Five years on, this is what we now know. A valued CIA proxy, who infiltrated the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), a banned Pakistani Islamist outfit, planned the Mumbai attacks in which 166 people were killed, and more than 300 injured. David Headley, an American citizen, conceived, scoped and ran supplies for the terrorist ‘swarm’ operation, so called because several independent units simultaneously hit their enemy in multiple locations, coming out of nowhere, multiplying fear and panic.
Headley selected Mumbai, India’s commercial capital, as the theatre of operations while acting as a ‘prized counter-terrorism asset’ for the United States, according to senior officers in the Joint Terrorism Task Force, who described his covert career as running for eleven years. When the LeT’s ten-man suicide squad sailed from a creek in Pakistan’s southern port city of Karachi, at dawn on 22 November 2008, they navigated towards a landing spot in Mumbai, marked on a GPS provided by the Washington DCborn maverick. Reaching the world’s fourth largest metropolis four nights later, LeT’s team fanned out, following routes plotted by Headley over an intense two-year period of surveillance . Shortly before 10pm, the gunmen shot dead tourists at the Leopold Cafe, massacred more than 60 Indian commuters at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) railway station, and then laid siege to a Jewish centre and two five-star hotels, including the luxurious Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai’s most famous landmark. Ten men would keep the mega-city burning for more than three days.
This month sees the fifth anniversary of the Mumbai attacks, and the most complete survey to date of former and serving intelligence agents, diplomats, police, and survivors from 12 countries, reveals that the CIA repeatedly tipped off their counterparts in India to an imminent attack, using intelligence derived from their prize asset Headley. What they did not reveal was that their source, a public school educated Pakistani-American dilettante and entrepreneur, was allowed to remain in place even as the attack was realized. His continuing proximity to the terrorist outfit would eventually lead to a showdown between Washington and New Delhi.
Researching ‘The Siege’, we learned that Indian intelligence agents accused their US counterparts of protecting Headley and leaving him in the field, despite the imminent threat to Mumbai. Irate Indian officials claimed that Headley’s Mumbai plot was allowed to run on by his US controllers, as to spool it in would have jeopardized his involvement in another critical US operation . Having infiltrated the LeT, Headley also won access to al-Qaida, making him the only US citizen in the field who might be able to reach Osama bin Laden. Three years before America’s most wanted terrorist was finally run to ground in Abbottabad, this was an opportunity that some in the US intelligence community were not willing to give up.
Phone and email intercepts seen by us confirm how Headley had become trusted by Ilyas Kashmiri, a former LeT commander and senior al-Qaida operative, who led an al-Qaida military affiliate, known as Brigade 313. Based in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, Ilyas Kashmiri was, at one point, considered as a potential successor to Osama bin Laden until his death in June 2011.
In 2009, several months after the Mumbai atrocity, agents from the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), India’s foreign intelligence agency, confronted the CIA with these claims, according to accounts seen by us. India is said to have accused the US of pursuing ‘a narrow self-interest’ and having some responsibility in the deaths in Mumbai.
However, the CIA stood firm, one senior agent claiming that ‘Indian incompetence’ was to blame for the attack. In 2006, the US had warned India that the LeT was forming a suicide squad to attack India from the sea. More than 25 increasingly detailed bulletins followed that named Mumbai as the prime objective, and identified several targets, including the Taj hotel. Additional bulletins suggested that a team of highly trained gunmen using AK47s and RDX, military-grade explosives, would seek to prolong the attack by taking hostages and establishing a stronghold, before a final shoot-out that they hoped would be broadcast live around the world on TV.
Some of these bulletins were eventually distilled into notices that reached the police patrolling Mumbai . However, the assessments were ‘ignored or downplayed’ until July 2008 when a senior police officer, a Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP) with responsibility for security in the district of South Mumbai where the Taj was located, took action . On 12 August 2008, DCP Vishwas Nangre Patil spent nine hours with the Taj’s security staff, writing a report to his seniors that concluded: ‘Overall, the [Taj] management has done very little to adapt the hotel to the changing security environment in the city.’ When a truck bomb devastated the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan, on 20 September 2008, Patil drew up an urgent list of enhanced security measures for the Taj, including snipers on the roof, blast barriers on the driveway and armed guards on all doors. Although security was tightened as a result, most of these measures were withdrawn again after DCP Patil went on leave in the second week of October 2008.
