An inside view of a trial where David Headley’s confessions on the 26/11 Mumbai attacks have put the ISI in the dock
Four elderly men from the Indian Subcontinent sit on a bench on Devon Avenue, David Coleman Headley’s old neighbourhood in Chicago. They bask in the setting sun, smoke cigarettes and talk politics on a Monday afternoon. They blame and tease each other about India-Pakistan relations and how the two neighbours can find their way to peace.
Far away in downtown Chicago, Headley, a Pakistani-American, has just told a jury how he had carried out a reconnaissance mission for the Mumbai attacks of 26/11. But that’s not why the courtroom is packed. Journalists have been sitting on the edge of their seats to get hot dope on the involvement of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in 26/11. They are not disappointed. “I understood the group operated under the umbrella of the ISI,” Headley says, referring to the terrorist group Laskhar-e-Toiba (LeT), accused of carrying out the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, “They coordinated with each other.”
This isn’t a novel declaration, but it’s a rare admission by an insider—cracking enough for journalists to rush the transmission of the electric atmosphere in the court to a global audience. Heady with suppressed excitement, TV reporters take on sombre expressions and settle on an appropriate tone of voice to convey the news. The scribes, meanwhile, worry about fitting six hours of testimony into 800 words or less.
The level of enthusiasm just outside the Chicago courtroom, however, drops several notches. A small survey reveals that many haven’t even heard of the Headley affair, and others simply say, “Ah… that guy, yeah, I heard something about it.” They are, nonetheless, aware of the latest on Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former International Monetary Fund chief charged with sexually assaulting a hotel maid in New York.
Back in quiet Devon on the outskirts of Chicago, the wise old men seem to show no greater interest. “Forget about this case,” says one man, who left Karachi many years ago to settle in the US. “This is not about people,” adds the 65-year-old former chef, “it is about politicians hungry for power, and that is why there will be no peace.”
Headley’s testimony, however, suggests the 26/11 attacks were dictated by the LeT and ISI through an officer called Major Iqbal. It isn’t clear from the testimony how much the agency’s top brass knew of Major Iqbal’s dealings. In the case of Osama bin Laden, for instance, US investigators are trying to figure out whether only a few ISI agents knew of his hideout in Abbottabad or there was a larger cover-up. Pakistan’s government has already said that Headley cannot be believed, leaving the world in its present state of perplexity over deepening suspicions without sufficient proof to label the ISI a ‘terrorist organisation’.
Coming right after Bin Laden’s killing, Headley’s testimony has already rattled the corridors of power in Islamabad, New Delhi and Washington DC. While India unfurls a small flag of vindication, it is unlikely that these revelations will significantly alter how the US government deals with Pakistan. Experts suggest that their immediate relationship can change in subtle ways—for instance, cutting down on the billions in aid that is wired to Pakistan every year.
While more punditry on the trial is sure to follow, the proceedings themselves are worth all the attention they get for the action, drama and even lighter moments. Grim though the trial is, it has had its chuckle moments. A few smiles were suppressed when defence lawyer Charles Swift described how the terrorists’ boat hit a rock and sank during their first attempt. They had to swim back ashore. In the second attempt, the fishing boat they were trying to hijack got away.
HEADLEY OR RANA
From last week’s headlines, it’s easy to forget that this trial isn’t about Headley but his friend Tahawwur Rana, a doctor from Pakistan who also lived on Devon Avenue in Chicago. Many people on the quiet South Asian street, bursting with sari and desi food outlets, say they don’t know about the trial or feign ignorance. One middle-aged Pakistani woman, whose husband insists that her name not appear, says that she doesn’t feel stigmatised because the two men are from her neighbourhood. “At first, it used to feel bad, but not anymore because this kind of thing is in the daily news now, what can we do?” she says, “But I did feel uncomfortable that it was close to home.”
Headley is a government witness in the trial of Rana, who stands accused of helping him in the 26/11 attacks. The defendant had allegedly allowed Headley to use his immigration business as a cover to visit Mumbai for his reconnaissance. The two men were friends at the prestigious Cadet College Hasan Abdal boarding school in Pakistan, and they remained buddies. “Indians deserved it,” Rana had allegedly said after the Mumbai massacre.
On the first day of the trial, Rana wore a suit. It looked greenish but its colour was highly contested by reporters. His bespectacled face and earnest expression, couched in white hair and a trimmed white beard, did stir a twinge of sympathy among onlookers. Rana’s family sat in the front row and exchanged a few smiles with the defendant.
Rana, who trained as a doctor, is AWOL from the Pakistan military and hasn’t visited the country for the past 20 years. Headley says he’d told the doctor about his LeT training and operations in Mumbai. But they disagreed over Islamic rules on who can call for a jihad.
Headley had instructions from his bosses in Pakistan on turning Rana to their Salafi brand of Islam. But Rana, who is from the Deobandi school, argued that jihad can only be called by the ruler of the land and not by an individual. In turn, Headley argued that if it’s “defensive jihad”, then anyone could engage in it, and what they had in mind was defensive.
Headley also described how he set up office as an immigration consultant in Mumbai, advertised the business, but had no Indian clients being advised at that office. (It seems he spent most of his time working out at a local gym or taking video grabs and photographs of the city, especially the Taj Mahal Hotel.)
