People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 26

June 26, 2011


Chicago Trial: Spotlight on Pakistan


Yohannan Chemerapally


THE trial of Chicago businessman Tahawwur Rana, accused of helping David Coleman Headley in the planning of the Mumbai terror attacks of November 2008, has once again focussed attention on Pakistan and the terror networks that are still active within its borders. The Chicago court, which delivered its judgement in the second week of June, found Rana, a minor accomplice of Headley, guilty on two out of the three charges against him. Rana has been acquitted of the main charge that he was involved in the Mumbai terror attacks. The jury in the Chicago trial court agreed with the argument of the defence that the accused was misled by Headley and was in the dark against the plot to stage terror attacks against Mumbai. Rana was, however, found guilty of plotting revenge attacks in Denmark along with Headley against those responsible for publishing caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed. The court also found Rana guilty of delivering materiel help to the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the group held responsible for the Mumbai terror attacks.




Headley has been in American custody for more than a year and has since become a star witness for the prosecution. To escape the death penalty, the man who claims to have played a key role in the Mumbai massacre has negotiated a plea bargain with the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The arrangement apparently suits both the parties. As the proceedings in the Chicago trial court showed, Headley only talked about the alleged complicity of Pakistani intelligence agencies in the terror attacks against India. Headley’s past as an agent for the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), which has close links with the CIA, has been conveniently glossed over.


During his five days of testimony on the witness stand, Headley provided no new information. But the trial, coming as it does in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden and the terror attacks against a Pakistani naval base in Karachi, brought more unwelcome attention to Pakistan. The Obama administration is deeply suspicious about sections of the Pakistani army and intelligence services after the Al Qaeda leader was discovered living in the balmy cantonment town of Abbotabad, near the capital Islamabad, undisturbed for around six years. “Rana is on trial, but in many ways the Pakistani army and the Pakistani intelligence is on trial,” Bruce Riedel, a former senior CIA official and currently working at the Brookings Institute, told the New York Times.


In the open court room, Headley once again named “Major Iqbal” as his ISI contact in Pakistan and Sajid Mir, as his handler from the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). Headley, however, did admit that he had no contacts with any senior officials from the ISI. The Pakistani government denies the existence of the mysterious “Major.” Headley admitted under cross examination from the defence lawyer, Charles Swift, that he could neither identify Major Iqbal nor help in the efforts to locate him. The well known American lawyer reminded the court about Headley’s track record. Headley, he said, was working for the DEA when he started training with the LeT and allegedly started taking orders from the ISI. He described Headley as a “master manipulator” who had pleaded guilty on earlier occasions in order to escape severe sentences. Swift is the lawyer who successfully got the US Supreme Court to strike down the military commissions set up under the Bush administration to try the Guantanamo Bay detainees. 


Despite his continuing anonymity, the US authorities have already put Major Iqbal on its “most wanted” terror list. Headley also told the court that he had met with Ilyas Kashmiri, the leader of the Harakat-ul-Jihad during his frequent trips to the Indian subcontinent. Kashmiri, according to Headley, had wanted militant groups to target the offices of Lockheed Martin, the American armaments company which manufactures the drones that have been running havoc all over Pakistan. Kashmiri has been held responsible for many acts of terror in India as well as Pakistan. He had claimed responsibility for the attack avenging the death of Osama on the Pakistani naval base in Karachi. A few days after Headley named him in the Chicago court, he was reportedly killed in a US drone attack in Southern Waziristan. Pakistani authorities claim that they helped the US forces locate his whereabouts. “I understood these (militant) groups operated under the umbrella of the ISI and Lashkar,” Headley had told the Chicago trial court.




The LeT has now become the common enemy of both the US and India. A recent US government report describes the LeT as one of the most dangerous and well organised terror groups that considers American targets as legitimate. According to Headley, both the ISI and Lashkar wanted him to conduct surveillance on targets in India. During his plea bargain hearings, Headley admitted to having visited India for five reconnaissance missions between 2006 and 2008. On all the five occasions, he returned to the US via Pakistan after “meeting various co-conspirators, including but not limited to the LeT.” The Obama administration has so far not officially acknowledged Headley’s contention that the ISI top brass was involved in planning the Mumbai attacks. Nor has Washington accepted the suggestion that at the most only a handful of rogue elements from Pakistan’s security establishment were involved in the Mumbai terror attack.    


Headley, from all available accounts, is not a credible witness. He is an admitted drug user who has spent more than six years in an American prison. He was only released after he agreed to work as an undercover agent for the DEA. He has admitted to lying to the FBI and has been diagnosed by psychiatrists as suffering from “mixed personality disorder.” Under relentless defence cross examination, Headley had admitted that on more than one occasion he had used Rana for his nefarious activities, while keeping his friend from his school going days in the dark. The defence is arguing that Rana was unaware of Headley’s terror links.


The Indian prime minister as well as the home minister have both said that no new actionable information has emerged from Headley’s testimony. The American authorities had allowed Indian investigators to politely question but not interrogate Headley on his role in the Mumbai terror attacks. The information he provided first to the American authorities and then to the Chicago court tallied with the information that was already in the hands of the Indian government and was already in the public domain. The American authorities have ensured that Headley sticks to the script he has been given and not divulge details about his role as a double agent working both for the American and Pakistani secret services. Many American reporters covering the Chicago court proceedings got the impression that Headley’s deposition was a tutored one.


The agreement between the US federal agencies and Headley stipulates that no evidence on his links with American intelligence agencies are brought under the ambit of the court. Headley’s links with US intelligence will remain classified secrets.




The FBI has also made it clear that it will not allow Headley to be extradited to India to face justice for the massacre of 166 people during the Mumbai terror attack. The FBI has also not bothered to share “actionable intelligence” with India. Close cooperation in counter-terrorism is at the heart of the close US-India strategic ties forged by the UPA government. But so far, the US has refused to share much of the information it has on the terror networks in Pakistan with New Delhi as it continues to walk the diplomatic tight rope with Pakistan. American interests seem to supersede that of Indian national interests when it comes to terrorism related issues affecting the continent. There is speculation that Washington knew about Headley’s repeated visits to India and had enough information to forewarn India about the imminence of an attack on Mumbai.  


All this has, however, not stopped the Indian government from further deepening the existing counter-terrorism links with the US. The US homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitino, was in Delhi in the last week of May to hold talks with the home minister, P Chidambaram. After the end of what was billed as a “homeland security dialogue,” the two sides issued a statement reaffirming their common resolve to defeat terrorism and called for effective steps by all countries to eliminate “safe havens of terror.” Napolitino said that the two governments had agreed to “strengthen our strategic partnerships, to share best practices and to identify future areas of collaboration.” The US homeland secretary told the media in Delhi that she viewed the LeT as equal in danger to the Al Qaeda network. She also held forth a promise that the Indian law enforcement agencies would be given further access to Headley.