The Headley-Rana Drama

Originally published 13 June 2011

Terrorism is aimed at the people watching, not at the actual victims. Terrorism is a theater
- Brian Jenkins, RAND corporation

The trial of Tahawwur Rana concluded a couple of days ago with the Pakistani-Canadian found guilty of providing material support to Lashkar-e-Toiba and of supporting a conspiracy to carry out a terrorist attack against the offices of the Jyllands-Posten. Rana was found innocent of conspiring with David Headley to enable Headley's role in the 2008 26/11 massacre in Mumbai. The background to this trial is extraordinarily complex and intricate, and there are many questions that can't yet be answered. Several things are certain.

Rana was accused of helping David Headley, a lifelong friend, set up a branch of Rana's business in Mumbai to provide cover for Headley's surveillance missions. Rana ran a travel business/immigration advice company. He was accused of providing similar help for the proposed attack on the Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper who caused a storm by publishing cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. The trial exhibits, available at least for a while on the US Justice Department website, include videos and transcripts of Rana's interrogation by the FBI, emails between Rana, Headley, and members of the ISI and LeT, and Headley's surveillance videos and photos.

The 26/11 Mumbai slaughter was more a paramilitary act of low-intensity warfare than it was a terrorist attack. For one thing, it was clearly state-sponsored by the Pakistani ISI, using the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) group as a proxy. The massacre was highly sophisticated - Headley made over half a dozen trips to India to carry out surveillance. The attack was not a crude bombing, but a brutal, closely targeted commando raid that lasted nearly three days. The perpetrators landed by boat, which is difficult to detect and impossible to stop. LeT gunmen stalked the streets, directed to specific GPS co-ordinates by handlers on the phone hundreds of miles away in Lahore. They gunned people down indiscriminately and set off numerous bombs. They killed over 160 people, and injured over 300. 9 of the terrorists were shot dead by Indian security forces. The member of the group that was captured alive, Ajmal Kasab, is the man in this well-known picture:


He has since been tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death by the Indian authorities.

Almost from the off, the Indian government and media have said that the ISI were behind the attacks. Indeed, they were far too co-ordinated, too well planned and executed, too 'professional' to have been carried out by a 'retail' terrorist group. Any terrorist attack that kills over half as many people as it injures (i.e. over 1/3 of all casualties are fatal) is a very 'successful' attack. Even veterans of the Soviet-Afghan war would only have experience of insurgency, of guerrilla warfare, not paramilitary urban terrorist operations as occurred in Mumbai. The shoe fits the ISI, no doubt about that.

Indeed, this has been a central theme in the US vs Rana trial. Rana initially tried to offer the defence that everything he had done, he had done for the Pakistani government. The US ruled against him, saying that he had no immunity from crimes against Americans. You can read the ruling here, courtesy of the Investigative Project on Terrorism. Throughout Headley's testimony he has referred to handlers within both LeT and the ISI who provided training and directed both the Mumbai attack and the Denmark plot. The charge sheet filed by the US government in the Chicago trial named co-conspirators including 'Major Iqbal' of the ISI. The Indian National Investigation Agency's report on their interrogation of Headley last year details how Major Iqbal was not satisfied by the training Headley got from LeT, so he arranged for further intelligence/reconnaissance training. He helped finance Headley's trip to India, and debriefed him and took copies of his photos/videos when he returned. Again, this was a highly sophisticated operation.

So, there is no real dispute that the ISI, or at least people within the ISI, had their hands all over the Mumbai plot. What this trial has largely ignored is that Headley was a secret agent of some kind, working for the US government, and may have been all along. Headley was born in the US in 1960, his mother a well-to-do white American socialite, his father a Pakistani working in the Pakistan embassy in Washington. Headley's original name was Daood Gilani. His parents split up and his father took custody of young Daood, returning home to Pakistani. Gilani was educated as an elite Pakistani cadet boarding school, where he first met and befriended Tahawwur Rana.

In 1977 there was a coup d'etat in Pakistan, when the Socialist(ish) Pakistan People's Party were accused of vote-rigging in the national elections, and the military seized control of the government. Daood's mother retook custody of him and brought him back to America. He worked in a couple of video stores and in his mother's pub (named the Khyber Pass) but clearly got involved with seedier enterprises because in 1988 he was arrested for drug smuggling. He was arrested at Frankfurt airport with two kilos of heroin in his suitcase. Gilani offered to co-operate and got a reduced sentence in return for helping set up two other men on drugs charges. He got out in 1992, but had a heroin addiction and wound up back in jail for a few months in 1995.

