By Arul Louis
New York, Nov 25 | For all the anti-terrorism measures adopted by the United States in the aftermath of the devastating 9/11 attack, a Pakistani-American was able to go to India and plot an attack that killed his fellow-countrymen, probably operating right under the nose of the security establishment.
Daood Sayed Gilani, who used the name David Coleman Headley, made five spy missions to India on behalf of the Pakistan government-back terrorist organisation Lashkar-e-Taiba to map out its deadly 26/11 raid in 2008 in which ten Pakistanis killed 165 people, including six Americans, and wounded more than 300 people.
He has admitted to working for both the LeT and the Pakistani spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). He also likely had links to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic state.
The actions of Gilani, who worked for the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) supposedly as an informant, in the US, India, Pakistan and Europe remain a mystery.
The US has admitted to intelligence shortcomings in not being able to connect him in time to the Mumbai attacks, although it has asserted that it had provided India with other information about an impending attack on the city in 2008.
ProPublica, an independent non-profit investigative journalism organisation that looked into the Gilani/Headley case, has asserted that US officials had bungled several tipoffs they received till it was too late.
He was arrested by the US authorities in 2009 only after he became involved in spying for attacks in Denmark against a newspaper that published pictures of Mohammed, the prophet of Islam.
He was ultimately tried in a Chicago federal court for his role in the Mumbai massacre and sentenced to 35 years in prison when he was 52 years old in 2013.
His whereabouts now are not known.
His name did not show up when IANS ran a search of the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) database of prisoners.
Media reports said that Headley was attacked in a federal prison in 2018 and taken to a Chicago hospital.
But according to the European Foundation for South Asian Studies, his lawyer John Theis denied that there was such an attack.
It quoted him as saying, “I am in regular communication with Headley. There is no basis for the reports… Although I cannot disclose his location, he is neither in Chicago nor in a hospital.”
Gilani’s associate, Tahawwur Hussain Rana, was found on the BOP database listed as a current prisoner in the Los Angeles Metropolitan Detention Centre with the release date shown as “unknown.”
The former Pakistani military doctor Rana had recruited Gilani to work for the LeT and he was convicted in 2011 in a Chicago federal court in connection plot against the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.
But Rana, who also has Canadian citizenship, was acquitted of the charges regarding his alleged involvement in the Mumbai attacks. He had visited India and stayed at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, one of the targets of the Pakistanis.
The US has refused to extradite Gilani or Rana to India, although it allowed Indian investigators to interview Gilani.
Gilani is the US-born son of a Pakistani diplomat and an American woman with high society links in Philadelphia. He took on his mother’s maiden surname of Headley with David, an anglicised version of Daood, to hide his Pakistani origins as he carried out his terrorist missions.
After a childhood in Pakistan, he returned to the US and worked for a while with his mother at her restaurant and pub in Philadelphia.
His family is well-connected in Pakistan and his half-brother Danyal Gilani is a Pakistani diplomat based now in France and had been the chairman of the Pakistani Film Censor Board.
Daood Gilani had reportedly been arrested twice on drug smuggling charges and turned an informant for the DEA. His first arrest was in 1988 and the second one in 1997. It is possible that the second arrest was staged to establish his credibility so he could return the next year to Pakistan on a trip paid for by the DEA to gather intelligence for it.
ProPublica reported, “The convicted drug smuggler radicalised and joined Lashkar in Pakistan in the late 1990s while spying on Pakistani heroin traffickers as a paid informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration.”
After the Mumbai attacks that took place while George W. Bush was president, his successor Barack Obama’s Director of National Intelligence James Clapper conducted an “after-action review” of how the Headley case was handled.
His office admitted after the in 2010 that the “government did not connect Headley to terrorism until 2009, after the attacks on Mumbai.”
His office said in a statement, “The review finds that while some information relating to Headley was available to United States government officials prior to the Mumbai attacks, under the policies and procedures that existed at the time, it was not sufficiently established that he was engaged in plotting a terrorist attack in India. Therefore, the United States government did not pass information on Headley to the Indian government prior to the attacks.”
“Had the United States government sufficiently established he was engaged in plotting a terrorist attack in India, the information would have most assuredly been transferred promptly to the Indian government,” it said.
But it also asserted, “The review finds the United States government aggressively and promptly provided the Indian government with strategic warnings regarding Lashkar e-Tayyiba’s threats to several targets in Mumbai between June and September 2008.”
G.K. Pillai, who was India’s Home Secretary, expressed disappointment that Washington did not give India information about the activities of Gilani, who continued to visit India even after the attacks.
Clapper said in 2013 that a US intelligence programme to sweep up vast amounts of communications data had helped stop the plot involving Gilani against the Danish newspaper.
But ProPublica questioned the assertion saying, “The government surveillance only caught up with Headley after the US had been tipped by British intelligence. And even that victory came after seven years in which US intelligence failed to stop Headley as he roamed the globe on missions for Islamic terror networks and Pakistan’s spy agency.”
ProPublica reported that there had been early tipoffs from people about Gilani’s radicalisation.
It said that after the 9/11 attacks in the US 2001, “Investigators questioned him in front of his DEA handlers in New York, and he was cleared.”
A year later the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) received another tip about his terrorist links and yet again in 2005 when one of his wives, who had him arrested on domestic violence allegations, told counter-terrorism investigators about his radical views and training in Pakistan, ProPublica reported.
It repored quoting officials, “Inquiries were conducted, but he was not interviewed or placed on a watch list.”
Another set of tips came in late 2007 and early 2008, when another wife of Gilani told US embassy officials in Islamabad that “Headley was a terrorist and a spy, describing his frequent trips to Mumbai and his stay at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel,” ProPublica reported.
It said that according to officials, the lead was not pursued because they did not think it was specific enough.
ProPublica said that according to court documents the last tip came from a family friend after the Mumbai massacre and a cousin on Gilani who was questioned by the FBI tipped him off.
All the apparent bungling and the Clapper review may have led to some changes in how the US deals with terrorism tipoffs to avoid another 26/11.
Clapper’s office said, “Since the December 2009 attempted terrorist attacks on the United States, the Obama Administration has focused on information sharing reforms – new watchlisting policies and procedures have been enacted, as well as an increased focus on the pursuit of seemingly disparate and unrelated information regarding reports on individuals and their activities.”
(Arul Louis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter at @arulouis)