By B Raman
The former wives of David Coleman Headley, alias Daood Gilani, the Pakistani-American Lashkar-e-Tayyeba operative, had told FBI agents that he was in touch with terrorists in Pakistan after being indoctrinated with jihadi ideology. The FBI agents were also told that he was planning terrorist attack. Yet the American agency failed to act in time. Why?
More disclosures relating to David Coleman Headley of the Chicago cell of Lashkar-e-Tayyeba embarrassing to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation have been brought out in two detailed investigative reports by Sebastian Rotella of ProPublica, a public service website which specialises in investigative reporting. These two reports titled “FBI was warned years in advance of Mumbai attacker’s terror ties” and “Feds confirm Mumbai plotter trained with terrorists while working for DEA”, which were published on the website on October 15 and 16, 2010, have also been used by the Washington Post, thereby adding to their credibility.
About three-fourths of these reports are based on a study of the court documents filed by the prosecution against Headley. The remaining is fresh information gathered from two former wives of Headley — one an American based in the US and the other a Moroccan based in Pakistan — and serving and retired officials of the FBI and other agencies whose identities have not been revealed for valid reasons.
The salient points in the investigative reports are:
“In three interviews with federal agents, Headley’s wife (based in the US) said that he was an active militant in the terrorist group LeT, had trained extensively in its Pakistani camps, and had shopped for night vision goggles and other equipment, according to officials and sources close to the case. The wife, whom ProPublica is not identifying to protect her safety, also told agents that Headley had bragged of working as a paid US informant while he trained with the terrorists in Pakistan, according to a person close to the case. Federal officials say the FBI “looked into” the tip, but they declined to say what, if any, action was taken. Headley was jailed briefly in New York on charges of domestic assault, but was not prosecuted. He wasn’t captured until 11 months after the Mumbai attack, when British intelligence alerted US authorities that he was in contact with Al Qaeda operatives in Europe.”
“On Saturday (October 16), The New York Times reported that another of Headley’s wives — he apparently was married to three women at the same time — had also warned US officials about his terrorism involvement. In December 2007, the Moroccan woman met with officials at the US Embassy in Pakistan and told them about Headley’s friendship with Lashkar members, his hatred of India and her trips with him to the Taj Mahal Hotel, a prime target of the Mumbai attacks, The Times reported. On Saturday federal officials said the women’s tips lacked specificity. “US authorities took seriously what Headley’s former wives said,” a senior administration official said. “Their information was of a general nature and did not suggest any particular terrorist plot.”
“Headley’s relationship with the US Government is especially delicate because the investigation has shown that he also had contact with suspected Pakistani intelligence officials and a Pakistani militant named Ilyas Kashmiri, who has emerged as a top operational leader of Al Qaeda.”
The following conclusions emerge from the two investigative reports:
First, Headley was initially an informant (source) of the US Drug Enforcement Administration. He was being used for the collection of intelligence about the activities of the LeT in Pakistan. For this purpose, he used to visit Pakistan.
Second, in August 2005, his US-based former wife had alerted an FBI task force about Headley’s links with the LeT, his training by the LeT in Pakistan and his helping the LeT in the procurement of equipment like night-vision glasses. She had also told the FBI about his e-mail and other contacts in Pakistan. She had also complained that he was ill-treating her and beating her. The FBI questioned him about her allegations of ill-treatment, but did not seriously follow up her tips about his ties with the LeT. (My comment: The FBI probably did not question him about his links with the LeT on the basis of her tips because it was already aware of the details since he was its source).
Third, in December 2007, his Moroccan former wife complained to the US Embassy in Islamabad about his links with the LeT. (My comment: It is not clear what action the US Embassy took on her complaint )
Fourth, during 2008, the FBI came to know about the plans of the LeT to launch a sea-borne terrorist strike on certain targets in the Mumbai sea-front, including the Taj Mahal Hotel. It promptly passed on the information to the Indian agencies. (My comment: The FBI could not have been expected to tell the Indian agencies that the information came from Headley. This was a specific piece of information complete in many respects except the date of the planned attacks. No intelligence or investigation agency would reveal the name of a source giving such specific information.)
Fifth, Headley had visited India five times on behalf of the LeT to collect operational intelligence and to help the LeT in the selection of targets and the landing point for the boat. (My comment: Before starting his visits to India, he had taken a new passport under the name David Coleman Headley in place of his previous passport under the name Daood Gilani in order to conceal his Pakistani origin from the Indian consular and immigration authorities. The FBI would have been expected to share this information with the Indian authorities, but it did not do so. Had the FBI done so, the Indian authorities might have been able to establish the details of his Indian network, arrest and question him and pre-empt the attack ).
Sixth, he visited India once again after the terrorist strike under the name Headley. Even then, the FBI did not alert the Indian authorities.
Seventh, why did the FBI not arrest and interrogate him immediately after the Mumbai terrorist strikes? It seems to have arrested him only after it intercepted messages about his being used by the LeT and Ilyas Kashmiri of the 313 Brigade for planning a terrorist strike in Copenhagen against a newspaper which had published cartoons of Prophet Mohammed in 2005. The arrest was made actually after the British intelligence came to know of his contacts with some assets of Ilyas in Europe for planning the attack in Copenhagen. The FBI moved against him seriously only after coming to know of his role in the planned attack in Copenhagen. It did not show the same seriousness in respect of his role in the Mumbai attack.
How helpful was the FBI in helping the Indian agencies in this case? It would be difficult to answer this question unless one knows the following details:
When did the FBI first take the initiative in informing the Indian agencies about the arrest of Headley and the information obtained from him?
Why did the FBI delay its response to the Indian request for permission to interrogate him?
Why did the FBI insist on his being interrogated in US custody in the presence of FBI officers and did not allow Indian officers to question him in their custody?
During the visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Washington DC, in November last year for talks with President Barack Obama, the two countries had reached what was described as a Joint Counter-Terrorism Initiative to promote counter-terrorism co-operation between the agencies of the two countries. The suspicious conduct of the FBI in keeping the Indian agencies in the dark about all relevant aspects of the involvement of Headley with the LeT and his role in helping the LeT in carrying out the terrorist strikes, delaying their interrogation of Headley and imposing conditions on the way he was interrogated would add to the suspicions of the Indian agencies that the Joint Counter-Terrorism Initiative was an eye-wash sold to India to cover up the sins of commission and omission of the FBI and to conceal from the American families whose members were killed by the LeT in Mumbai the extent of the FBI’s knowledge which could have been used to prevent the strikes.
While this issue may not have any major impact on the forthcoming visit of Mr Obama to India next month, it will definitely add to the traditional distrust nursed by the Indian agencies about their US counterparts.
-- The writer, a former senior officer of R&AW, is a strategic affairs commentator.
Source: The Pioneer, New Delhi