Literary Review

The making of a terrorist

The Mind of a Terrorist: The Strange Case of David Headley; Kaare Sørensen, Penguin, Rs. 599.  

Published originally in Danish, The Mind of a Terrorist is a racy read on the life of David Coleman Headley, the American citizen with a Pakistani father and American mother who was the strategist behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks. It is also the story of his women, friends, and the violent and regressive world that he straddled in his adulthood with an American tongue and Western demeanour.

Based on more than 300 previously unpublished emails that Headley sent to friends and acquaintances during 2008-09 and extensive reporting from the field, the book is a worthy addition to the already impressive literature on the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai. The attack qualitatively took urban terrorism to a new phase in a world that was still to fully digest the terror unleashed in the American sky eight years earlier on 9/11.

It was impossible for the 10 impoverished youngsters to plan and execute that mayhem, and clues to their Pakistani handlers emerged even as the attack was underway. However, even that didn’t answer the questions fully. How could they have planned out such an attack sitting in Pakistan? Dozens of reconnaissance missions would have been required to map out the attacks. Someone must have spent months and possibly years obsessively scouting Mumbai to plan the attacks. To a great extent Sørensen’s book answers most of the questions. Though not all.

In the summer of 1988, Headley stopped over in Frankfurt on his way from Pakistan to the US. Narcotics authorities detained the 27-year-old and seized $5 million worth of heroin from his suitcase. In the next 24 hours he admitted to the crime, turned over names of his drug contacts, and soon boarded a plane to Philadelphia with agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Two days later he played along and helped DEA to arrest two of his buyers. The arrested duo got 10 and eight years in jail respectively, and Headley got just four years. The criminal had figured out the American criminal justice system.

When he was arrested for a second time in February 1997, he again turned his defeat into a sort of victory, and he lured DEA agents with his information about Pakistan’s drug world, the author points out. A year later, he travelled to Pakistan, made over 100 phone calls to Pakistan drug suppliers who were planning to smuggle heroin to the US, and let DEA record all of it. He was out of prison after just 15 months, and had become a reliable long-term agent for DEA.

But this does not fully answer the lingering questions in the minds of many Indians. Sørensen raises those questions, but does not answer them: “It is something of a mystery exactly how David Headley managed to complete his terrorism training in the farthest reaches of Pakistan while flying in and out of the United States, Denmark and other western Western countries for years — all without being discovered,” he says.

None of the theories in the book, such as him being extremely lucky or a benefactor of pure coincidences, do not fully answer that question. For a long time in Chicago, Headley used the identity of Adeem Kunwar Aziz, a deceased Pakistan resident of Chicago, to obtain mobile connection and register his apartment. But that does not fully explain the uninterrupted globetrotting of a terrorist like Headley in the post 9/11 period.

His violent hatred for non-Muslims was only matched by his obsession for women entrenched in misogyny. He quoted Osama Bin Laden’s theory about polygamy. Sørensen writes that Headley bragged to a group of friends “that he had been with more black women than his entire class at the military academy combined. That was about one hundred students.”

Some of the women in Headley’s life were no less problematic than the American with one blue and one brown eye. Shazia, his Pakistani wife, was also his confidante. She congratulated her husband on the Mumbai attack, saying: “Congrats on your graduation… Graduation ceremony is really great. Watched the movie the whole day.”

Not all the women who came close to him ignored his double life. A female acquaintance of Headley told a friend, who in turn told the US authorities, about his suspicious activities, which led to a conversation between Headley and the authorities including those from DEA in October 2001.

A phone call from a café owner in Philadelphia, whom Headley’s mother had confided in about her son’s growing fanaticism, did not seem to have made much impact on the Americans, Sørensen points out. Finally, the complaint of his Canadian wife, whom he married in 2002, to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, too was ignored.

The fourth time Faiza Outalha, the Moroccan wife of Headley, walked into the US embassy in Pakistan to tell them about her American husband being a terrorist. The Americans ignored it, and Faiza watched the Mumbai attacks with Headley live on TV in Lahore a few months later.

The book is also an interesting narrative of the men in the life of David Headley, especially his father, a high-ranking Pakistani official, and Tahawwur Rana, a military physician who deserted and played a key role in Headley’s ambitions. Rana was trained as a combat medic and sent to Saudi Arabia to help the Americans with their military operation against Iraq and later he spent some time in Siachen glacier.

There is a third individual who makes a chilling entry as Headley’s ambitions to kill innocents and spread terror grew beyond the capabilities of Lashkar-e-Taiba. Ilyas Kashmiri, a familiar name to Indian security forces, who first grabbed Indian attention when he beheaded a 24-year-old sepoy in 2000 at the Line of Control, is the one who promises to match Headley’s ambitions.

The book has fresh details of Ilyas Kashmiri’s plans to target Lockheed Martin headquarters in Maryland, because the company made the Hellfire missiles used by the drones that US deployed over Pakistan and Afghanistan. However, their first joint project was to be an attack on Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that published 12 cartoons of Prophet Mohammed in September 2005.

According to the author, Kashmiri revealed to Headley that he had a faithful network in Europe, especially Great Britain and Sweden, who had all the resources and would join an attack. Most of those in Great Britain were from the Kotli district of Pakistan. Kashmiri also told him the elders, including Osama bin Laden, had been briefed of the plan to attack Jyllands-Posten.

Two men in the UK and one in Sweden helped execute the attack on the newspaper. The author, with his access to exclusive details from both the US and Denmark, has pulled off a book that reads like a thriller in many parts, and throws fresh light into the mind of Headley.

Some silly errors in the book niggle in an otherwise page-turner of a book. On page 177, the author talks about Headley investigating in New Delhi the National Defence Academy, which actually is the National Defence College, and on page 224 a repetition was one I noticed.

The Mind of a Terrorist: The Strange Case of David Headley ; Kaare Sørensen, Penguin, Rs. 599.

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Printable version | Jun 15, 2021 4:02:00 AM |

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