Today's Paper

American jihadist helped plan 26/11 carnage

Praveen Swami

Headley worked as an undercover agent for Lashkar-e-Taiba, says FBI

NEW DELHI: Early last December, interrogators from the Mumbai Police and Intelligence Bureau listened patiently as Mohammad Ajmal Amir “Kasab” described just how he knew his way around a building he had never seen, in a city he had never visited.

Like the other nine members of the assault team that killed 163 people in Mumbai last November, Amir explained, he was shown hours of videotape of his target—the Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus station.

The videotape, the Pakistani Lashkar-e-Taiba jihadist said, appeared to have been shot using a concealed camera. It was jerky, but provided a wide-angle view of the station’s access points and interiors. At one point, Amir recalled, the lens was obscured by a cloth — perhaps, he thought, a shirt-collar or jacket. But he had no idea who had actually made the videotape.

Now, Federal Bureau of Investigation has provided answers to a question many in the Mumbai Police and India’s intelligence services had thought would never be solved. Documents filed by the FBI in a Chicago court on Monday provide a graphic account of just how the Lashkar went about familiarising the assault team with their target.

Pakistani-American David Headley — who changed his name, the FBI now says, from Dawood Geelani when he began work as a Lashkar covert operative — is alleged not only to have carried out reconnaissance at the five locations targeted last November, but also chosen the landing sites

Headley, the FBI says, began travelling to Lashkar-run camps in Pakistan around February 2002. By 2005, he had volunteered to work in India as an undercover agent for the jihadist group. Indian intelligence sources believe he was recruited through a network of Lashkar sympathisers in the United States and Pakistan, many of them in Pakistan’s armed forces.

In February, 2006, the FBI says, Headley changed his name from Dawood Gilani “in order to present himself in India as an American who was neither Muslim nor Pakistani.” Later that year, he obtained approval to open a Mumbai branch of First World Immigration services — a firm owned by his old school friend, and Chicago-based Canadian businessman Tahawwur Rana.

Using documents provided by First World Immigration services, Headley obtained a business visa to visit India. “In applying for his visa to travel to India”, the FBI has noted, “Headley misrepresented his birth name, father’s true name and the purpose for his travel”.

Headley visited India at least four times — in September, 2006, February, 2007, April, 2008, and July, 2008, posing as a Jewish-American. Before each of these visits, the FBI says, he received instructions from his Lashkar handlers in Pakistan to carry out surveillance at locations in and around Mumbai.

The targets, the FBI believes, included the Taj Mahal Hotel, the Oberoi Hotel, the Leopold Café, Nariman House, the Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus train station. However, the FBI has stated, he also conducted reconnaissance at “other places of public use, state and government facilities, public transportation systems and infrastructure facilities”.

Following each visit, Headley returned to Pakistan and provided the Lashkar with videotapes of the potential targets. Indian intelligence sources have told The Hindu that his handler was the Lashkar’s chief of international operations, Sajid Mir—a fugitive terrorist wanted in the United States, Europe and Australia, who, investigators believe, had a key role in planning the Mumbai carnage.

In March, 2008, the FBI alleges, Headley met with key Lashkar leaders in Pakistan, and discussed potential landing sites for the assault team. Headley, the documents filed by the FBI state, “was instructed to take boat trips in and around the Mumbai harbour and take surveillance video.”

Mumbai Police investigators had charged Fahim Arshad Ansari, an Indian national alleged to have worked for as an intelligence operative for the Lashkar, with having carried out at least a part of the reconnaissance that facilitated the Mumbai attack. Ansari had been held early in 2006 for plotting an attack against the Mumbai Stock Exchange, for which he generated video and photographic images. Part of this material, investigators suspected, was used to plan the attack.

But from the outset, Indian investigators knew much of the material used to familiarise the assault squad with their targets could not have been generated by Ansari. For one, Ansari had never possessed a concealed camera, of the kind Amir’s testimony suggested had been used to prepare the footage shown to the fidayeen. He had never visited the interiors of the Taj Mahal Hotel. Nor, painstaking questioning established, did he have any knowledge of the Nariman House, which is tucked into the lanes that run along Mumbai’s Colaba area.

Troubled past

The son of a Pakistani diplomat Sayyid Salim Geelani and his former secretary, Sherill Headley, 1960-born Headley spent his early years in Pakistan. Sayyid Geelani and Headley divorced soon after the family moved to Pakistan. She returned to the United States Headley studied at the prestigious Hasan Abdal Cadet College until 1977, when his mother secured his custody. Headley, a co-worker at a bar run by his mother recalled, “was not immune to the pleasures of American adolescence.” Others remember him as a troubled youth, who often proclaimed the supremacy of Islam over other faiths. He had at least one serious run-in with authorities in the United States, and avoided an extended prison sentence for running narcotics only by informing on his associates.

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