The Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Mumbai was ravaged by fire, gunshots and grenade explosions during the 2008 terrorist attacks. Credit Arko Datta/Reuters
NEW DELHI — A Pakistani-American man who helped plot the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai told an Indian court on Monday that he had met throughout the process with two handlers from Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, an Indian prosecutor said.
India has long sought to depose the man, David C. Headley, in hopes of establishing a direct link between the Pakistani government and the assaults in Mumbai, which left more than 163 people dead.
Mr. Headley gave the deposition via teleconference from an undisclosed location in the United States, where he is serving a 35-year sentence for his role in the attacks. The questioning, by Ujjwal Nikam, the Indian public prosecutor, will continue in the coming days.
India hopes to present evidence of official involvement in the attacks, in part to generate pressure on the Pakistani government to take action against the conspirators. Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, a commander with the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba who is believed to have overseen the Mumbai attacks, has been free on bail in Pakistan since 2014.
The group’s founder, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, lives openly in Lahore, in northern Pakistan, and moves freely throughout the country, impervious to the $10 million reward offered by the United States for information leading to his arrest.
Mr. Headley, who identified his contacts at the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate of Pakistan, or ISI, as “Major Ali” and “Major Iqbal,” has linked the terrorist plots to that agency before. He previously told American prosecutors that Lashkar “operated under the umbrella of the ISI” and that an agency official had offered in 2006 to pay him to carry out reconnaissance trips to India before the attacks. He has made similar statements to Indian investigators who have interviewed him in the United States.
A few revelations emerged from Mr. Headley’s questioning on Monday, part of a case against a Lashkar operative, Zabiuddin Ansari. One is that the 10 gunmen who paralyzed Mumbai starting on Nov. 26, 2008, had botched two previous attempts on the city, one in September and one in October, in one case swimming back to shore after their boat hit a rock and their arms and ammunition sank.
Mr. Headley also said that on the advice of his contact in Lashkar, he had changed his birth name, Daood Gilani, to a more American-sounding one so that he could more easily enter India. He visited India seven times before the attacks, recording hours of video of the city for his handlers in Pakistan.
Mr. Headley, 55, the son of a Pakistani poet and diplomat, Syed Saleem Gilani, and a Philadelphia socialite, A. Serrill Headley, carved out a byzantine double game for himself during the years after the Sept. 11 , 2001, attacks in the United States. Convicted of distributing heroin in the United States, he made a deal with officials from the Drug Enforcement Administration to travel to Pakistan in 2002 to gather information on heroin trafficking.
He was swiftly picked up by the Pakistani authorities and decided to work with him.
In 2002, while he was still working as a D.E.A. informant, he began training with Lashkar. Three women — a girlfriend and two former wives of his — approached American officials over the course of several years, saying they suspected him of sympathizing with terrorist groups, but no action was taken.
Mr. Headley was arrested in 2009, when he was caught carrying plans for a terrorist attack on a Danish newspaper. On the basis of his cooperation with investigators, United States officials shielded him from the death penalty at his trial in 2011 and reduced his life sentence to 35 years. Counterterrorism officials have described him as “dangerously engaging,” and they warned about the need to guard against “being sucked into his mind games.”
The United States’ failure to act on warnings about Mr. Headley has been, at times, a source of tension between Washington and New Delhi. Mr. Headley’s appearance as a witness “gives the United States an opportunity to play the observer role in what is a South Asian conversation about terrorism and security,” said Shamila N. Chaudhary, a South Asia fellow at the New America Foundation.
Correction: February 8, 2016
An earlier version of this article misspelled the middle name of David C. Headley’s mother. She was A. Serrill Headley, not Serill.
By ELLEN BARRY and HARI KUMARFEB. 8, 2016
© 2016 The New York Times Company