June 26, 2020
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A Headley, Deadly Sim Story

An IB officer took a chance and planted three SIMs in a consignment for Pakistan. One of them turned up with the 26/11 attackers....

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A Headley, Deadly Sim Story
A Headley, Deadly Sim Story

It was on a foggy January morning in 2008 that an unusual parcel landed at the desk of an Intelligence Bureau officer. It had been intercepted at New Delhi railway station and the destination was Pakistan. It contained 30 prepaid SIM cards from Jammu and Kashmir. Since the cards couldn’t be used outside Kashmir, the officer decided to play what he calls a blind shot. He added three more SIM cards to the parcel, put all three under surveillance, and sent off the parcel. In hindsight, the blind shot paid off.

As the world debates the involvement of US national Daood Gilani, or David Headley, now deposing before a Mumbai court via video from an undisclosed location in America where he is serving a life sentence, security officials are una­ni­mous: the only purpose the deposition serves is part-PR. An Amer­ican national is confirming what India suspected all along: that the 26/11 attack of 2008 was the handiwork of the Pakistani intelligence. What esca­pes notice is the role of the American intelligence agencies in the biggest terror strike in India.

On November 26, Indian intelligence agencies realised they were facing a coordinated, multiple attacks on the financial capital of India and not some stray shootings. As explosions erupted from the iconic Taj Hotel, as top police brass fell prey to terrorist’s bullets, as TV stations beamed the first images of India’s 9/11, a computer at the IB’s operations room in Delhi started blinking. It was an Airtel SIM number, put under surveillance by a joint dir­ector (operations) and dormant since January. It was being used by someone in Colaba, Mumbai, talking in Urdu to someone in Pakistan. Suddenly, India could monitor the conversation between the attackers with their handlers in a Karachi control room. The SIM card, one of the three the alert officer had stowed into the parcel, proved to be the Trojan horse of 26/11.

“It was a blind shot, a small investment we made. We thought the SIM would be used for terror in Kashmir or Punjab. We had put in three SIM cards, but only one was used,” admits D.P. Sinha, now retired. It was the Indian SIM card that nailed Pakistan’s involvement before the world. More importantly, officials could stymie some of the terrorists’ plans. Journalists reporting from outside the Gateway of India were told to move away in the nick of time because the cops had a headstart on the terrorists planning to lob grenades on journalists gathered there. Details of the Delhi-based Airtel SIM card form part of official records of the Pakistani fact-finding team.

Headley, on instructions from Sajid Mir, one of his handlers, had taken one of the 30 SIM cards to the int­ernational border at Wagah to check for signal strength. This was a prepaid connection from Vodafone. Unfor­tunately, the IB had not put these under surveillance as they wouldn’t have worked outside Jammu and Kash­mir—something the attac­kers too realised when they switched on their phones on landing at Colaba beach. This is why two of the phones the terrorists used for talking to Karachi belonged to their victims.

It is stray incidents like these that helped save the day for Indian sleuths amid their spectacular failure to join the dots leading to 26/11. But if India couldn’t see the bigger picture, can the same be said about the Americans and the British? And was Headley just a US government employee who had turned rogue or did the Americans ignore his “other” self because he was too useful an informant who had infiltrated the enemy camp? Or were the Americans, who had a mountain of data on Headley and his terror links, just plain sloppy?

Headley’s deposition, which exactly matches what he told the NIA in June 2010, shows him to be a man who has managed to get lucky again and again. And it shows up the American intelligence sleuths, at best, as blunderers who allowed Headley to fall through the cracks. The Pakistani-born American citizen, with a privileged childhood, was serving a drug sentence since 1997 when 9/11 happened and his Urdu-speaking Pakistani connection aroused the DEA’s interest. His sentence was reduced by a federal judge by three years in a move which, even Headley’s lawyer then admitted, was unusual. The DEA said he was being let off for good conduct. Headley was given a new task. The narcotics peddler was required to infiltrate Afghan and Pakistani drug rings and was sent to Pakistan as an undercover DEA agent in 2001. The irony is that it was 9/11 that pushed Headley into the biggest terror attack that he ever planned—26/11.

Headley told the NIA he was in touch with the Lash­kar and that, as early as in 2002, he underwent training at Muridke in Pakistan. The DEA says he was struck off their rolls on March 27, 2002. Headley told the NIA he was in touch with the DEA till November 2002. When he was arrested in Chicago in 2009, his DEA handler was present. Headley got a new identity in 2005 when he changed his name from Daood Gilani on his American passport. But a crucial detail was ret­ained on his passport: his social security number.

The SIM proved Pakistan’s involvement in the terror strike on Mumbai. It also allowed sleuths to save some lives, for they could hear the attackers’ talk.

The first time US authorities were tipped off about Headley was on October 4, 2001, when an ex-girlfriend told the joint terrorism task force about Headley’s suspicious dealings. The second tip-off came in July 2002 in Philadelphia from the owner of a business frequented by Headley’s mother, who often confided in him. The third came in August 2005, when Headley’s Pakistani wife gave specific details of his training with the Lashkar, his fund-raising and even offered to show the Americans his e-mails. In December 2007 and April 2008, the tip-offs were from his Moroccan wife Faiza Outalha and more specific: that Headley had an American and a Pakistani passport and that he had used his wife as an accomplice in the 7/11 Mumbai train blasts. Another tip-off came in December 2008, again from Philadelphia, after Headley’s mother died. All these were dismissed as familiar rants by girlfriends, wives and his mother. Outalha is reported to have said in an interview that officials at the US embassy had a file on Headley and made fun of her when she complained about him. They defended what he was doing and even though she handed over contact details of Headley, the officials called her back the next day to say that they couldn’t locate him.

