David Headley: a picture of casual self-assuredness

Chicago, Jan 25 (IANS) In his light grey prison issue tracksuit and sneakers, David Coleman Headley looked like an elderly man back from his morning jog. An air of casual self-assuredness that had characterized his nearly week-long testimony in May, 2011, against his childhood friend Tahawwur Hussain Rana, was on display yet again as a 35-year-long sentence was handed down to him.

With no shackles in his ankles the 52-year-old six feet plus key Mumbai terror plotter stood with his hands behind his back and legs apart. He betrayed no particular emotion at the fact that his unfettered existence was effectively over. By the time he comes out of prison he will be nearly 80 years old since he is not entitled to federal parole and is required to serve 85 percent of his sentence.

Asked why unlike Rana, who was sentenced to 14 years on Jan 17, Headley had no shackles in his ankles in the courtroom, an official explained, "That is the determination made by the US marshals."

From India's perspective the sentence may seem relatively light. However, the next nearly 30 years that he will have to be in prison coupled with a plea bargain deal that mandates him to basically do whatever the government directs him to do in perpetuity is way tougher than it might seem on paper. What New Delhi will have to bear in mind is that at any time the US government can rescind his plea bargain if it determines that Headley is deliberately holding back information because he no longer has any incentive of a reduced sentence after the pronouncement. He waved his right to appeal soon after his arrest on Oct 3, 2009.

Gary Shapiro, acting US attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, told the local Hi India newspaper that plea bargain deals are essentially for life. It means that Headley will have to cooperate in the best possible way throughout his incarceration. Of course, the value of any information or intelligence he provides will naturally diminish over time and a stage will be reached when he will no longer be useful as a source of actionable intelligence.

The most striking aspect of the points made before Headley's sentencing was the great and repeated emphasis that both the prosecution and the defense put on the extent and quality of his cooperation. His attorney John Theis, in requesting for a lighter sentence, said the information that Headley provided was "so profound that it calls for extraordinary downward departure."

He also said because of the information provided by Headley barely 30 minutes after his arrest, lives were saved not just in India and the United States but elsewhere in the world.

For its part even the defense described Headley's case as "uniquely aggravating" and "uniquely mitigating" and frequently pointed out his unprecedented cooperation. It is perhaps for the first time in a major case of global terrorism that one of the key players chose to cooperate without any coercion and so immediately after his arrest.

According to Hi India, Headley was arrested only in connection with the plot for planning to carry out a spectacular attack on the Danish newspaper Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten for its 2005 publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed which many Muslims found offensive. The information about his involvement in the Mumbai attacks came solely from him. It was only after his arrest that the investigators became aware of his involvement in the Mumbai terror attacks as disclosed by him.

The cynical explanation of his extraordinary cooperation is that he was merely trying to save his skin by volunteering so much, so easily. Some of the interrogation videos, which were played during his testimony, showed a man almost desperate to cooperate. So much so that at one point he sounded upset that the federal investigators were not fully utilizing his information to make major arrests. To many Headley's eagerness to cooperate and help effect major arrests looked to be part of a strategy to mitigate his own complicity.

Nothing highlighted his extraordinary push to cooperate more than when it came to the whereabouts of Ilyas Kashmiri, the Al Qaeda/Harkat ul Jihad al Islami leader Ilyas Kashmiri who was killed June 3, 2011, during a drone strike on an orchard in South Waziristan. Regarded as one of the fiercest commanders, Kashmiri was one of the seven people to have been charged them with involvement in both the Mumbai case as well as the abortive attack on the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten which published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed offensive to Muslims in September, 2005.

Headley had even proposed to the investigators that they should send him back to Pakistan with an ornate sword embedded with a locator chip which he could gift Kashmiri. The US then could use the signal from the chip to locate and target him.

The government's position paper on his sentencing, while referring to his extraordinary cooperation, said, "Headley similarly provided extensive detail about Ilyas Kashmiri and his network." When asked to elaborate on the kind of information that Headley provided about Kashmiri, Shapiro said it was classified and he could not share it. This correspondent had speculated in September, 2011 that it was possible that Headley's information, in fact, led to tracking down Kashmiri and killing him the drone strike. There was no confirmation of this forthcoming from any quarter.

It has baffled many why a man once so deeply immersed in an extreme version of Islam known as Salafism can change so radically as to seriously undermine its other adherents by exposing them. Salafi adherents treat the companions of the Prophet Mohammed and the two immediate generations of Muslims that followed as their role model. Headley said the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT) believes being a Salafi "is a prerequisite to jihad".

One plausible explanation could be what even Judge Harry Leinenweber zeroed in on. He pointed out how Headley had a history of being arrested and then finding his way out of it by cooperating with the authorities. He was referring to Headley's two arrests in the past in connection with narcotics smuggling and how he managed to come out of prison on fairly positive terms in exchange for cooperation.

This time around too, despite the enormity of his crimes, Headley did manage to compel the prosecution to take the death sentence as well as extradition to India off the table. So to that extent he did get his way but the judge steadfastly refused to bite the bait and offer him any serious downward departure in his sentence.

"Mr. Headley is a terrorist," the judge said, adding, "There is little question that life imprisonment would be an appropriate punishment for Headley's incredibly serious crimes but for the significant value provided by his immediate and extensive cooperation." In fact, Judge Leinenweber, in his prelude to the sentencing, seemed to imply that without the mitigating circumstances arising out of Hedaley's cooperation with the US government the death sentence would have been the easiest option.

In choosing to give him the top end of the reduced sentence requested by the government the judge showed that the he did not believe Headley was capable of a change of heart. "I don't have any faith in Mr. Headley when he says he is a changed person and believes in the American way of life. The sentence I impose, I'm hopeful it will keep Mr Headley under lock and key for the rest of his natural life," he said.

The judge was referring to a letter Headley wrote about three weeks ago where, while pleading for clemency, he had said he had had the time to reflect and had come to believe in the American way of life. He had also said he read the scriptures again and found that their content was misrepresented by those who recruited him.

The sentence provided a powerful denouement to one of the more unusual careers in global terrorism, of a man of obvious intelligence choosing relatively late in life to pursue jihadi objectives through unabashedly violent means. What began as childhood anger at his school being bombed during the 1971 India-Pakistan war eventually led Headley, once known as Daood Gilani, to be trained by the virulently anti-India terrorist group LeT. Between February, 2002 and December, 2003 Headley underwent a total of over eight months of LeT training on the merits of waging jihad, use of weapons and grenades, close combat tactics, survival skills and counter-surveillance.

He was instructed in by the LeT in late 2005 to conduct surveillance in India. As part of the mission he changed his name from Daood Gilani to David Coleman Headley in February, 2006 for the purposes of suspicion free travels to India. Between September, 2006 and July 2008, he visited India five times, each time to consolidate a detailed surveillance map of targets in Mumbai which were attacked by ten heavily armed terrorists on November 26, 2008.

(Mayank Chhaya can be contacted at m@mayankchhaya.net)

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