From a “strategic partnership” to a spy thriller. That can describe today the trajectory of the special India-US ties, supposed to have been forged during the time of former President George W. Bush. A Pakistani-American with a confessed connection to the Mumbai terror strike of November 2008 is taking these relations on a rather bumpy ride.
Revelations about the impunity with which David Coleman Headley has played a role in the attack, which left at least 170 killed and over 300 critically injured in India’s financial capital, have raised questions across the political spectrum. The reports have revived the campaign, led particularly by the Left, against the purportedly “special” relations.
Ironically, the story has also provided fresh grist to the mill of the far right – especially the segment that cherishes fond memories of George W. Bush and considers Barack Obama a foe. The issue has also brought a promising opportunity to forces seeking to strike an even harder and heavier blow at India-Pakistan peace than Mumbai – and to do so, if possible, with help from Washington and the Pentagon.
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Headley, who will turn 50 this June 30, has admitted to playing a crucial role in preparations for the terrorist attack. He has been in detention in the US on charges mostly relating to Mumbai since October 3, 2009. Headley, born Daood Sayed Gilani, however, is increasingly seen in India less as a detainee than as a double agent of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Headley was arrested in Chicago on October 3, 2009, on charges related to Mumbai as well as a plot to attack the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which had published the controversial Prophet Muhammad cartoon. The case hit the headlines and raised a host of questions in India only after his plea bargain deal with the US authorities came under public glare in March 2010.
One set of questions are about what the deal will mean for the future – especially about the fate of the Mumbai investigations. No trial, no death penalty, no extradition to India – these are the guarantees offered by the authorities to Headley in exchange for his pleading guilty to the 12 charges of terror he faces in a US court. Reports suggest he may also get a lighter sentence than due under law otherwise. India’s Home Secretary G K Pillai has told a television channel that anything less than a 20-year sentence would be “inappropriate.” But what matters far more is the severely limited scope for India’s access to the man suspected to be the linchpin of the Mumbai conspiracy.
The other clutch of questions relate to the past – and to the role of US agencies, particularly the CIA, in the affair. Headley is accused of reconnoitering targets in India and Europe for the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), the Pakistan-based militant group with a Kashmir focus. He traveled to India in March 2009, four months after 26/11 [British date style. The Mumbai attack began on November 26, 2008], but the US agencies, including the FBI, did not alert or inform their Indian counterparts because it could have led to his arrest here, top officials of India’s Home Ministry think. They have aired a “strong suspicion” that the CIA knew about Headley’s links with the LeT one year prior to 26/11, but did not inform Indian agencies as it could have blown the lid off his activities.
B. Raman, a former counter-terrorism chief in the Indian foreign intelligence service, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), and a security analyst now, says: “That Headley was an agent for the DEA is known. Whether he was being used by the CIA as well is a matter of speculation, but it is almost certain that the CIA was aware of him and his movements across the subcontinent.”
Headley was born in Washington to a Pakistani diplomat father and an American mother. He grew up in both the US and Pakistan. Though subsequently an American citizen, he attended a military high school in Pakistan once and speaks Urdu. He changed his name in February 2006 in Philadelphia, with his white complexion and looks helping him evade even wary Indian officials at airports and elsewhere.
The plea agreement is not the first of Headley’s deals with the authorities. After being sentenced for drug trafficking in the 1990’s, he served as an informant in Pakistan for the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) as part of a deal for a lighter sentence. He worked in Pakistan for the agency from the late 1990’s until at least 2001. Then came his involvement with the LeT.
Former diplomat and security expert G. Parthasarthy notes: “By 2003, he was undergoing intense training in camps of the Lashkar-e-Toiba on close combat, weapons and explosives. This was around the same time that the Bush administration had declared the LeT a terrorist organization. The natural inference is that apart from working as an agent of the DEA, Headley was used by the CIA to penetrate the LeT. But given the widespread support for jihad within Pakistan, Headley became an active supporter of the Lashkar, even when on the payroll of American agencies.”
Of the 12 charges to which Headley has pleaded guilty, as many as 10 relate to Mumbai. The charges are: conspiracy to bomb public places in India; conspiracy to murder and maim persons in India; six counts of aiding and abetting the murder of US citizens in India; conspiracy to provide material support to terrorism in India; conspiracy to murder and maim persons in Denmark; conspiracy to provide material support to terrorism in Denmark, and conspiracy to provide material support to the LeT.
