinda thodi na chhodna hai, yaar”, he said [“We’re not going to let them live, friend”].

Later in the tapes, ‘Hamza’ and ‘Akasha’ discuss the execution of the hostages. “If you take them to the next room,” ‘Hamza’ argues, “it will be a nuisance. You just have to fire twice. Do it where you are and throw the bodies in a corner.”

Later, ‘Akasha’ initiated a phone call so ‘Hamza’ could hear the shots that claimed the hostages’ lives.

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