Little evidence in Chicago trial that he had direct role in facilitating 26/11 attacks
Late last month, Tahawwur Rana's lawyer had acid words for prosecutors who charged his client with having helped the Lashkar-e-Taiba murder 164 women, children and men in Mumbai two years ago: “they're using a whale,” Charlie Swift said, “to catch a minnow.”
Rana's conviction on two terrorism-related charges mean the 50-year-old businessman could spend the next three decades in jail. He has been cleared, though, of having had a direct role in the 26/11 carnage.
In India, the decision has been greeted with outrage — but the evidence suggests Mr. Swift might not have been far from the truth about how big a fish his client in fact was.
One man’s words
Much of the story has been assembled from one man's words: Pakistani-American jihadist David Headley, the Lashkar intelligence operative who gathered the videotape which guided the gunmen to their targets in November, 2008.
The son of an élite rural Punjabi family, Rana studied at the Hasan Abdal cadet college — a boarding school with a long military tradition. He became friends with Daood Gilani, as Headley was then known, the son of an eminent Pakistani broadcaster and a brilliant but unstable Philadelphia socialite.
Until they faced off in court last month, the words of one condemning the other to prison, the two men were like brothers.
In 1977, soon after General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq took power, Headley's mother took him back to the United States. He lurched his way through an ever-more disturbed adolescence, then twice ended up in prison on narcotics charges. The second time, he agreed to work as an informant against the Pakistani heroin mafia.
Rana, meanwhile, succeeded in earning a medical degree, married a fellow-doctor and served as a captain in the Pakistan army. In 1997, though, Rana was assigned to serve on the Siachen glacier, and fled Pakistan. Four years later, he succeeded in obtaining Canadian citizenship.
In a strange twist of fate, Headley ended up back in Pakistan. Then, in 2001, after hearing Lashkar chief Hafiz Mohammad Saeed's speeches, he finally found the cause he had spent much of his life looking for.
Prosecutors say Sajid Mir, the Lashkar's commander for transnational operations, first discussed conducting surveillance operations in Mumbai in 2006. Headley then changed his name to more easily obtain an Indian visa, and began using his childhood friend's business as cover.
Rana admits to having agreed to help Headley's mission in India — but assumed it had to do with intelligence gathering for Pakistan, not terrorism. Helping Pakistani intelligence would have been a crime had Rana been tried in India — but not in Chicago, as long as his activities weren't directed against the United States.
He hoped that Pakistan would, in return for his cooperation, drop the criminal charges pending against him ever since he deserted the army.
The money for setting up a Mumbai branch for First World, Rana's immigration business, indeed came from the ISI — provided by an intelligence officer Headley knew as “Major Iqbal.”
With $25,000 in hand, Headley made multiple trips to India — in September 2006, February and September 2007 and April and July 2008. Each time, he flew back to Pakistan, handing footage of the locations he had been asked to videotape to Mir and Major Iqbal.
It is clear Rana knew something of what Headley was doing: he exchanged e-mail with ‘Major Iqbal,' which refers to gathering intelligence. Headley claims he also briefed his friend on the surveillance operations he had conducted, as well as the Lashkar's plans to attack Mumbai by sea.
There is some reason to doubt that claim. Rana visited Mumbai with his wife and daughter in November, 2008 — an odd decision, his defence lawyers pointed out, for a man alleged to know an attack was imminent. Rana, his wife Samraz, and their teenage daughter Zoya travelled using their real names, and even visited relatives in Hapur and Meerut.
Put another way, Rana not only exposed his family to danger, but left a long trail of evidence recording his presence — actions that fit ill with the idea he was a Lashkar operative on a covert mission.
Even Headley did not allege, though, that Rana had ever been consulted on decisions to do with the actual planning of 26/11.
Questions remain about Rana's conduct. Headley's secretary, Mahrukh, Bharuch told India's National Intelligence Agency that she had been told the office was going to be closed down in July 2008. Even though business didn't pick up, though, it was extended to November 15 — the time of Rana's visit. Why Rana wanted to visit India just as his business wound down is unclear.
In the months after Mumbai, e-mail and intercepted conversation show Rana became increasingly enmeshed in a plot to bomb the Jyllands Posten — a Copenhagen newspaper which had incensed many Muslims by publishing cartoons many believed were blasphemous.
There was little evidence that he had a significant role in 26/11, though, bar the word of his best friends — and that alone proved inadequate to move jurors.