The plea agreement states that Headley “has provided substantial assistance to the criminal investigation, and also has provided information of significant intelligence value.” India, on the contrary, may be denied crucial information even if allowed access to him. US prosecutors are still seeking to declassify a large portion of the evidence against him.
India’s Home Ministry, meanwhile, has cited legal opinion that the country is entitled to seek access to Headley and also his extradition. Under international law, it is argued, the US is obliged to cooperate with India in bringing to book the perpetrators of the Mumbai attack. The plea agreement, according to the ministry’s legal advisers, does not take into account that he is wanted in India. Under international law, they hold, a country can take the sovereignty plea to deny cooperation only where the issue involves the realm of defense or security of boundaries.
India’s Left cannot agree more. Speaking for this section, and stressing the need for India not to be delusional about “strategic partnership,” Prabir Purkyastha of the Newsclick makes a point about Pakistan as well. Headley, he says, “has identified serving army officers – all ISI officers are army officers – who were a part of the attack on Mumbai…. It now appears that a section of the army and ISI were fully involved with the Mumbai attacks and these sections are not as peripheral as we thought.”
Purkayastha adds: “Clearly, the Pakistan Army is now emboldened by the shift in the US position on Afghanistan. If the US needs Pakistan’s help in getting its chestnuts out of the fire, the US needs to back off on terror attack on India – this is the message that General Kayani and company are sending to the US.”
For the far right, this is a fine opportunity to whine nostalgically about the Bush era. Speaking for this segment. Swapan Dasgupta writes: “During the 2008 US presidential election there was a belief in New Delhi that a Barack Obama presidency would trigger the re-calibration of Indo-American relations. Translated into English, it implied concern that the new guy wouldn’t accord the same priority to Indian concerns as President George W. Bush did. At that time we were assured by star-struck Indian reporters in Washington, DC, that this was poppycock and a function of the deranged Islamophobia of the Dick Cheney Fan Club….”
Exults Dasgupta: “The more sober interlocutors informed us that the Cold War was over, that India was no longer a hyphenated link with Pakistan and that the relationship was on auto-pilot. It’s now 14 months since Obama assumed office and the special relationship forged by Bush shows distinct signs of wear and tear….”
For the record, Obama was elected president on November 4, 2008, and sworn in on January 20, 2009. Headley made five extended trips to Mumbai – in September 2006, February and September 2007, and April and July 2008 – each time making videotapes of various potential targets, including those attacked in November 2008. Before each trip, LeT members and associates allegedly instructed Headley regarding specific locations where he was to conduct surveillance, and Headley traveled to Pakistan after each trip to meet with Lashkar members and associates, report on the results of his surveillance, and provide the surveillance videos.
Before the April 2008 surveillance trip, Headley met with co-conspirators in Pakistan and discussed potential landing sites in Mumbai for a team of attackers who would arrive by sea. Headley returned to Mumbai with a global positioning system device and took boat trips around the Mumbai harbor and entered various locations into the device, according to the plea agreement. From November 26 to 28, 2008, ten attackers trained by the LeT carried out multiple assaults on Mumbai. The dates speak for themselves.
From the far right too has come a post-Headley call for dealing with a harder blow at India-Pakistan relations, with the help of Washington and the Pentagon. On April 3, 2010, an Indian-American Intellectuals Forum (IAIF) presented a memorandum to the US State Department, asking for such help in hardly restrained terms. Referring to the Headley affair among other things, the forum said: “… it is absolutely necessary that US devise appropriate measures to: (a) declare Pakistan a terrorist state, (b) seize Pakistan’s nuclear facilities immediately, and (c) break up Pakistan into four Independent states to weaken its terror-producing capacity.”
The US-India talks are on about “logistics” of providing some access for New Delhi to Headley. No early decision, however, is expected. India, in any case, does not want to be hobbled by the Headley issue before the Mumbai High Court pronounces its verdict on the terror strike case on May 3, 2010, if the schedule is kept.
Meanwhile, can the Obama administration do anything at all to save the situation from getting worse for the “war on terror” in South Asia?