US-India ‘shadow play’ over Headley is shocking

For all the outward appearance of close cooperation in their counter-terrorism efforts, the US and India have been complicit in an elaborate ‘shadow play’ over US-Pak double-agent David Coleman Headley’s role in the Mumbai terror attack of November 2008.

The US has over the years been less than honest with India about what it knew of Headley’s relationship with the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which led to his accepting a reconnaissance mission for the Pakistani ISI-backed terrorist group while it was planning the Mumbai attack.

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The Indian government has been non-serious about its demand for the extradition of David Headley, playing along rather willfully with the weak rationale that US authorities trotted out to get it to not press its demand. AP

In fact, there’s a compelling case to be made that if the US had alerted the Indian government sufficiently early with the information that it had — that Headley had been to LeT terrorist training camps in Pakistan and had visited Mumbai on more than one occasion — and if the Indian government had acted on that information with agility (which is a big ‘if’), the horrendous attack of November 2008 could have been prevented.

The Indian government, in turn, has been non-serious about its demand for the extradition of Headley, playing along rather willfully with the weak rationale that US authorities trotted out to get it to not press its demand. Worse, the Indian government may have wilfully misled the Indian public about the extent of the counter-terrorism cooperation it was securing from the US and its far-from-robust effort to secure Headley’s extradition.

The reason for the US’ unwillingness to let India in on the Headley dossier — at least before the Mumbai attack — is not far to seek. Headley, the Pakistani-American whose real name was Daood Gilani, had fallen foul of US drug laws on more than one occasion, but had subsequently become an agent working on behalf of the US Drug Enforcement Authority (DEA). And since 2001, he had travelled to Pakistan several times to carry out surveillance missions on behalf of the DEA.

It was about then that Headley came into the LeT’s orbit, and was indoctrinated in its jihadi anti-Indian terror campaign. As it is, Headley had a visceral hatred for India, right from his childhood, as he acknowledges in a new book (more on that here). Jihadi indoctrination only inflamed him even further and by the time he was primed to “case the joint” and carry out reconnaissance missions of Mumbai targets to prepare for the attack, he was a virtual bomb himself.

Since Headley was a DEA agent and on that agency’s radar in all the time that he was being indoctrinated by the LeT and the ISI and had travelled to Mumbai, it’s hard to believe that the DEA was entirely in the dark on his Mumbai adventure, even if the precise details or the scale and severity of the operation may not have been known.

In fact, Headley visited India once even after the November 2008 attack, but again US authorities, who had him on a leash, didn’t alert India, presumably for fear that if he were arrested, the tangled web of Headley’s double-dealings with US authorities would have unraveled.

After Headley (along with Tahawwur Rana) was arrested and charged, first, for the plot to bomb a Danish newspaper that had published controversial cartoons of Prophet Mohammed, and, subsequently, for conspiring in the plot to attack Mumbai, details of his shadowy life as a double agent and his working alongside the LeT and the ISI tumbled out.

Although the Indian government appeared to vigorously demand the extradition of Headley, since he was wanted for interrogation and trial for the Mumbai attacks, available contemporaneous evidence makes it clear that it was part of a charade intended to mislead the Indian public. A WikiLeaks cable from 2009 spills the beans on this stratagem. The cable (which can be read here) records a conversation between then US Ambassador Timothy Roemer and then National Security Adviser MK Narayanan.

During the conversation, Roemer presses Narayanan “for his commitment on behalf of the Indian government not to request Headley’s extradition.” The ostensible reason was that the threat of extradition to India could cause Headley’s cooperation with US authorities to dry up.

On the other hand, allowing the US judicial process to unfold or securing a plea agreement that both reflects Headley’s overall culpability and ensures his continued cooperation would maximise “our ability to obtain further information from Headley”, Roemer argued.

In any case, he reasoned, the extradition treaty prohibited an individual being extradited to face trial for the same conduct or offence in two countries. And if Headley were convicted (which he subsequently was), an extradition request by India would not be considered until his sentence in the US was fully served, which could be decades, if ever.

Narayanan responded to Roemer by saying that it was "difficult not to be seen making the effort," but that the government was not seeking extradition "at this time." The Indian government, Narayanan added, would be "in the hot seat" if it were seen as pre-emptively relinquishing extradition.

Indian intelligence officials of course secured “access” to Headley in 2010, but nothing meaningful has come out of it. And even today, US judicial officers are holding out outlier scenarios to make it appear that Headley could still be extradited to India.

All of this is just a charade. To the extent that US authorities have put away their agent who turned against and embarrassed them, their case has been brought to a closure.

But even if Headley can never be extradited, there is nothing to prevent the US from sharing his case files, which paint an elaborate picture of ISI and LeT complicity in the Mumbai attacks. These files will strengthen the case that India has made – of official Pakistani complicity in the terror attacks – but which Pakistan continues to dismiss airily.

At least two factors bode ill even for this proposition. The new US Secretary of State, John Kerry, is known to be keen to work more closely with Pakistan, and to that extent will be sensitive to its sensibilities in the matter of handing over case files to India that could be used to embarrass Pakistan.

Just as importantly, India has a Home Minister who appears rather more keen to let Pakistan off the hook on the charge of fomenting terror attacks in India, and instead focus on what he calls “Hindu terror” spawned by the BJP and the RSS.

Between the US-India ‘shadow play’ and Sushil Kumar Shinde’s incompetence, Headley’s confessionals may well remain a closed book for Indian investigators.