CHICAGO — The federal government’s star witness at a terrorism trial tied to the deadly 2008 attacks in Mumbai revealed more potentially damaging details on Tuesday, alleging close co-operation between a Pakistani militant group and the country’s top intelligence agency and telling jurors that he frequently exchanged emails and met with members of both groups a month before the attacks.
David Coleman Headley returned to the witnesses stand for a second day in the terrorism trial of a Chicago businessman accused of collaborating in the three-day siege of India’s largest city, formerly known as Bombay — alleging how he was recruited by a member of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, known as ISI, to take part in the Mumbai plot and providing a rare glimpse into what he claims were the inner workings of the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Headley told jurors Tuesday that he met with both his handlers from Lashkar and ISI in Pakistan in October 2008 — one month before the Mumbai rampage that killed more than 160 people including six Americans — and his Lashkar contact, Sajid Mir, said militants had unsuccessfully tried to do the attack in September but crashed their boat leaving Pakistan. They also talked for the first time about a separate plot to attack a Danish newspaper that in 2005 had printed cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, he said.
“I suggested we only focus on the cartoonist and the editor,” Headley testified of a later meeting with Mir. “He said, ”’All Danes are responsible for this.’“
As the government’s first and main witness in the trial of his longtime friend Tahawwur Rana, Headley’s testimony outlining links between the ISI and Lashkar could inflame tensions between Pakistan and India and place even more pressure on the already frayed U.S. and Pakistani relations.
It also could add to the questions about Pakistan’s commitment to catch terrorists and the ISI’s connections to Pakistan-based terror groups, especially after Osama bin Laden was found hiding out earlier this month in a military garrison town outside of Islamabad.
Headley pleaded guilty to laying the groundwork for the Mumbai attacks that killed more than 160 people including six Americans, and he agreed to testify against Rana to avoid the death penalty, making him one of the most valuable U.S. government counterterrorism witnesses.
“Headley’s testimony is a nail in the coffin of U.S.-Pakistani strategic co-operation,” said Bruce Riedel, a former White House adviser on Middle Eastern and South Asian issues. “Until now his commentary has gotten very little attention outside India, now it will finally get the attention it deserves here.”
The Pakistani government has denied the ISI orchestrated the Mumbai attacks, and a senior ISI official said Tuesday that the agency has no links to the terrorists behind the rampage. When asked about the testimony being heard in Chicago, the official said “it is nothing.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity because his agency doesn’t allow its operatives to be named in the media.
On Tuesday, Headley testified that details of planning for the attacks were known by an ISI officer known only by the alias “Major Iqbal” and Mir. Iqbal said a list would be provided to Headley of possible targets and later he would receive it from Mir. The three men met together in Pakistan in October 2008 where Mir told Headley about the failed attempt on Mumbai. The meetings continued.
“In a few weeks if everything went well, they were going to launch a second attempt,” Headley testified.
Prosecutors showed emails between the three men — some of them forwarded to Rana — detailing points on the Mumbai attacks and the aftermath. They wrote in code from ever-changing email addresses including some that came from transliterated Urdu words into English and others from seemingly innocuous phrases like the email handle “Get Me Some Books,” that Mir used at one time.
When the attacks happened, Headley, who was born Daood Gilani, testified that he got a text message from Mir asking him to turn on the television.
“I was pleased,” he told jurors, but later he started to worry. “I was concerned if our plan had been leaked out.”
At this time, Headley said, he was also in more frequent contact with Abdur Rehman Hashim Syed, whom prosecutors identified as retired Pakistani military with links to Major Iqbal. Syed was referred to as “Pasha.”
Rana, who attended medical school in Pakistan, was only brought up periodically throughout testimony, with Headley saying that he debriefed all his plans with Rana. He said they discussed the Mumbai attacks afterward and what they considered a successful mission against Indians.
“Dr. Rana said, ’They deserved it,”’ Headley said.
Rana, a Canadian citizen who has lived in Chicago for years, is accused of giving Headley cover during his time in Mumbai by allowing him to set up a branch of his Chicago-based immigration services business. His name is the seventh one on the federal indictment, and the only defendant in custody. Among the six others charged in absentia are Mir, Iqbal and Pasha.
Rana, who has pleaded not guilty, is also accused of helping arrange travel and other help for Headley, who planned the separate attack that never happened on the Danish newspaper. Defence attorneys have told jurors their client was taken advantage of by his friend and did not know what was in store. But prosecutors have said Rana was not duped and knew of the plans, both in Mumbai and Denmark.
Defence attorneys were expected scrutinize Headley’s credibility as a witness, saying he has been motivated to change his story and that he was working for the U.S. government even as he said he was working for Lashkar and ISI.
Associated Press writer Chris Brummitt in Islamabad contributed to this report.