A Spy UnSettles US-India Ties

News that the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had reached a plea bargain with David Coleman Headley, who played a key role in the planning of the terrorist strike in Mumbai in November 2008 in which 166 people were killed, has caused an uproar in India.

The deal enables the US government to hold back from formally producing any evidence against Headley in a court of law that might have included details of his links with US intelligence or oblige any cross-examination of Headley by the prosecution. Nor can the families of the 166 victims be represented by a lawyer to question Headley during his trial commencing in Chicago. Headley’s links with the US intelligence will now remain classified information and the Pakistani nationals involved in the Mumbai attacks will get away scot-free. Furthermore, the FBI will not allow Headley’s extradition to India and will restrict access so that Indian agencies cannot interrogate him regarding his links with US and Pakistani intelligence.

In return for pleading guilty to the charges against him Headley will get lighter punishment than the death sentence that was probably most likely.

Headley’s arrest in Chicago last October initially seemed a breakthrough in throwing light on the operations and activities of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Pakistan-based terrorist organization, in India. But instead the Obama administration’s frantic efforts to cover up the details of the case have been taken to their logical conclusion. The plea bargain raises explosive questions. The LeT began planning the attack on Mumbai sometime around September 2006. According to the plea bargain, Headley paid five visits to India on reconnaissance missions between 2006 and the November 2008 strike, each time returning to the US via Pakistan where he met “with various co-conspirators, including but not limited to members of LeT”.

The plea bargain simply refers to the Pakistani handlers of Headley as A, B, C and D. But who are they? We will never know.

The LeT’s close links with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) are legion and it is inconceivable that such a massive operation – with huge international ramifications and the potential to trigger war with India – could have been undertaken without the knowledge of the ISI, headed by General Ashfaq Parvez Kiani, the present army chief, from October 2004 until October 2007. The plea bargain says chillingly that after Headley’s fifth visit to India, “Lashkar [LeT] Member A advised defendant [Headley] of a number of details concerning the planned attacks, including that a team of attackers was being trained in a variety of combat skills, the team would be traveling to Mumbai by sea and using the landing site recommended by the defendant, the team would be fighting to the death and would not attempt to escape following the attacks.”

Yet, the operative part of the plea bargain not only rules out Headley’s extradition to India but does not show that Headley gave any kind of formal commitment to the FBI to subject himself to interrogation by the Indians. He has merely agreed to give testimony in any foreign judicial proceeding that is held in US territory.

In essence, the Americans are saying that they will tell the Indians what Headley is saying and there is no need to interrogate him face-to-face. This is diametrically opposite to the US’s approach to the Lockerbie trial after a bombed Pan Am flight crashed into the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988. Altogether 270 died. Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, a Libyan, was convicted of involvement in the bombing. Again, the plea bargain confirms that Headley had a criminal record in the US from 1989 as a conspirator to import heroin and spent a total of six years in prison as a result of four convictions. He was later recruited as an agent by US drug-enforcement authorities, who after the 9/11 attacks in the US coordinated closely with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

How much did the CIA know?


The plea bargain details that while working as an American agent Headley attended at least five “training courses” conducted by the LeT in Pakistan, including sessions in the use of weapons and grenades, close-combat tactics and counter-surveillance techniques, from February 2002 until December 2003. Training courses in April and in December 2003 were each of three months’ duration and in such close proximity to the 9/11 attacks that it stretches credulity to believe the CIA didn’t care to know what their agent was doing in the LeT training camps.

Today, the heart of the matter is how much did the CIA know in advance about the Mumbai terrorist strike and whether the Obama administration shared all “actionable intelligence” with Delhi?

A senior Indian editor wrote on Sunday, “Headley … was convicted on drug charges and sent to jail in the US. We know also that he was subsequently released from jail and handed over to the Drug Enforcement Administration, which said that it wanted to send him to Pakistan as an undercover agent. All this is a matter of public record. What happened between the time the US sent Headley into Pakistan and his arrest at Chicago airport a few months ago? How did an American agent turn into a terrorist? The US will not say.”

Further reading

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