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Updated: May 15, 2011 23:30 IST

Headley: key witness or desperate man?

    David Rohde
    Ginger Thompson
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Flames gush out of the roof of The Taj Mahal Hotel, one of the sites of the Mumbai attack, on November 27, 2008.
Flames gush out of the roof of The Taj Mahal Hotel, one of the sites of the Mumbai attack, on November 27, 2008.

While no agreement exists in Washington on whether the ISI guided Headley and the attacks on Mumbai, the fact that he is a prosecution witness suggests that at least some believe he is telling the truth.

Two years before terrorists struck the port city of Mumbai, a Pakistani-American man named David Coleman Headley began laying the groundwork for the attack, financed, he claims, by $25,000 from an officer in Pakistan's powerful intelligence service.

Headley told Indian investigators that the officer, known only as Major Iqbal, “listened to my entire plan to attack India.” Another officer with the intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, “assured me of the financial help,” Headley said.

As the United States presses Pakistan for answers about whether the ISI played a role in harbouring Osama bin Laden, Headley is set to recount his story of the Mumbai attack in a federal courthouse in Chicago. What he discloses could deepen suspicions that Pakistani spies are connected to terrorists and potentially worsen relations between Washington and Islamabad.

India, the site of the November 2008 attacks, will be closely monitoring the trial for evidence of the ISI's duplicity. Pakistan will also be listening to and is likely to deny Headley's every word. So far, Islamabad has dismissed Headley's accusations against the ISI as little more than a desperate performance by a man hoping to avoid the death penalty.

An American official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that the U.S. government's view of Headley like so much else surrounding the ISI was murky. No agreement exists in Washington on whether the ISI guided Headley and the attacks on Mumbai.

“It's not very clear,” the official said. “A lot of this is going to come out of the trial. His claim could just be his claim.”

Still, the very fact that the government is presenting Headley as a prosecution witness suggests that at least some in the government believe he is telling the truth. And the authorities said they expected the government to present emails and tapes of telephone conversations to support his story.

Any new evidence of ISI malfeasance that emerges from the trial will reverberate in Washington too, with the relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan at its most tenuous state in years.

A growing chorus on Capitol Hill argues that the discovery of bin Laden's hideout and the evidence in Headley's case leave no doubt that the ISI and its Pakistani military overseers have played a cynical double game with the U.S. Pakistan has received $20 billion in military and development assistance since 2001, and its military, they say, has sheltered bin Laden, supported Afghan Taliban that kills American troops and guided the militants who attacked Mumbai.

Headley himself is not on trial. But he will be the main witness against Tahawwur Hussain Rana, a Chicago businessman, accused of providing financial and logistical support for the 2008 siege in Mumbai. The attack, a barrage of gunfire and grenades, killed at least 163 people, including six Americans. Rana's defence is that he agreed to support Headley's activities in India because he was led to believe he was working for the ISI, and therefore the Pakistani government.

Bruce O. Riedel, a terrorism expert at the Brookings Institution, a former CIA officer and a critic of the ISI, predicted that the upcoming trial would be “the next nail in the coffin of U.S.-Pakistan relations as the ISI's role in the murder of six Americans is revealed in graphic detail.”

With precisely that possibility in mind, the American authorities have kept much of the evidence secret. Citing national security concerns, they have successfully moved to quash the defence lawyers' subpoenas for State Department cables and records held by the FBI that discuss Pakistan's links with militants.

And though the government has charged four other men, including the officer known as Iqbal, with aiding and abetting the murder of U.S. citizens, the indictment refers to them either as commanders or associates of the militant group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, not as having links to the ISI.

In interviews in recent days, American military and intelligence officials who have served in Pakistan argued that the story of the ISI is complex. Some of them portray it as an unwieldy third-world bureaucracy that even Pakistani generals struggle to control. The U.S. should try to reform the ISI, they argue, not abandon it.

“I think we're at an extremely critical juncture,” said James Helmly, a retired general who served as the senior American military representative in Pakistan from 2006-08. “We need to mature the relationship.”

Arguably the most feared institution in Pakistan, the ISI has a mythic reputation among Pakistanis as a shadow government with a hand in virtually every major development in the country. Human rights and democracy activists say the agency is out of control and accuse it of carrying out hundreds of disappearances, systematically rigging elections and harassing civilians who support peace with India.

