The great Headley chase

Intel
Hardnews Bureau

Who is David Coleman Headley? If the sketchy information provided by the USA's Federal Bureau of Investigation is anything to go by, then he is a Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) operative who did reconnaissance for the Pakistan-based terror outfit that has links with Al Qaida. On top of that, he was an informer for the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and some other US-based intelligence agency. The CIA may have refused that Headley is their mule, but it was unlikely that they would have owned him. Ilyas Kashmiri, a top ranked Al Qaida and LeT leader, was his boss. Headley's interaction with Canada-based Tahawwur Rana revealed that the duo had prior knowledge of the Mumbai attacks. His conduct and his movements have thrown up many questions. Investigations by the National Investigating Agency (NIA) reveal that Headley was involved in the planning of 26/11 attacks - he had cased all the locations where the terrorists could strike. The NIA wanted his voice sample to check if he was one of those navigating the ten terrorists on the rampage for 60 hours in Mumbai in November 2008. The Americans have refused to give his voice sample or hand him over to the Indians. These are feeding conspiracy theories in India's intelligence network as well as the excitable Urdu press. For long, the Urdu media have been claiming that the 26/11 was a CIA-Mossad conspiracy to attain some vague objectives that included smothering the Malegaon bomb blast investigation, which bared the links between Hindu militant gangs and Israel. The death of Hemant Karkare, ATS chief investigating the Malegaon case, during the Mumbai attack, the mystery shrouding his movements and the disappearance of his bullet-proof jacket has provided ample grist to this conspiracy mill.

Although nothing has emerged to provide any great insight into this angle, there are many questions that remain unanswered from the Americans about Headley's movement. Home ministry sources claim that the Americans may have informed India about the possibility of attack at Taj and Trident Oberoi, but they did not provide actionable intelligence even when they were following his emails to his handlers, which are quite graphic. From the emails, sources told Hardnews, it was clear about the quality of attack and even the locations. The government had perfunctorily acted on the warning by placing guards at Taj. But just a week before the attack, they were mysteriously withdrawn. The question that the Indian investigators are asking is why a more specific and urgent information was not given to the Indian authorities.

Another question is dogging the Indian investigators - when Headley was under a scanner in March 2009, then why was he allowed to case the next round of targets like 13 Jew Chabad Houses all over the country, transit accommodation of army officials near Delhi's India Gate and the National Defence College. This was despite the fact that the FBI team had visited India around that time. Till now, the Indian government has no answers. They are also not aware of how LeT or its different avatars would have attacked these sites. Would the attack come from the remnants of Indian Mujahideen or through those terrorists that routinely cross through the Kashmir or Bangladesh border? Till now, there is no clarity.

What compounds the mystery is that the people Headley hung around with in Mumbai and other places, were ordinary citizens who did not have any links with terror or politics. He flaunted his knowledge of weapons and body building exercises and did not discuss anything else with them. His understanding of guns has been considered to be quite phenomenal, which, some intelligence officials claim, could come only if a person has spent time in Special Forces.

Headley's mysterious introduction to the 26/11 has allowed Ajmal Kasab, the lone surviving attacker of Mumbai outrage, to weave a new defence that goes contrary to everything that the Mumbai police had said in its chargesheet. Thriller writer Late Robert Ludlum would have loved this unfolding saga.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JANUARY 2010