The US prosecutors also accuse Rana of aiding Headley’s plans for an attack on a Copenhagen newspaper that had offended many Muslims by publishing cartoons of Prophet Muhammad.
While the attack never took place, prosecutor Sarah Streicker said that the plan was to kill people in the building, behead them, and throw their heads out of the window.
For the record, Headley pleaded guilty last year, and agreed to testify against Rana to avoid getting the death penalty. Dressed in dark track pants and a blue jacket on the first day of the trial, Headley was both forgetful and inaudible. Tall and big-built, the 50-year-old looked irritable. US Attorney Daniel Collin kept asking him to speak up when he relapsed into a low mumble. At times, it seemed that Headley had forgotten specific details that he may have been coached on. “Yes,” he’d snap after yet another reminder by the prosecutor.
One American journalist joked that Headley’s all-so-frequent memory lapses could be pinned on years of drug abuse. After all, he had been busted earlier for smuggling heroin into the US, and had even worked for the US Drug Enforcement Agency once.
At one point, Swift said that Headley had been juggling work for the LeT, ISI and DEA. Not just that, he added, he was balancing three wives too.
THE ISI OR A HIGHER POWER
Swift, who called Headley a “master manipulator”, described how he had received espionage training from the ISI. “How to be a spy,” as he put it. “It’s difficult to tell the difference between the LeT and the ISI.”
On his way to and from Mumbai, Headley said he regularly briefed Major Iqbal. He also received instructions to
infiltrate the Shiv Sena, which the LeT viewed as a terrorist organisation, and to take pictures of a nuclear research facility near Mumbai. At the LeT headquarters in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan, Headley said he saw a mock-up of the Taj Mahal Hotel. He regularly watched videos of LeT operations against Indian troops in Kashmir as well as images of the 2002 Gujarat massacre and 1992 demolition of the Babri Masid. Moreover, he said that hundreds of letters had been received from Muslims in Gujarat asking the LeT for help.
The demands made of him by his handlers, said Headley, ranged from general footage of Mumbai to specific photos (particularly the Taj’s second floor where defence contract meetings were said to be held). He was also told to mark on a GPS device possible landing locations for an incoming terrorist boat. It wasn’t
obvious from Headley’s tone or manner whether he regretted what he did. He referred to LeT leaders as ‘Saab’, which he told the jury meant ‘Mister’. But there appeared to be a slight hint of internal conflict.
Headley said that he made friends with two Hindus during his stay in Mumbai, but he was advised by an LeT leader not to “make them friends in your heart”. To this, Headley said that the father of one friend was good to Muslims. But the LeT leader dismissed him by saying that they were not “the same kind of people”.
One general piece of advice that Headley recalled getting was to touch his head very lightly to the floor while prostrating himself during prayer. If a mark were to appear on his forehead, it would give him away as a Muslim (all his while in Mumbai, Headley, whose name was once Daood Gilani, posed as a non-Muslim White).
Many Pakistanis have a hard time believing the notoriety of the ISI (or perhaps admitting it). Instead, the upheaval in Pakistan is attributed to foreign powers like the US and Britain. Zahir Khan, a 44-year-old doctor from Karachi who stays in Devon, for example, says that he doesn’t believe the ISI’s definite involvement in 26/11; he wants concrete proof. “Perhaps you need to wait till the end of the trial before conducting this survey,” he says, “Politics is being played at a higher level and it is difficult for people to figure out who is involved.”
Khan isn’t alone in his conviction that higher powers are at work. An elderly Hindu gentleman from India who came to live in Devon after retiring as a civil engineer shares that view. Refusing to reveal his name (he doesn’t trust the media enough), he sticks three fingers out. Wiggling the middle one, for the US, he says, “As long as this one is there, these other two can never be together.” The ISI and LeT were small players, he adds. While his friends dismiss him as a conspiracy theorist, he remains vehement: “Mark my words.”
Back in the courtroom, it was Swift’s words that left many wondering aloud. The perpetrators of the Mumbai massacre, he said at the end of his opening argument, should be brought to justice. “The tragedy is that we made a deal with them,” he concluded.
FOES OR FRIENDS
Two men from the Indian Subcontinent sit on a bench on Devon Avenue, far younger than the elderly four. “We should not have invited them home for a cricket match,” declares Sayyid Ahmed, a 26-year-old Indian-American. “Why create this false hype over peace? Why make people think it’s possible?” To him, it is life’s daily concerns that matter more—things like paying phone bills and rent.
His friend, Feroz Ali, 29, who recently arrived from Hyderabad to study in the US, argues that it’s naive to view relations between the two countries through one single lens. “The sporting spirit is different,” he says, “We have to keep trying for peace.”
As the light fades, Ahmed has to close his grocery store for the day. But before leaving, he decides to weigh in on Indo-Pak relations. He has read and seen all the commentary and analysis on the possible resolution of the Indo-Pak and Af-Pak triangle, he says, and the bottomline is this: “There can be no peace in the region.”
While Headley’s testimony turns the Indo-Pak horizon a tad bleaker, the elderly bench still holds out hope entwined with fantasy. “I pray to God that India and Pakistan can become one,” says Haji Moin-ul Islam Siddiqui, 65, who left Lahore many years ago for Chicago. “It is meant to be that way, please write that I said that.”