David Headley was a bizarre mix of Eastern and Western cultures and made for a near-perfect mole. His mother was Serrill Headley, a socialite and adventuress from Maryland, whose great-aunt had funded women’s rights and Albert Einstein’s research . His father was Syed Gilani, a renowned radio broadcaster and diplomat from Lahore, who had been seconded to Voice of America. When Headley was born in Washington DC in 1960, he was initially named Daood Saleem Gilani. Within a year, the family had relocated to Pakistan, where Gilani was brought up as a Muslim and schooled at an exclusive military academy. After his parents divorced and Serrill returned to the US to open a bar in Philadelphia, named, suitably, the Khyber Pass, Gilani, aged 17, rejoined her. He lived with her in a flat above the Khyber Pass — and soon immersed himself in the American way of life. Later he moved to the Upper West Side in New York, where he opened a video rental shop, Fliks.
By 1984, Gilani was a six-foot-two American boy, with a fair complexion, broad shoulders and an impressive mop of curly blond hair. Only his distinctively mismatched eyes — one blue one brown —hinted at his mixed heritage and muddled ancestry. Dressed in crumpled Armani jeans, a leather jacket slung over his shoulder, and a £10,000 Rolex Submariner poking out of his cuff, he was already looking for more lucrative opportunities than video rental. That year, he used his dual identities to smuggle half a kilogram of heroin from Pakistan’s tribal areas to New York, selling it through the video store. When German customs officers caught him four years later at Frankfurt airport en-route to Philadelphia, with two kilograms of heroin, Gilani informed on his co-conspirators to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). While, his accomplices were jailed for between eight and ten years, he became a paid DEA informer, infiltrating Pakistan’s drug syndicates . Some US agents warned that Gilani was too volatile to be trusted, and in 1997, he was arrested again in New York for trafficking. He offered another deal, suggesting he infiltrate Islamist radicals who were starting to worry the CIA and FBI.
A letter put before the court reveals prosecutors conceded that while Gilani might have supplied up to fifteen kilograms of heroin worth £947,000, he had also been ‘reliable and forthcoming’ with the agency about ‘a range of issues’ . Sentenced to fifteen months in the low-security Fort Dix prison, New Jersey, while his co-conspirator received four years in a high-security jail, he was freed after only nine months. In August 1999, one year after hundreds had been killed in simultaneous Al-Qaeda bomb attacks on American embassies in Africa, he returned to Pakistan, his ticket paid for by the US government.
By 2006, Daood had joined the inner circle of Lashkar-e-Toiba, which had been proscribed by the UN five years earlier. Coming up with the plan to attack Mumbai and launch LeT onto the international stage, he changed his name to David Headley and applied for a new US passport. He would use it to travel incognito to India on seven surveillance trips, selecting targets in Mumbai which he photographed using a camera he borrowed from his mother-in-law .
Headley was chaotic and his Mumbai plan was almost undermined by his private life. By 2008, he was married to three women, none of who knew of the others’ existence, two living apart in Pakistan and one in New York. The wife in the US, however, grew suspicious after he championed the 9/11 attackers, reporting him to the authorities. Shortly before the Mumbai operation, his cousin Alex Headley, a soldier in the US Army also considered reporting him after Headley announced that he was naming his newborn son Osama and described him as ‘my little terrorist’ . His Pakistani half-brother Danyal Gilani, who worked as a press officer for the Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, disowned him.
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Eventually, Headley’s mother informed on him to the FBI. Her son was only ever interested in himself, she warned, arguing that his selfishness was born out of his lack of a sense of self. None of the complainants heard anything back, with Serrill Headley, who died ten months before Mumbai, confiding in a friend that her son ‘must have worked for the US government’ .
Five years on, with American officials continuing to remain silent over Headley (and the conflict of interest that enabled him to run amok in the field), and with New Delhi still prevented from accessing him, the full truth about Washington’s culpability in 26/11 remains muddied. In India, where no postmortem of any depth has been carried out into Mumbai, the scale of the intelligence failings — the inability of IB and RAW to develop the leads passed them by the CIA and others — will also never be fully exposed.
Adrian Levy & Cathy Scott Clark | Nov 24, 2013, 05.15 AM IST