In Chicago, a Mumbai Attack Plotter Testifies against his Friend

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Tom Gianni / AP

In this courtroom sketch, David Coleman Headley is shown in federal court Monday, May 23, 2011, in Chicago.

David Headley is not on trial in Chicago's Everett McKinley Dirksen federal courthouse. But he is the star of the proceedings, the chief witness against a man who was once his friend. There is nothing ordinary about the case: it kicks off from Headley's confessed and key role as a perpetrator of one horrific terrorist attack — the three-day November 2008 assault on Mumbai — and details his part in planning another incident in Denmark, all in the quest to convict a former boarding school classmate, in part, for abetting Headley's own criminal actions.

For someone so tall and apparently sturdy, Headley, 50, speaks in a surprisingly soft voice, so soft that at several points during his testimony the court clerk and attorneys have asked him to speak up. But the testimony, when it is audible or read out loud from exhibits, is chilling, sending tremors halfway around the world and roiling the already unfriendly relations of nuclear-armed neighbors India and Pakistan.

Headley says he cased Mumbai for the Army of the Righteous — Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) — the banned Pakistani extremist group accused of plotting the attack on India's financial capital. Under oath, he said that Pakistan's spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), provided financial and military guidance for Lashkar and other militant groups. "I assumed these groups were under the same umbrella," Headley said in court, identifying at least one ISI operative as an overseer of the Mumbai plot.

The original assault plan had focused on Mumbai's central train station, a Jewish community center that Headley believed was an outlet for Israel's secret service, a popular tourist cafe, a movie house, a school, a police station, a hospital and the landmark Taj Mahal Palace and Tower hotel. Lashkar leaders initially did not put Mumbai's upscale Oberoi Trident hotel on its list. But on a whim, Headley decided to take video and photographs of it and the hotel ultimately wound up on a target. Of the 160 people killed in the three-day Mumbai massacre, 32 were staff and guests at the Oberoi.

On his second day of testimony, Headley said that one of his ISI handlers, identified as "Major Iqbal," expressed disappointment that Mumbai's airport was not included among the targets. As for the attack on Mumbai's Jewish community center, Chabad House, the operative allegedly told Headley it "would be revenge" for Israeli actions against Palestinians.

On the day the Mumbai attacks began, Headley was in Lahore, Pakistan, and received a text message that read: "Turn on the television." As he watched the initial reports, Headley recalls thinking, "I was pleased." By December 2008, he'd returned to the U.S. and said that he detailed to an alleged co-conspirator how the Mumbai attacks transpired, declaring, "We're even with India." That alleged co-plotter was Tahawwur Hussain Rana, 50, the man now on trial in Chicago, who looked blankly into the jury box as his former friend testified against him. In exchange for his cooperation with the U.S. government, Headley, who has confessed to his participation in the Mumbai and Danish plots, will not be extradited to India, Pakistan or Denmark for trial; federal prosecutors will also not seek the death penalty against him when he is sentenced. As for Rana, if he is convicted of conspiring to help Headley and other planners of terrorist attacks in Mumbai and Copenhagen, he could be sentenced to life in prison.

Rana first met Headley at a Pakistani military boarding school. At that time, Headley was called Daood Sayed Gilani, a transplant to Pakistan from his birthplace in Washington D.C., his father a Pakistani diplomat and his mother the daughter of a prominent American football player. It was the first of his many identities, which would shift through the years as he chose to collaborate with shadowy figures of his American and Pakistani existences.

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