He was again arrested for drug smuggling in 1997, again with several kilos of heroin. What should have been a mandatory 10 year minimum sentence was commuted to 15 months in jail and five years of supervised release, i.e. parole. You can read the full docket for the 1997 drugs case here, and I strongly recommend TalkLeft's coverage of the Headley story, here. During his supervised release Headley was allowed to travel to Pakistan on several occasions, having gained permission from a judge to make the trips as part of his spying deal with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

The question is, what happened next? In November 2001, two months after 9/11, Headley's lawyer, his parole officer and an assistant US attorney unanimously applied for early termination of his period of supervised release, roughly half way through the five year sentence. I found a transcript of this hearing on PACER and you can download a copy here. Check for yourself, but the NY Times's reporting on this hearing appears to me to be very accurate:

The transcript of a Nov. 16, 2001, probation hearing in federal court in New York shows the government took great pains not to identify which agency was handling Mr. Headley, or whether he worked for more than one.

Mr. Caso, his former probation officer, recalled that Mr. Headley had been turned over to the D.E.A. Another person familiar with the case confirms this account. It was a world Mr. Headley knew well. After arrests in 1987 and 1998, he cooperated with the drug agency in exchange for lighter sentences. He specialized in the ties between Pakistani drug organizations and American dealers along the East Coast.

A September 1998 letter that prosecutors submitted to court after an arrest then showed that the government considered Mr. Headley who had admitted to distributing 15 kilograms of heroin over his years as a dealer so reliable and forthcoming, that they sent him to Pakistan to develop intelligence on Pakistani heroin traffickers.

The letter indicates that Mr. Headley, who faced seven to nine years in prison for his offense, was such a trusted partner to the drug agency in the 1990s that he helped translate hours of tape-recorded telephone intercepts, and coached drug agency investigators on how to question Pakistani suspects. The courts looked favorably on his cooperation, according to records, sentencing Mr. Headley to 15 months in prison, and five years probation.

While he was on probation, in October 2001, a woman told the F.B.I. that she believed her former boyfriend, Mr. Headley, was sympathetic to extremist groups in Pakistan, according to a senior American official who has been briefed on the case. The government was flooded with thousands of such tips at that time, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

William Headley, an uncle, recalled that agents called his sister to ask if her son had terrorist leanings. She didnt seem upset at all by the call, William Headley said. And I didnt think much of it either because at that time, I thought the government was checking out anyone who had ties to Pakistan.

It is unclear how widely disseminated the warning was. But in that probation hearing one month later, the government enlisted Mr. Headleys help again, suspending his sentence in exchange for what court records described only as continuing cooperation. According to the transcript, it was a rushed affair. The probation officer apologized for not being properly dressed, and the lawyers explained that they had not been able to make their case in writing. Mr. Headley was a potential gold mine, according to an official knowledgeable about the agreement to release him from probation. One person involved in the case said American agencies had zero in terms of reliable intelligence. And it was clear from the conversations about him that the government was considering assignments that went beyond drugs. - NY Times

Given that Headley was perfectly useful as a DEA informant even while out of jail on supervised release, what happened that caused the US authorities to rush through this hearing? Why bother? The key is that while he was just an international spy for the DEA, he had to apply through the courts to get permission to travel to Pakistan, thus leaving a paper trail of what he was doing and when. Pakistani drugs gangs are not likely to be sending agents to New York courts to be checking records to confirm the background of a new contact, so it didn't matter, until November 2001. If Headley was, post-9/11, recruited by the CIA or a similar agency, as a terrorism/counterterrorism spy then it would be more important for him to be a deniable agent.

The implication of all this is that Headley was some kind of double agent, working for the FBI and/or CIA on a mission to infiltrate LeT, or possibly a triple agent, working to infiltrate the ISI's infiltration of LeT. Whether Headley was in reality seduced by LeT radicalism, or whether he was just playing along as part of his spying mission, is impossible to ascertain at this point. Nonetheless, that he is/was a US spy has been a relatively common accusation in the Indian media, and in the global independent media. Aside from the odd article, like this one in The Times, the Western mainstream media has mostly ignored this allegation.

