Curious case of David Headley: Double-agent or terrorist

NEW DELHI: “It’s a situation almost out of one of John le Carre’s espionage novels,” a senior Indian official said, commenting on the status of David Coleman Headley, born Daood Gilani, charged by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation of involvement in the deadly 26/11 Mumbai attacks. The question of who exactly Headley is, whether a terrorist or a double agent working under cover for an American agency turned ‘rogue’ to align with terrorist groups, has Indian parliamentarians incensed and the government unsure of how to respond.

“We are getting good cooperation” on the Headley case from the US government, Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao said. But she declined to answer questions on Headley’s status, whether a double agent or not, saying it would be “unprofessional” to disclose details of the cooperation between agencies of the two governments while the probe was on.

Meanwhile, reports have surfaced that Headley’s visa application papers, and those of his alleged associate Tahawwur Rana, have gone missing from the Indian Consulate’s offices in Chicago, from where both Headley and Rana were issued Indian visas, prompting Rao to seek details from the Consul General Ashok Attri. Foreign Ministry spokesman Vishnu Prakash said, “It would not be accurate to conclude that these visa applications are missing,” while Shashi Tharoor, India’s Minister of State for External Affairs, told reporters at Parliament House on Thursday that the visa application papers of Rana, the Pak-born Canadian, had been found.

“Rana’s papers have been found and Headley’s are being traced,” Tharoor said, adding to the speculation that Headley is a double agent turned rogue whom the United States government, embarrassed at the turn of events, wants to keep away from Indian investigators to prevent further damaging disclosures about how its agencies function.

“The activities of the two (Headley and Rana) are a cause of concern to India,” Rao said. “Obviously, we would want to have access to these individuals and information being shared (between Indian and US intelligence agencies),” Rao said, adding that India and the US agencies were in close touch “24x7” and attached top priority to unraveling the conspiracy involving Headley.

Adding to the mystery according to Stratfor, (Strategic Forecasting Group) which claims to be the world’s leading online resource of geopolitical intelligence, the extensive use of terrorist tradecraft by Headley makes it evident that he “was not merely a low-level cannon fodder-type operative.”

The December 7 indictment of Headley, charged with scouting targets for the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack, shows that he reportedly attended Lashkar-e-Taeba training camps in Pakistan in February and August of 2002 and in April, August and December of 2003.

“This indicates that Headley progressed far beyond basic militant training, and it is likely that he was taught during his later training sessions the tradecraft required to conduct pre-operational surveillance for terrorist attacks and to participate in the operational planning for such attacks,” the Stratfor report says.

After his arrest in Chicago in October, followed by an intensive probe in the US, India and Pakistan, the FBI charge sheet said Headley delivered, placed, discharged and detonated explosives and other lethal devices in, into, and against places of public use in India. While the FBI indicted the Pakistan-born American Headley on six counts, senior FBI officials visiting India conferred with officials in the National Investigation Agency to probe his contacts and movements in the run-up to the chilling attacks that killed 168 people, including six Americans, last year.

Stratfor report sattes if Head-ley were reporting to the FBI, it could also explain the very specific warnings that the US government gave to the government of India about plans to attack hotels in Mumbai in September 2008, two months before the deadly attacks.

The Indian government has chosen not to respond to queries beyond saying the investigations are ongoing. Tharoor, asked if Headley was a double agent, tried dismissing the suggestion by saying he did not “remember when I last read a (spy) novel.”