Editor's Note: This article was originally published on 8 February and is being re-published in light of David Headley's deposition that Ishrat Jahan was in fact a Lashkar-e-Taiba operative.
By Saikat Datta
As the Mumbai trial court hears 26/11-accused David Coleman Headley’s testimony over video, all eyes will probably look towards Delhi and the political fallout that it could have. Headley’s “testimony” would have been passed off as important but routine to a terror-related investigation, but for a claim that has dogged the interrogation report for years. In 2009, a team from India’s National Investigation Agency had travelled to the US for a court-sanctioned three-day interaction with Headley and put together an “interrogation report” (IR) that made startling revelations about Pakistan’s official support for the 26/11 Mumbai attack.
However, more than the sensational claims about Pakistan’s role, what caused a political brouhaha were claims that Headley had also confirmed that a young woman from Mumbai, Ishrat Jahan, was a Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) agent. At that time, the Congress-led UPA government was in power and the CBI was investigating the encounter that killed Ishrat Jahan and her compatriots. The encounter had taken place when the current BJP president Amit Shah was the Gujarat’s home minister. He had to resign as home minister and spend months in jail before being bailed out, but had to live outside Gujarat as part of bail conditions.
Shah — and by proxy, Narendra Modi, the then Gujarat chief minister — was under attack by the Opposition and rights groups that claimed Ishrat was a innocent tourist in Gujarat. However, the copy of the interrogation report that was filed in court never had any reference to Jahan, even though subsequent leaked photocopies of the document began to show this new paragraph. Today, if Headley does mention Jahan in his testimony to the magistrate, then it is likely to set off a fresh round of political allegations.
But beyond its impact on the current political climate, the contents of the interrogation report are the clearest account of how the Pakistani establishment helped the 26/11 attackers.
It recorded how three serving Pakistani military officials of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) worked with the LeT leadership to train terrorists as well as help them identify targets. Identified as Colonel Shah, Major Sameer and Major Ali, Headley gave a detailed account of their meetings and discussions when he would brief them after every visit to India. In all, Headley made six visits to India (today in court he put that number at eight), detailing the GPS coordinates to the Taj Mahal Hotel, the Trident hotel and the Chabad House in Colaba.
He also visited other key installations in India and delivered those coordinates to his Pakistani handlers.
Headley’s testimony was also the first “evidence” of the links between terrorism in India and the Al-Qaeda. Although this was a tenuous link, it provided a glimpse into how international jihadi outfits competed and cooperated with each other. Headley spoke about his meetings with a former Pakistani Army commando Ilyas Kashmiri, who had floated a new terror group known as 313 Brigade. They had links with the Al-Qaeda, and Kashmiri was known to have even met the Al-Qaeda’s emir, Osama Bin Laden.
Interestingly, the role played by Headley’s third wife of Moroccan origin, Faiza Outllah, also added further revelations to the whole plan. Her complaint to the US Embassy in Islamabad and her claims that she had tried to warn the Americans about the 26/11 attack were startling and added a new dimension to the plot.
Born as Daood Gilani — the son of Pakistani diplomat Sayyid Salim Gilani and an American mother — he would adopt his mother’s name and wipe out his Pakistani links, probably on the advice of the LeT leadership. With a US passport, he had easy access to various countries and used them to collect intelligence and plan terror attacks for the LeT. The fact that the Indian consulate in Chicago issued several visas over the years to him without red-flagging them, proved to be one of the key failures when it came to preventing the 26/11 attack. Today, it remains to be seen if he will repeat the bulk of what he had stated in his interrogation report. If he does, it will become evidence in a court of law and will have major implications for Pakistan globally as well as for India’s current fractious political climate.
The author is a former editor and investigative reporter, author of ‘India’s Special Forces’, a Visiting Fellow with ORF and researching on issues of counter-terrorism, intelligence and cybersecurity. He tweets @saikatd