Until this trial. Headley and Rana were arrested in October 2009 as a plan was coming together to attack the offices of the Jyllands-Posten. The newspaper came to prominence in late 2005/early 2006, after printing cartoons of the Islamic prophet Mohammed. The cartoons 'row' was a cynical ploy on the part of Flemming Rose, the paper's cultural editor, designed to provoke exactly the reaction it got at the time. Rose is an associate of racist Zionist academic Richard Pipes, and was awarded the Sappho award by the Free Press Society of Denmark. All's well until you realise that another recipient of the award is Kurt Westergaard, the cartoonist whose depiction of Mohammed with a bomb in his turban was a focal point for Islamic (and non-Islamic) objectors. And that the Free Press Society was founded by Lars Hedegaard, who co-published a book with cartoonist Westergaard. And that they belong to the same network as Geert Wilders and, of course, Daniel Pipes. And that even the latest recipient of the award felt obliged to pay lip service to the cartoons 'row' in her acceptance speech. Clearly it is not just the CIA and ISI who are playing dark and horrible games.

In the last couple of years a lot of news, most notably Wikileaks documents and the Osama Bin Laden 'death', has steadily turned the notion of ISI complicity in terrorism from a fringe suspicion into headline fact. We're now perfectly happy to believe that 'them', 'over there', the brown-skinned governments, they might sponsor terrorism for political ends with total disregard for the lives of innocent citizens, including their own. But of course our own government, over here, they wouldn't do such a thing. And so it has played out in this trial, with the ISI's role laid out in detail by the key witness, David Headley, but his own relationship to US authorities largely left a mystery.

Rana's lawyer did break the silence, accusing Headley of being a master manipulator, who had duped Rana into playing a fringe role in the conspiracy. He also pointed out that the emails between Headley, Rana and Major Iqbal were a textbook deception on Headley's part:

Swift asked Headley if he "kept compartmentalized secrets." That question was in reference to a series of e-mails Headley exchanged with Rana and co-conspirators Saajid Mir and Major Iqbal discussing a plan to gain access to top leaders of a right-wing Hindu organization in Mumbai. Headley shared piecemeal information with his co-conspirators, so that no one except he knew the whole story.

"The only person who knew everything was you," Swift said. "You did well in espionage school."

"Thank you," Headley replied. - Investigative Project on Terrorism

So, what are the major reasons for suspecting that Headley was a US secret agent, who either went rogue, or was on a very ugly mission? Firstly, Headley's father worked for the diplomatic service in the Pakistani embassy in Washington, and for Voice of America, a US sponsored foreign propaganda media organ, a bit like Russia Today. Voice of America has long been a means for the CIA to conduct covert action and recruit assets. It is therefore highly plausible that Headley's father worked for the CIA. His half-brother also worked as a press officer for Pakistan's Prime Minister.

Secondly, Headley was repeatedly reported to the authorities by his numerous wives and girlfriends as a possible radical with terrorist sympathies. Though these warnings took place regularly from late 2001 through to December 2008 - just after the Mumbai attack - Headley was not arrested until October 2009. Even that was months after a tip from British authorities in July 2009 about the Danish newspaper plot. Headley pleaded guilty after several months of debriefing, in March 2010. It wasn't until June that he was finally turned over to be interrogated by the Indian authorities. You can download the Indian NIA's interrogation report here. The US authorities are defending the deal they struck with Headley, saying that the intelligence they garnered was too valuable not to strike a pact.

So, they ignored warnings about him, even after he was still officially employed by the DEA, and even though they very much had him on their books as a person of interest. They took months to arrest him even when another intelligence service told them he posed a threat, and they then let him plead guilty and 'turn' co-operator for what will presumably be a massively reduced sentence. He was looking at life (30 years+) and a $3 million fine. On the basis of past cases I guess he'll get about 1/3 of that. He has also talked himself out of extradition to Pakistan, India or Denmark to face charges over any of his actions, and will certainly avoid the death penalty. At each stage he has been protected by the authorities in some way or another, and he is now a source of raw intelligence for the Americans alone. They didn't even let the Indian government talk to him until 3 months after he'd pleaded guilty, presumably so he could be adequately prepared to lay all the blame at Pakistan's door.