They say the American raid that killed bin Laden has created a rare moment when the ISI's judgment and effectiveness are being challenged. Whether the ISI was sheltering bin Laden or was simply unaware of his presence, the agency must be revamped, they say.

In a series of unusual developments in a country long-dominated by its powerful military, the ISI chief twice offered to resign last week. News commentators are criticising the agency and political parties are demanding the ISI be reined in.   

“It depends on the calibre and the grit of the political leadership,” Rasul Baksh Rais, a leading Pakistani political scientist, said in an interview. “How they can use this opportunity to restructure the civilian-military relationship and bring the military under civilian control.”

American and Pakistani officials said the ISI was still dominated by military officers wedded to an outdated, paranoid and dangerous mindset the CIA helped create during the 1980s anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. More ultranationalists than jihadists, the ISI's officers consider themselves to be Pakistan's true guardians. They see the U.S. as a feckless and immoral power in deep decline, India as Pakistan's main threat and militants as proxies they can control.

“They were set on this path a long time ago, this pro-Jihadi, anti-India tact,” said Beena Sarwar, a Pakistani journalist and human rights activist. “Regardless of policy changes in Pakistan and America, they are continuing on the same line.”

A former American intelligence official said the CIA funnelled vast amounts of covert aid to more cooperative sections of the ISI in an effort to strengthen them. Former American officials said they did the same with the Pakistani army. But progress has been slow.

U.S. critics of the ISI say it will never be reformed or weakened by Pakistan's civilian leadership. They say that proponents of continuing to send American aid to the ISI are naive “apologists” for an agency that has repeatedly double-crossed the U.S. 

The man who is suddenly an important figure in the relationship between Pakistan and the U.S., Headley, may not be the most reliable witness, despite some evidence that he has worked closely with intelligence and drug agencies in America and abroad. His adult life is a blur of deceit, involving multiple marriages, illegal business deals and numerous turns in and out of jail.

He is the son of a Pakistani diplomat and Philadelphia socialite, and he was given the name Daood Gilani at birth. He graduated from a Pakistani military academy and then moved to Philadelphia, where he ran his mother's bar into the ground, partly by squandering its money on alcohol and drugs.

Headley quickly went from abusing drugs to trafficking them, according to court records. And then, in order to avoid long prison sentences, he became a valuable informant to the Drug Enforcement Administration, which began sending him to work in Pakistan.

In February 2002, while still under contract with the DEA, Headley began training with Lashkar-e-Taiba, which aims to wrest control of disputed territory in Kashmir from India. He told investigators he had changed his name and used his dual nationality to move easily across borders on behalf of the group.

Then in 2006, Headley told investigators, he met Iqbal. Headley described the officer as “fat, with a moustache, big head, thick hair, deep voice.”

He said Iqbal introduced him to a senior ISI officer who offered to provide financial support for Headley's Lashkar activities in India if Headley agreed to share any intelligence he gathered in India with the ISI.

Rana's defence will succeed or fail on his lawyers' ability to discredit Headley, who, according to court records, has a history of alcohol and drug abuse. Under threat of prosecution for drug trafficking, he became an informant in Pakistan for the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The defence lawyers are expected to attempt to show that Headley has a long history of deceiving American law-enforcement authorities. One anticipated piece of evidence is an informant agreement, which would provide the most conclusive evidence yet that Headley was under contract with the DEA when he began training with terrorists.

Authorities with knowledge of the case say that the lawyers are also considering summoning one of Headley's ex-wives, a New York woman who works at a department store makeup counter. The attorneys may want the woman to describe how she warned the FBI that her husband was plotting with terrorists, and how the government failed to thoroughly investigate her accusations because Headley convinced them she was lying.

The case is a microcosm of the missteps, distrust, and confusion that has marked the American efforts in Pakistan since 2001, according to current and former American officials. But whatever evidence the trial produces, current and former American officials said, it would be a mistake to cut off all American aid to the ISI or the Pakistani military.

Marty Martin, a retired CIA official who oversaw the hunt for bin Laden from 2002 to 2004, said slashing assistance would further isolate Pakistani officers who cooperated with the U.S. and embolden the powerful militant groups that span Pakistan.

“There is no option except to continue working with them,” Martin said. “Why? This is not over.” — New York Times News Service

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