05 April 2010 International EXCLUSIVE
david headley 26/11 intelligence

The Asset Managers

Headley’s confessions prove a Pak role. But did the US know of 26/11 beforehand?
The Asset Managers
Courtesy CNN
The Asset Managers

What Headley Has Told the Americans

  • Out of the four Pakistani handlers involved in 26/11, identified as A, B, C and D in the court documents relating to Headley’s arrest, three are serving Pakistani army officials—Colonel Shah, Major Sameer and Major Iqbal.
  • Headley has told US investigators that he received training in combat and tactical operations, counter-surveillance methods and weapons-handling from the Lashkar-e-Toiba in Pakistan between 2002-06.
  • Headley has said he carried out a survey of the landing points on the Mumbai coast and collected the GPS coordinates that would be used by Kasab & co to land from the sea for the assault on targets in Mumbai.
  • Headley conducted reconnaissance of all the key targets so that the terrorists could be given location-specific training. His inputs provided intelligence to the LeT, enabling them to prepare a concise attack plan.
  • Intelligence sources say Headley has also revealed that he developed links with Al Qaeda through HuJI operative Ilyas Kashmiri, a former Pakistani army commando, in meetings in Waziristan in 2009.


For 10 years, Daood Sayed Gilani existed only in the shadows, quietly travelling between India, Pakistan and the United States, building his links with the terror outfit Lashkar-e-Toiba. Ideally, Gilani should have shown up on the radar of the Indian or US intelligence communities during his extensive tours in India. That didn’t happen because on February 16, 2006, Gilani virtually ceased to exist. He was now officially David Coleman Headley.

Arrested on October 3 last year, Headley’s journey and his central role in the planning of the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai had initially confounded Indian intelligence. But his plea bargain now in the North district court of Illinois and subsequent confessions have helped Indian investigators piece together a key element of the 26/11 puzzle, adding further credence to the suspicion that it was conducted with the help of the Pakistani intelligence establishment.

The Taj Mahal Hotel ablaze during 26/11

While the broad contours of Headley’s confessions have been made public, US intelligence has also shared some sensitive material with their Indian counterparts through official channels, which has proved to be a breakthrough in the 26/11 probe. Some of the key information the US has shared with India is:

  • Headley has accepted he had four Pakistani handlers. While one has been identified as retired army officer Major Abdul Rahman Hashim Sayeed, the identity of the others had not been disclosed. Indian investigators told Outlook that Headley has confessed that the other three were serving Pakistani army officers. Headley has identified them as Major Iqbal, Major Sameer and Colonel Shah. While the names could be pseudonyms, it has confirmed that the handlers were serving army officials. This is the first evidence of official Pakistani involvement in the 26/11 attacks. In fact, American prosecutors refer to the handlers as “A, B, C and D”. The person identified as ‘A’ is believed to be Colonel Shah of the Pakistan army.
  • Headley has also accepted his role in the 26/11 terror strike and has confirmed that he conducted extensive surveillance of the targets. Having attended three LeT training capsules between 2002-06, Headley used his extensive tactical military knowledge to brief the 10 terrorists who attacked Mumbai. He had also visited the Taj Mahal and Trident hotels and mapped both of them from a tactical point of view. His maps and videos helped the LeT in training the terrorists who knew precise locations of hotel rooms, possible entry and exit points that could be used by Indian security forces to launch a counter-offensive and also helped identify the best areas in the hotels where explosives could be detonated to cause maximum casualties and damage.
  • The landing points and the Mumbai coastline was also surveyed by Headley. Armed with a GPS, Headley hired a boat in the summer of 2008 and, after sailing along the Mumbai coast, fed in the coordinates that would help the terrorists to come ashore. Headley ruled out three landing points and finally settled on the area next to Badhwar Park for the terrorists to come into Mumbai and then spread out. The coordinates supplied by Headley helped the terrorists landing  from the sea pinpoint the two hotels, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and Nariman House where the Jewish organisation, Chabad, had its headquarters. Armed with the coordinates,  the terrorists knew exactly where to head for after they landed at Badhwar Park.
  • Headley also worked with two key HuJI and LeT operatives—Ilyas Kashmiri and Zaki-ur-Rahman ‘Lakhvi’, both former Pakistani army commandos.  Lakhvi became the chief of operations for the LeT and put the final plan together. He also used the extensive footage and tactical details Headley had provided to train the assault team. After the 26/11 attack, Headley met up with Kashmiri again in the summer of 2009 in Waziristan to plan further attacks.
  • Headley and his handlers were planning another terrorist strike in India, possibly in the latter part of 2009. While popular belief is that the Pune blasts had a Headley hand, Indian investigators have ruled this out. However, the new attack could have been deferred by the LeT in the aftermath of Headley’s arrest.

