Now that David Coleman Headley of the ChIcago cell of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) has pleaded guilty to the charges against him regarding the Mumbai 26/11 terrorist strikes and the planned attempt to attack the offices of a Danish paper, which published cartoons of Prophet Mohammad in 2005, as part of a plea bargain with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), it is settled that he will not be extradited to India and that India will not be allowed to interrogate to him.
As a result of the plea bargain, India no longer has any locus standi in the eyes of the US law in the case. All one can hope for is that the FBI will continue to share with India whatever additional information it gets from him till he is sentenced and starts his penalty. Till then, the FBI can continue interrogating him. One can reasonably expect that the FBI will share with India whatever additional details they get from him so long as those details do not implicate Pakistan. The FBI's first priority is to have the LET held accountable for the Mumbai strikes due to its emergence as a global jihadi organisation on par with Al Qaeda. Its second priority is to see that Pakistan is not held accountable and to conceal from India any information which links the State of Pakistan with Headley.
What next? What are the options before India? It has been a shrewd move on the part of the Home Ministry of the Government of India to have sought access to the former wife of Headley. According to media reports, she had also visited India--sometimes with him, sometimes separately. The information at her disposal will be relevant to the case. It is doubtful whether the FBI will respond positively to the request of the Govt. of India because of a fear that she might talk to the Indian interrogators about the role of Pakistan in the terrorist attack and the links of Headley with the Inter-Services I(ntelligence (ISI). If the FBI assists us to have access to his wife, it could help in diluting some of the doubts in the minds of large sections of the India public about its bona fides in the case. If the FBI drags its feet, one's suspicions regarding the FBI's attempt to protect the Pakistani State from the legal consequences of 26/11 will be strengthened.
There is one other important option available to India-- that is, to seek access to Tahawwur Hussain Rana, the co-conspirator against whom a separate case has been filed. He is equally knowledgeable about the 26/11 terrorist strikes. Whereas Headley was not in India immediately before the strikes, Rana was. According to the second report against Rana filed by the FBI in the court, he was in India in the third week of November, 2008. He flew from Mumbai to Dubai on a flight of the Emirates Airlines on November 21, 2008. He flew from Dubai to China by the same Airlines on November, 24, 2008, and from there returned to Chicago via Seoul on November 26, 2008, by the Asiana Airlines. Rana had admitted to the FBI that during his visit to Dubai from November 21 to 24, 2008, he met Maj. (retd) Abdur Rehman Hashim Syed alias Pasha who was in touch with Ilyas Kashmiri on behalf of Headley and that he came to know from Pasha about the impending terrorist attacks by the LET in Mumbai. It is clear from the papers filed by the FBI in the court that Rana personally knew Maj (retd) Abdur Rehman of the 313 Brigade and an unidentified office-bearer of the LET. It is also clear that Rana was fully aware at least on September 7, 2009, if not earlier, of the LET's plans for future attacks on four targets in India. The FBI has produced in court extracts from a clandestinely recorded conversation between Headley and Rana in a car regarding future attacks in India.
The interrogation of Rana by the Indian investigators is thus as important as the interrogation of Headley. Whereas Headley has no relatives in India, Rana reportedly has relatives in India through his wife's family. If India can have independent access to him, it can request his Indian relatives to persuade him to talk to us. Normally, certain constraints which operated in the case of Headley should not operate in the case of Rana. Firstly, Headley is an Americam citizen whereas Rana is a Canadian citizen resident in Chicago. Secondly, at least since 1998, Headley was an agent of the US, but there has been no information to indicate any links between Rana and the US intelligence. Fears of likely exposure of his links with the US intelligence should not operate.
India should now press the FBI for independent access to Rana. The FBI may respond in one of the following ways:
- Agree to the access. This will restore the damaged Indian confidence in the bona fides of the FBI; or
- Drag its feet by claiming that since an indictment has already been filed against him, a foreign investigation agency cannot be allowed to question him independently ;or
- Ask the Canadian intelligence to object to the Indian request.
Whatever be the ultimate response of the FBI to our request to have access to Rana, our public and leaders will know to what extent the Obama Administration is sincere in its professed desire to co-operate with India in counter-terrorism. One notices the Obama Administration following exactly the same stance as the Bill Clinton Administration did after the serial explosions in Mumbai in March 1993-- namely, extend forensic co-operation to India and share intelligence about the perpetrators, but at the same time protect the State of Pakistan from the legal consequences of its involvement in terrorism in India.
Compare the feet-dragging by the Obama Administration with the refreshing attitude of the George Bush Administration after the terrorist attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul in July 2008. It was reported that the Bush Administration took the initiative in sharing with India whatever intelligence it was able to gather about the role of the State of Pakistan in the attack.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.