May 23, 2011 -- The Chicago terrorism trial, set to begin on Monday, of Pakistani-Canadian businessman Tahawwur Rana is going to reveal information that could cause serious diplomatic heartburn between the United States, Pakistan and India. The trial could also renew calls in Congress to cut foreign aid to Pakistan; there may be testimony that Pakistan's intelligence service had a role in the 2008 Mumbai attacks. They left 164 dead, including six Americans.
Rana has been charged with three counts of providing material support to the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba terrorist group to assist Chicago resident David Headley, the operational planner of the Mumbai attacks. Headley, who pleaded guilty last year to terrorism charges, conducted surveillance for the attackers, used a GPS to program in key location markers for the Mumbai terrorists as they moved to their targets, and ravaged the city for three days in November 2008. They struck luxury hotels, the train station, restaurants and a Jewish center.
Rana, who owned and oversaw the First World Immigration Services in Chicago and other cities, allegedly allowed Headley to use his business as a cover story. The indictment filed against Rana and other conspirators in the case alleged that in June 2006 Headley "advised…[Rana] of his assignment to perform surveillance for potential targets in India and obtained Rana's approval for opening a First World office in Mumbai, India as a cover for these activities."
Last month a superseding indictment revealed the names of additional plotters in the case, Sajid Mir (Headley's handler), Abu Qahafa, Mazhar Iqbal, and a man known only as "Major Iqbal" who is believed to be in either the ISI or Pakistani military. (Their pictures are on this Indian government website: http://nia.gov.in/writereaddata/press_07102010.pdf )
Although many of the court proceedings have been closed and numerous documents in the court docket are sealed, U.S. District Court Judge Harry Leinenweber has released one key segment of Headley's grand jury testimony which was secret until last month where Headley discussed doing work for the ISI. Headley in his own testimony acknowledged his work for the ISI telling the grand jury: "During my trip to Chicago, I told [Rana] about my meetings with Sajid and others in Lashkar. I also told him about my meetings with Major Iqbal, and told him how I had been asked to perform espionage work for ISI. I even told him some of the espionage stories that Major Iqbal had told me."
Court watchers, journalists and the victims of the Mumbai attacks hope to learn more about the mysterious Major Iqbal and who he may be. Several of the U.S. family members who lost their loved ones in the attacks have sued the Pakistani government and the ISI. According to court records in the civil lawsuit the attorneys representing the families attempted to serve subpoenas to Major Iqbal and members of the ISI to find out information about the attacks. Several of the subpoenas were returned unopened but the subpoena for Major Iqbal, which was delivered to a location in Pakistan, was returned to the New York attorneys and had been opened.
Headley's connection to the Lashkar terror spanned back to 2002 when he attended terrorist training camps in Pakistan. The indictment alleges that the initial planning for the Mumbai attacks spanned back to 2005 after discussions with Lashkar members. Headley changed his given name in 2006 from Daood Gilani to David Coleman Headley in order to conceal his Pakistani roots so he could travel more freely and not raise suspicion.
According to Headley's plea agreement following the Mumbai attacks, he was told to avoid contact with his handlers until further notice. In January 2009, Headley conducted surveillance for a possible attack against the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten, which became a target by terrorists after its publication of cartoon depicting the prophet Muhammad in 2005. Headley also conducted work for his Lashkar handlers in March 2009 casing India's National Defense College in Delhi and several Jewish centers in different Indian cities.
During his visits to Denmark in early 2009 Headley used the cover of Rana's business to visit the newspaper's offices where he expressed interest to buy an advertisement for First World Immigration Services in the newspaper. The plot against the Danish newspaper was referred to as the "Mickey Mouse Project" in coded communications between Headley and his contact in Pakistan.
Headley was arrested in Chicago as he was preparing to travel to Pakistan in October 2009 he is going to be both the key witness for the prosecution and for Rana's defense. Although he appeared in court for his initial appearance and guilty plea hearing details of Headley's terrorist planning and travels have largely been confined to secret grand jury testimony. U.S. officials last year also allowed Headley to be interviewed by Indian security and law enforcement officials.
Rana's defense is expected to focus on Headley and his integrity as a witness. They are likely to argue that the two men were only long time friends and question if Rana knew about Headley's Lashkar contacts. The defense is also expected to raise Headley's role as a U.S. government informant who reported to the DEA about heroin trafficking and note that Headley's ex-wife had reported concerns about his possible support for extremists to the FBI in 2005.
The trial is also expected to reveal more information about Ilyas Kashmiri, a rising figure in Al Qaeda who some U.S. counterterrorist analysts say over time could play an influential role in Al Qaeda's hierarchy and leadership. Kashmiri was in contact with Headley for the Mumbai planning operation. Kashmiri served in Pakistan's military and intelligence service and later became a key planner in the Harkat ul- Jihad Islami terror group, which has now merged with factions of Lashkar and the Pakistani Taliban towards Al Qaeda. Kashmiri is an almost mythic figure for some terrorists having been reportedly killed in a drone strike in 2009 only to re-emerge later unscathed in a media interview. According to the initial criminal complaint filed against Headley, when he heard about Kashmiri being killed, he "expressed dismay" and told an associate, "Our company has gone into bankruptcy then…the projects and so forth will go into suspension."
The jury of eight women and four men will be hearing extensive testimony in a trial that is expected to last 4 to 5 weeks. The judge has ordered that the jury remain anonymous given the security concerns and nature of a high profile terrorism trial.