May 23, 2011 -- One of the key planners behind the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks testified today that Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, the terrorist group accused of carrying out the coordinated shootings and bombings in India, has connections within Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence agency.
David Headley took the witness stand today as the government's first witness in the Chicago terrorism trial of businessman Tahawwur Rana, 50, who has been charged with three counts of providing material support to Lashkar-e-Tayyiba by assisting Headley.
Headley, who pleaded guilty last year to terrorism charges, conducted surveillance and casing videos for the attackers and 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, striking luxury hotels, the train station, restaurants and a Jewish center.
Headley went to Pakistan as a U.S. government informant but later linked up with the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba terrorist group after he arrived.
Headley testified that in 2004, after meeting with top leaders in the group, he proposed that Lashkar sue the United States government to challenge its designation as a terrorist organization. Top leaders in the group told Headley they would need to consult with the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence agency if they were to try to sue the United States.
"They coordinate with each other," Headley said, when asked why they would need approval from the ISI, Headley replied. "Wiith financial and military support."
Headley discussed how he attended several training camps with the group and how he was trained with weapons and in Koranic studies when he returned to Pakistan from the United States after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Eventually in 2004, Headley attended a leadership course with about 200 Lashkar terrorists, he said, adding that he had wanted to fight against Indian troops in Kashmir but Lashkar leaders told him they wanted to use him in other operations because he had been born in the United States and may not raise suspicion.
In December 2005, he discussed with his Lashkar handler, Sajid Mir, plans to go into India. Headley was introduced to a retired Pakistani military officer named Abdur Rehman Hashim Syed a.k.a. "Pasha."
The following year, Pasha and Headley tried to meet with a drug smuggler Headley knew to possibly smuggle weapons into India for an attack, he told the jury. But they were arrested in northern Pakistan by Pakistani authorities. Headley admitted he had been training with Lashkar and was introduced to an ISI official named Major Ali.
Headley testified that he told Major Ali about his plans to go to India and plans to change his name and get a U.S. passport. Major Ali was "very pleased" and then wanted to introduce him to another ISI officer known as Major Iqbal, the witness explained.
Rana, who owned and oversaw 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 alleges 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."
Federal prosecutors today argued that the Pakistani-Canadian businessman supported and even laughed about plotting terror with his co-conspirator.
"You will hear the defendant in his own voice laughing as they discussed targets of attack," Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Streicker said today. "The plots we are going to describe are atrocious, the attacks terrible."
Rana's attorneys argued that Headley, the businessman's longtime friend, was not a credible witness.
"David Headley is a master manipulator," said Defense attorney Charles Swift. "He made a fool out of Mr. Rana."
Swift said that Headley began manipulating Rana after he was arrested on two narcotics offenses and began working for the Drug Enforcement Administration as an informant.
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 longtime friends and question whether 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.
Rana's trial is expected 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 amid speculation that there may be testimony that Pakistan's intelligence service had a role in the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
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 the ISI.
Chicago Terrorism Trial Against Tahawwur Rana Underway
Monday afternoon Headley said that Major Iqbal used a New York cell phone number to stay in touch with Headley while he was in Mumbai. Headley said that he used the number when he was making casing videos and scouting suitable landing sites for the terrorists that would attack the city.
Asked by prosecutor Daniel Collins why the mysterious Major Iqbal had a U.S. phone number, Headley said it was because he believed most phone calls between Pakistan and India were monitored. Prosecutors showed the jury emails between Headley and Major Iqbal, who used the email address firstname.lastname@example.org.
According to an email from April 23, 2008, Major Iqbal wrote to Headley who was in Mumbai, "hi dave how r you i think so you are our of usa please not my mobile number if you find some time you my contact me on this mobile number 001 646 810 8646 and kindly send me your mobile number." [sic]
Headley's connection to the Lashkar terror group spans back to 2002 when he attended terrorist training camps in Pakistan. The indictment alleges that the initial planning for the Mumbai attacks goes 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.
Headley testified that when he attended a meeting at Lashkar's headquarters in late 2007 or early 2008 in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan, he saw a styrofoam model of the Taj Hotel that was being used to plan the attack.
A Pakistani navy frogman was looking at sea charts and discussing where the landing for the terrorist gunmen should take place, he said. There was disagreement among Lashkar members about where the landing should occur, he said, saying he objected to a proposed landing site near the Taj Hotel because the boat to ferry the terrorists would have to go by an Indian naval facility.
"The frogman agreed with me," Headley told the jury.
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 reportedly 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 in buying 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, who was arrested in Chicago as he was preparing to travel to Pakistan in October 2009, 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, 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.
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.
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 planning attacks after Mumbai, including the attack on the Danish newspaper. 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 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."
Headley's testimony has been detailed and chilling for how calculating he was in his surveillance work, describing it in monotones. He testified that he made several trips back to the United States, staying with Rana on one occasion and keeping him apprised of his activities in India and meetings in Pakistan.
The prosecution asked Headley if he told Rana about the model the Lashkar terrorists made of the Taj hotel. Headley allegedly told his old friend it was a terrible mock-up.
"He laughed," Headley said in his monotone voice.
After the court proceedings concluded for the day, Rana's defense attorney Charles Swift told reporters, "Headley's credibility is critical. If you believe him, then Dr. Rana knew. If you believe him, he was constantly briefing him here in Chicago, but it had no point. But I don't think he'll have much credibility when this week is over."
Headley is expected to be on the witness stand for the next three days.