US terrorist links Pakistani ISI to Mumbai attacks

May 25, 2011 Issues: Counterterrorism

By EILEEN SULLIVAN and SOPHIA TAREEN
ASSOCIATED PRESS STAFF WRITERS
Tuesday, May 24th 2011

(AP) -- An admitted American terrorist who scouted sites where militants went on a deadly three-day rampage in Mumbai in 2008 speaks so softly that at times he's difficult to hear.

But echoes of David Coleman Headley's testimony alleging close coordination between Pakistan's main intelligence agency and militants are reverberating far beyond the Chicago courtroom where he is the government's star witnesses in a terrorism trial at a pivotal moment in U.S.-Pakistan relations and the global fight against terror.

Headley's troubling allegations in the trial of a Chicago businessman accused of collaborating in the three-day siege on India's largest city come just weeks after Navy SEALs found Osama bin Laden hiding in a military garrison town outside Islamabad, raising concerns that Pakistan -- which receives billions of dollars in U.S. aid -- may have been protecting the world's most wanted terrorist.

Pakistan has deflected the accusations and repeated what it's maintained since 2008: The country's top intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, known as ISI, had no links to Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistani-based terrorists who claimed credit for the Mumbai attacks.

"It is nothing," a senior ISI official told The Associated Press when asked about Headley's testimony.

Not so to the U.S. government, which has guided Headley through days of testimony where he provided rare insight into the web of international terrorism. Headley's longtime friend, Chicago businessman Tahawwur Rana, is accused of helping Headley establish a cover story so he could do pre-attack surveillance in India beginning in 2006.

The ISI knew about the plot and helped fund and direct the three-day assault in November 2008 that killed more than 160 people, including six Americans, Headley said. A "frogman" in Pakistan's military even helped select a landing site in Mumbai where Lashkar terrorists would arrive by boat, he testified.

Headley recalled an instance a few years before the Mumbai plot conception when Lashkar leaders wanted to get signoff from the ISI before making a decision that could have diplomatic consequences with the U.S.

"They coordinated with each other, and ISI provided assistance to Lashkar," Headley said.

Headley shared some of these details with Indian authorities last year. But his testimony in a Chicago federal courtroom is the first time the 50-year-old Pakistani-American has spoken publicly in the U.S. about his role.

"The fact that the government is making him our witness says a lot," said Rep. Peter King, the New York Republican who chairs a key homeland security oversight congressional committee. The testimony, King said, is sending a signal to Pakistan. "Pakistan has to be more cooperative and has to do a better job in cutting its ties" with terrorists, he said.

The White House had no comment when asked about the implications of Headley's testimony.

Headley, who said he started working with Lashkar in 2000, said the Pakistan-based terror group, which means Army of the Pure in Urdu, and the ISI operate under the same umbrella.

As Headley scouted sites for targets in Mumbai, he met regularly and received money from someone he said was an ISI major, known only as "Major Iqbal." U.S. officials think that is an alias and his real name is not known.

Iqbal and Headley's regular Lashkar contact, Sajid Mir, both gave him the same instructions for where to go and what to scope out, though mostly in separate meetings, he said. Headley would provide videos he took of sights in Mumbai to Iqbal and then to Mir.

Headley said Mir and Iqbal were in contact with each other. In one instance, Iqbal told Headley that he would be provided with a list of potential sites in Mumbai, and later Mir gave Headley the list.

In October 2008, Headley said he and his Lashkar and ISI handlers all met together in Pakistan, just one month before the attacks. During this meeting, the men also talked for the first time about a separate plot to attack a Danish newspaper that in 2005 had printed cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, Headley said. That plot was foiled by law enforcement.

"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.'"

Prosecutors also 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.

Born Daood Gilani, Headley grew up both in the United States and Pakistan, the son of an American mother and a Pakistani father. At times during court testimony, attorneys had to ask Headley, who talks softly with a slight British accent, to speak up so his testimony could be heard.

Though Rana is on trial, much of Headley's testimony so far has focused on his dealings with Iqbal, Mir and Abdur Rehman Hashim Syed, identified by prosecutors as a retired Pakistani military with links to Iqbal. Syed was referred to as "Pasha" during testimony and three are charged in absentia.

The senior ISI officer told the AP that they have no idea who Major Iqbal is. "Do you have any idea how many Iqbals there are in Pakistan?" he asked. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity because his agency does not allow its members to be named in the media.

Some experts have been skeptical about Headley's testimony and say he is not the most credible witness. Headley reached a plea deal with prosecutors in the terrorism case in exchange for avoiding the death penalty and previously had been an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration after a conviction on heroin smuggling charges.

Rana's attorney has called Headley "manipulative" and accused him of leading many lives.

Though the U.S. has had a long relationship with Pakistan, King said it is out of necessity, not love. And allegations that the ISI was working with terror groups is not new.

The ISI, which is part of Pakistan's military, has a history of spawning and funding jihadi groups to fight India, in particular for the disputed territory of Kashmir. Pakistan's military relies heavily on these groups in the absence of the conventional might to take on India, defense analyst Ayesha Siddiqua has said.

Former President Pervez Musharraf long ago promised to cut off close ties with militants, but there is no evidence that he followed through.