It was Al Qaeda that unwittingly let Headley down. In July 2009, British intelligence sent an input to the FBI’s Chicago desk. A man named David was planning to meet two Al Qaeda men in Derby. This was part of the planning for the attack on Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. “The Americans, despite their formidable signals intelligence, got their breakthrough from MI5, which was tracking Zarar Shah, the tech-savvy communications chief of the LeT,” says a former IB official. Headley came to India eight times in all, the last in March 2009, after the Mumbai attack, and left India undetected. And the only time he spent behind bars before his Chicago incarceration was, interestingly, due to a complaint of marital discord filed by his wife. Hafiz Saeed helped the couple overcome their troubles but not before Headley spent a week behind bars. In fact, MI5 had been tracking Shah closely but failed to join the dots. Zarar Shah had been spending some quality time doing a Google Earth search of two luxury hotels, including the Taj and Chabad House, and “Indian American naval bases”. He set up a VoIP connection through New Jersey and Austria to camouflage the origin of phone calls from Pakistan, and when the Mumbai assault began, extensively Googled for news coverage of the attack.

The Indian authorities weren’t far behind in falling through the cracks. A specific intelligence input eight days before the attack came from the CIA. They had spotted a Pakistani vessel that looked suspicious. India’s response was typically bureaucratic: the boat was in Pakistani waters. Two more warnings of a terror attack in September and then in October did put security officials on the alert. An elaborate security protocol was put in place, especially at major hotels, but the vigil slackened over a period of time. “The intelligence was specific that it would be an attack from the sea. But after one attempt failed, as one of the boats carrying the terrorists and their weapons sank, officials thought the attack had been averted,” former home secretary G.K. Pillai says. “No one put together the whole picture,” Shivshankar Menon, who was then foreign secretary, told Outlook. “Not the Americans, not the Brits, not the Indians. Only once the shooting started did everyone share and the picture come into focus.”

Headley’s deposition after his arrest in October 2009 stunned interrogators. Pillai suspects the plea bargain that the Americans entered into with Headley was more to protect US interests. There is a possibility that Headley would have blackmailed US authorities had he been threatened with extradition. In Indian jails, Headley could have spilled more beans than the Americans were prepared for. “If the Americans didn’t have anything to cover up, they wouldn’t have entered into a plea bargain with a man who had killed 166 people in India. There should be no doubt that Headley was their man and the cover-up was at the highest level. Otherwise, the director of homeland security would not have pleaded his case with us,” says Pillai. The assurance to India was that Headley would get 200 years behind bars. He escaped with only 35 years. Once Headley was arrested, he continued to sing over the next two weeks, spilling the beans on his role in the Mumbai attack, his connections with the Laskhar, his plans to carry out another attack in Denmark.

As of now, Headley’s confessions, which are making the headlines, are of evidentiary value in Indian courts but that amounts to little, given that Pakistan has been dragging its feet over the 26/11 probe. It is of little value in Pakistani courts and Pakistan has little intention of doing a videoconferencing of their own. Either way, it’s some very controlled questioning that Mumbai police prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam has been allowed to do. It’s for India to ask questions but it’s the FBI and Headley who decide whether they will answer. In the end, the message is clear. For all the talk of cooperation in the fight against terror, the chinks in intelligence show that 26/11 was reduced to India’s little battle with its neighbour as the rest of the world watched from the sidelines. As for getting Headley and other killers at large in Pakistan, those are phantom thoughts that Bollywood directors can dream of.


From Daood To David

The man with one green eye, one brown

Who is Headley?

Half-Pakistani, half-American drug peddler sent to the Af-Pak zones as undercover US Drug Enforcement Agency operative after 9/11. Married four times, changed his name, was a double agent working for the LeT, the Pak army and the ISI.

What did he do?

Underwent terror training at LeT camps in Muridke, raised money for jehad in Kashmir, did eight reconnaissance trips of targets in Mumbai, plotted 26/11 with ISI, Pak army. Did recce in Denmark for attack on newspaper in 2009.

Where is he now?

Arrested in Chicago. Entered plea bargain with US in 2013. Serving 35-yer sentence in the US. Turned approver for India in 2016.

How important are his confessions

Nails role of Pak army, navy and the ISI in the 26/11 attack on Mumbai. Will bolster India’s case that Pakistan is funding, fuelling terror against India. Mention of Ishrat Jehan being an LeT terrorist will embarrass former UPA govt; politically advantageous for Narendra Modi.

Will his confessions hold?

It will nail small players like Abu Jundal, being tried in Mumbai for his role in 26/11. Headley's confession has no evidentiary value in Pakistan’s courts. Pakistan unlikely to act on confessions and hand over terrorists Hafiz Sayed or Zakir Ur Rehman Lakhvi to India.

Slide Show

David Headley used to be an operative for the US Drugs Enforcement Authority. He was sent to Pakistan and Afghanistan to infiltrate drug rings there and keep the Americans posted. But he was also working for the LeT and was instrumental in much of the planning of the 26/11 attack. Now, the Americans hold him in their control. Even his deposition means little. India may ask questions, but the CIA and Headley decide on the answers.

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