The Double Agent

He was born Daood Syed Gilani. It would be years before he emerged as David Coleman Headley, double-agent for the American intelligence community, and then, crucially for India, as a key member of the Lashkar-e-Taiba Task Force that planned and executed the 26/11 terror attack on Mumbai.

On December 11, a special anti-terrorism court in Mumbai, hearing the 26/11 trial agreed to a plea bargain of sorts, as it agreed to “pardon” him if he became an “approver” in the case.

An “approver” in Indian legal parlance means an accused who is ready to fill in the gaps and testify in a tricky case that is challenged by lack of evidence. In many ways, the 26/11 case had become a difficult one to navigate with the real planners of the plot sitting pretty in their safe havens provided by Pakistan.

But for the arrest and trial of Ajmal Kasab, the young Pakistani terrorist who was caught by the Mumbai Police in the early hours of November 27, 2008, the real plot behind the 26/11 attack would have never emerged. Like most past cases, such as the 1993 Mumbai blasts, most terrorist attacks that emanated from Pakistan rarely found closure in court. The United States ensured that much of the evidence in the 1993 blasts provided by Indian intelligence would get lost, and subsequent attacks had seen Pakistan stone wall investigations.

But 26/11 was different. In Kasab, prosecutors had a man who had been trained and tasked by the LeT to carry out the attack. As evidence began to pile up – a Yamaha motor boat engine that was purchased in Karachi, Voice over Internet Protocol or VoIP call details, Global Positioning System or GPS coordinates, etc. – India began to steadily build a case that pointed clearly at Pakistan and the Lashkar-e-Taiba. What was missing was a direct link to the Pakistani military establishment, usually a euphemism for the Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI that is behind most terror attacks in India.

A botched plot to target Danish cartoonists led the Federal Bureau of Investigation to discover Headley and his colleague and opened a completely new vista to the 26/11 investigations.

The Planner

As details began to trickle out about his involvement with the Lashkar-e-Taiba plotters, Indian intelligence officials tracking the case were dumbfounded by the extent of his role in the planning.

Minute details such as the fact that Headley bought the maroon threads found on the wrists of the 26/11 attackers surprised many in the Indian security establishment. Headley had purchased them from the Siddhivinayak Temple in Mumbai in April 2008, just months before the attack and handed them over to his Lashkar handlers who wanted to mislead  subsequent investigations by giving the impression that the attackers were Hindu.

In April 2008, just months before the attack, Headley took a video camera and a GPS to film and mark the three main targets that would be attacked by the Lashkar in November. The GPS coordinates he fed in helped the terrorists land near Budhwar Park in South Mumbai and head towards the Taj and Oberoi hotels as well as Chabad House in Nariman Point.

Over 34 hours, between June 3 and June 9 in 2010, a team from India’s National Investigation Agency learnt about intricate details of his role when the USA finally gave them permission to interrogate him in an American prison. Led by an Inspector General of Police, the NIA recorded his revelations in a 110-page report that served as a major lead into how the 26/11 attack was plotted.

The most important revelation by Headley was the role of Pakistan's ISI that helped the Lashkar prepare for the attack.

During his interrogation, he named three Pakistani Army officials – Col Haroon Shah, Major Samir Ali and Major Iqbal – who helped in planning the attack. These were the men who would interface with the Lashkar leadership and helped schedule the training of the 10 men who attacked Mumbai. Headley told them about the various stages of the training – the Daura-e-Aam and the Daura-e-Khaas that turned 10 young men into terrorists capable of carrying out one of the deadliest and most complex terror attacks on India.

While the British technical intelligence agency Government Communications Headquarters or GCHQ was already tapping into the laptop of the Lashkar’s chief technical officer, Zafar Shah, no one could figure out what the actual plan was. The details gleaned from Shah’s laptops were never shared with Indian intelligence – who had other inputs that had been picked up by a Central Intelligence Agency listening post in Jalalabad in Afghanistan in September that year. This jigsaw puzzle of clues and intelligence wouldn’t make any sense until Headley began to share critical details that helped piece the whole plot together.

Headley also revealed a key reason for the Lashkar to plan such a major attack. They were losing cadres, Headley said, to the Pakistani Taliban, as restive young men, trained only for terrorism found new funders and opportunities in the growing civil war in Afghanistan. The Lashkar was “desperate” for a big bang attack and it planned Mumbai as a counter to hold on to their deserting cadres. In the annals of global terrorism, this was a major strategic bid by the Lashkar to garner limited resources and remain relevant.

The Approver

Unfortunately, the revelations made by Headley remained sealed in the Interrogation Report, since material discussed with a police officer could not be introduced as evidence in a court of law. For Indian security officials, Headley was also beyond extradition even though India had filed an official request years ago. The Americans knew about Headley’s role as a double agent and would have never agreed to his extradition, no matter how good the case was. This was a conundrum that had foxed the Indians, who were planning to meet him again under strict USA supervision last year.

Nearly four months ago, the national security advisor, Ajit Doval met the US officials and discussed a new strategy to end this conundrum. Aided by his Indian intelligence colleagues, they began discussing with the Americans about turning Headley into an “approver”. The Mumbai police and the Intelligence Bureau through their office in Washington DC did the spade work to get this ball moving.

Perhaps it needs to be pointed out that the pardon granted to him is only technical in nature, as the Indian state and the criminal justice system were in no position to impose any punishment on him in the absence of his extradition from the United States. “The US won’t extradite him so this was the next best thing,” a senior intelligence official told me on the strict condition of anonymity. “At least all that he said in his interrogation can now be formally brought on record, provided he repeats it in his court testimony.  This will keep up the pressure on Pakistan to expedite their 26/11 trial even though they can choose to do so without Headley,” he said.

So far, the case in Pakistan has been bit of a joke. The fact that the LeT’s main military planner Zaki Ur Rehman Lakhvi fathered a child while he was in jail is testimony to the sham investigations in Pakistan.

Headley's statement is scheduled to be be recorded by a TADA court on February 8, 2016. If he ends up saying as much in an Indian court as he has already told the NIA, this this will be a major coup for a long and intractable terror case that re-shaped India’s security doctrines forever.

Saikat Datta is a former Editor (National Security) with Hindustan Times and had broken the story of Headley’s Interrogation Report. In addition to several papers on the 26/11 attack, he is also the author of India’s Special Forces and a Visiting Fellow with the Observer Research Foundation.