For Indian intelligence, Headley’s revelations are in many ways a game-changer. This is the first evidence of the spreading global reach of the LeT, which now includes terrorists from western backgrounds using US travel documents. Indian visa rules are very specific that any person of Pakistani origin has to be checked out thoroughly before a visa is granted to visit India.

Lakhvi put 26/11 together using the extensive videos/tactical details provided by Headley.

In Headley’s case, he managed to hide the fact that his father was a Pakistani in the documents submitted to the Indian consulate in Chicago. No surprise then that Headley was granted a multiple-entry business visa enabling him to travel to India several times between 2006-08. What now worries security officials is the possibility of more Americans or Britishers (with or without Pakistani links) visiting India who could be part of the LeT’s global terror network.

However, even with all this shared information, there has been a rift between Indian intelligence and their US counterparts. While India had granted FBI officials full access to Ajmal Amir Kasab, the lone terrorist caught alive in the 26/11 attack, no such access was given to an Indian security team that travelled to the US earlier this year.

This has raised doubts on whether Headley had also been working for the Americans in some covert capacity before he turned rogue. Indian officials feel that Headley’s name-change was facilitated by US intelligence to help him work with the LeT. “The Americans were probably running Headley as their asset to gather more information about the LeT and its leadership without realising that he had ‘turned’,” a senior Indian security official told Outlook.

Intelligence officials also point out that Headley had lied to the authorities that his father’s name was “William Headley”. The son of a Pakistani diplomat, Sayyid Salim Gilani, Headley had wiped clean his Pakistani links which, say Indian intelligence officials, could have only been done with the help of the Americans. The fact that Headley also managed to return to Pakistan after each visit to India to brief his handlers has also caused consternation in Indian security circles. This is another indication of the Americans probably helping Headley in a bid to infiltrate the LeT’s ranks.

Five Questions India Wants To Ask Headley

  • Are there more terror accomplices of western origin with American or British passports/travel documents working with the Lashkar-e-Toiba or any other homegrown terror outfit in India?
  • Is the LeT planning another attack against India based on the intelligence gathered by Headley during his trips in India? If so, what are the targets?
  • Who are the serving or retired Pakistani officers that Headley dealt with during his visits to Pakistan? What role do they play within the LeT and are they still active?
  • Did Headley work with terror cells in India during his stay here and if so, where are they located and what was the nature of their interface?
  • What are the names of the LeT members who planned the 26/11 assault on Mumbai, and also details of other actionable intelligence?

But the one question which has the Indian security establishment most worried is whether US intelligence knew beforehand about the 26/11 attack. “The Americans did share a few intercepts and intelligence that an attack was coming. But did they know what Headley knew?” an official with the ministry of home affairs asks. Could it be that they had not informed the Indian intelligence agencies in detail so as to save their own man?

Ajmal Kasab from the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminal video footage during 26/11

The National Investigation Agency (NIA), set up after 26/11, conducted a meticulous investigation based on the inputs given by the Americans. They have unearthed details of Headley’s travels in India and also gathered evidence that corroborates the US investigation. However, with the American authorities refusing to share the tapes of Headley’s communications with his Pakistani handlers prior to his arrest—which had been intercepted by the US National Security Agency—the Indian security establishment has been left in a disadvantaged position. “We could have matched them with the voice samples intercepts we have from the 26/11 attack. That would have clinched the case for us,” a security official noted.

In fact, Colonel Shah (or handler “A”) is believed to be one of the four Pakistanis who was calling in tactical instructions to the terrorists during the Mumbai assault. Incidentally, Headley has confessed that the terrorists had been instructed to “fight to the death” and had “remained in telephonic contact with LeT Member A during the attacks”.

While India will continue to use all diplomatic and legal channels available to get access to Headley, security officials note with growing concern the growing evidence of Headley’s links with Al Qaeda through the LeT. This has confirmed a long-standing suspicion within the Indian intelligence community that the LeT and Al Qaeda share a strategic and seamless relationship, waiting to strike again when the time is right.

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