On 26 November 2008 when the Mumbai attacks began, the Intelligence Bureau headquarters in Delhi went into a tizzy. Sleuths were at a loss figuring out who could be behind this audacious terrorist operation in the heart of the financial capital of the nation. Some of the attackers were wearing sacred threads on their wrist, normally adorned by Hindus. “Just who are they?” was the question of bafflement going around.
Suddenly a highly sophisticated control room in the headquarters, assigned to tap phones of suspects, crackled with messages in Punjabi-Urdu. Operators tracked them to a US server and soon found out that these emanated from the Pakistani handlers of terrorists involved in the attacks. A senior IPS officer who rushed to the control room to take charge discovered that two SIM cards distributed to suspects in Jammu and Kashmir by the sleuths were in possession of the terrorists.
Most of the calls were routed through servers based in the US. Hectic attempts with the US authorities led to the revelation that the calls, in fact, originated from Pakistan. In the control room, the conversations were tapped for two days before the terrorists were finally cornered by NSG commandos in all the places they targeted. This piece of incontrovertible evidence of Pakistan’s involvement in Mumbai terror attack was neither achieved through India’s technological prowess nor through friendly gestures of US authorities. It came through sheer diligence of undercover IB operatives in Jammu and Kashmir and their handlers in the Delhi headquarters.
In the entire operation, the US authorities tried to keep under wraps to the best of their effort the role of David Coleman Headley who had surveyed Mumbai and identified locations for the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terrorists. In fact, Headley a practicing Muslim, was deliberately given a passport on a Christian name by US intelligence agencies to enable him to get easy access to trouble zones of South Asia on US identity. The fact that citizens of US and Europe were killed in Mumbai attack forced the US to admit Headley’s involvement in the crime.
There has always been nagging skepticism in the Indian intelligence agencies about the role of the US in combating terrorism in the South Asia region. The manner in which US intelligence agencies conducted themselves during the Mumbai attacks and its aftermath has only reinforced that impression. For instance, the US authorities were always less than forthcoming on their patronage to Headley. Similarly, they shared intelligence with India on need-to-know basis on all major terrorist strikes, including those in Mumbai, despite their being privy to definitive information.
Despite the euphoric proclamation from political establishments on both sides that bilateral relations are climbing new heights, the fact remains that the intelligence sharing between India and US on South Asia has always been beset by doubts and conditionality. Highly placed sources in the government maintain that since most of the servers were based in the US, Indian intelligence agencies were largely constrained to effectively police the cyber world.
“What we get from the US as input is often trickle in a vast ocean,” they point out, adding that in most of the cases their requests for further access are more often than not stonewalled.
There have been several instances in which US intelligence agencies have overruled their political bosses when it came to exposing their “assets” to India. In the UPA regime, Union home minister P Chidambaram was assured of cooperation by US authorities only to be cold-shouldered when intelligence officials followed it up. This is the precise reason that Indian intelligence agencies are apparently unimpressed with the prosecution of Headley, a prime accused in the Mumbai attacks, through video-conferencing. “The entire episode appears to be a charade. It may end up only in publicity-mongering for prosecutor Ujjawal Nikam and nothing else,” a senior official of the Home department felt. Obviously, the US authorities would let Headley parrot the lines they have taught him. It would be foolhardy of India to claim a big breakthrough.