The November 16th 2001 hearing seems to be the point at which someone bigger than the DEA stepped in and took over running Headley for US intelligence purposes. Both the CIA and FBI deny ever employing Headley, but there are two key issues that bear thinking about. Anyone familiar with the global drugs trade knows that the CIA has some very dirty fingers in that particular pie. Headley, a man born into two worlds, with a drug dependence, with connections and the proven ability to use them, compromised by his criminal history, would no doubt have been on their radar as a possible asset for promotion from the DEA. He also fits the profile of a disposable intelligence asset (i.e. one who can end up being openly blamed and imprisoned) almost perfectly. The other key issues is Headley changing his name.

In February 2006 Daood Saleem Gilani became David Coleman Headley. You can read a copy of the legal decree effecting the change here. He also had a passport in the name of David Headley, though he did not change his Social Security Number at the time he changed his name. Headley told the NIA that the purpose was to avoid arousing suspicion:

The change of name, establishment of Immigration office in India on behalf of Tahawwur Hussain Rana, use of American passport to conceal my identity and so on were my ideas. The LeT appreciated these ideas. - NIA interrogation report

Note that Headley's actions would only be likely to avoid suspicion in countries like Pakistan and India. A white American man with an English-sounding name was much less likely to attract attention from immigration authorities, airport security and so on in such countries. But changing his name and getting a new passport in his new name would certainly arouse suspicion in the US authorities, assuming they were watching him. Given his prior work as a spy for the DEA, Headley would have been stupid to assume that they weren't watching him, and so the name change only really makes sense if he knew that the US authorities were nothing for him to worry about.

Then there is the media coverage of the trial, which has been almost exclusively either American or Indian, and very much sticks the boot into Pakistan for their role in the Mumbai massacre. There has been virtually nothing in the UK media about the trial, and absolutely nothing looking into his role as a secret agent. As such, there appears to be a tacit but unanimous agenda to only speak of Headley as a terrorist in cahoots with the ISI, and as a witness at the trial. No examination of the bigger questions has taken place. Among those in the independent media who have covered the story is the Corbett Report.

I was interviewed for this report and offered my thoughts as to what the hidden agenda is and why there is a refusal to examine the Headley story. Of the possibilities I mentioned, I think an invasion of Pakistan is highly unlikely. It is a huge country with a large population, nuclear weapons and an entrenched military government. A regime change is more likely, as the US seem to be covertly supporting the 'Arab spring' uprising across the Middle East, but would be risky as there is no guarantee of the new government doing as it is told. I think the most likely motive is that this is a chancy move to get into bed with the Indian government, as an economic-military bulwark against China. The Chinese and Indians don't get along, as major regional powers tend not to, and India is a nuclear power with huge economic potential and a massive population. It could be turned into the next Asian 'economic miracle' and usefully provide a new buyer for Western debt.

But the Indians aren't really buying it. The US Director of National Intelligence produced a report into the 'intelligence failure' over David Headley, and sent a copy to Indian authorities, but they are still prying into the case and attempting their own prosecutions of Rana and Headley. Secretary of Internal Security U K Bansal said of the failure to convict Rana of involvement in the Mumbai attack:

I do not see it as a setback as our case (India) is still under investigation... Prosecution in India against Rana and his co-accused David Headley depends on our own investigations which is being done by Indian investigating agencies... In our handling of terrorism in India, we do not rely overtly on prosecution in other countries. We have to rely on our own strength - Times of India

Indeed, exactly what India have made of the failed Mumbai prosecution is a matter of some contention. There's a very provocative discussion of the issue on the defence.pk forum, here. However, what is for me the most important aspect of this case and the whole Headley story is just how much we know about it. In similar prior cases, Egyptian Islamic Jihad trainer/CIA, FBI and US Special Forces man Ali Mohamed pleaded guilty to training Al Qaeda and helping bomb the African embassies but was never publicly sentenced, and has now pulled a Keyser Soze and disappeared off the map. Mohammed Junaid Babar, the only man to have been held responsible in any way for the 7/7 attacks in London, served a little over 4 years in prison, and a couple of years on parole. Most of the court documents in his case remain sealed.

Yet in the Headley case we have vast quantities of information at our fingertips. The Investigative Project have a page of court documents on the case, the Chicago Sun-Times have the Santiago proffer and response for Rana, where the US government tried to make him a co-operator, IBNLive have a whole batch of primary sources too. Much of this story is available to us for the cost of an internet connection and a few hours on a search engine. Despite this, very little qualitative analysis has taken place, and unless there's a diplomatic storm over India's attempts to prosecute Headley, this story will likely be forgotten, save for a lingering suspicion towards Pakistan. And maybe that's the point.