A March 18, 2010, courtroom drawing shows David Coleman Headley facing US district court judge Harry Leinenweber in a Chicago court. (AFP)
Chicago, Jan. 24 (AP): American David Coleman Headley was sentenced today to 35 years in prison for the key role he played in the 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai, leaving open the possibility that he one day could go free.
Headley’s meticulous scouting missions facilitated the assault by 10 gunmen from the Lashkar-e-Toiba, which killed 164 people — including children.
“I don’t have any faith in Headley when he says he’s a changed person and believes in the American way of life,” said US district judge Harry Leinenweber in imposing the sentence, which was in the range of what prosecutors had requested for Headley’s widespread cooperation.
The maximum sentence Headley, 52, faced today was life in prison. He agreed to cooperate with US authorities and plead guilty in 2010 to 12 counts to avoid what would have been his maximum sentence: death. He also secured a promise not to be extradited to India.
Last year, India secretly hanged the lone surviving gunman, Mohammed Ajmal Kasab.
Citing what they described as valuable intelligence Headley provided authorities about terrorist networks since his arrest, prosecutors had asked for a relatively lenient sentence of between 30 and 35 years.
The charges included conspiracy to aid the Lashkar-e-Toiba, that mounted the attacks, as well as conspiracy to commit murder in India and aiding and abetting in the murder of six Americans.
Headley, a small-time drug dealer-turned-terrorist plotter, seemed to leap at the chance to spill secrets following his 2009 arrest and continued providing details even after the US government agreed not to seek the death penalty in exchange for his cooperation.
He never pulled a trigger in the attack, but he conducted meticulous scouting missions — videotaping and mapping targets — so the attackers who had never been to Mumbai adeptly found their way around.
“What he did was unfathomable,” said James Kreindler, an attorney for relatives of US victims. “Imagine what is going through a person’s mind who is videotaping these places knowing what will happen there later.”
In big cases where suspects cooperate, prosecutors often ask for leniency. It’s both a reward and a message to future suspects that they, too, could get a break if they spill their secrets. Still, for a reviled figure like Headley to get a sentence less than sentences routinely given to convicted drug traffickers or child pornographers could prompt criticism.
Prosecutors seemed to anticipate that in their filing, saying: “Determining the appropriate sentence for David Headley requires consideration of uniquely aggravating and uniquely mitigating factors.”
Prosecutors have recounted only in broad terms how Headley has shed light on the leadership, structure and possible targets of Lashkar-e-Toiba, which was believed to have ISI ties . Headley has said his ISI contact was a “Major Iqbal”, who was named in the indictment that charged Headley.
Seth Jones, a RAND Corp. political scientist, agreed that Headley must have provided useful insight for US intelligence, especially about how Pakistani intelligence agents allegedly reach out to people like Headley.
“From my perspective, this was pretty detailed information about one ISI contact (Headley) with one handler, Iqbal,” Jones said. But he added Pakistani intelligence would have been careful not to reveal too much to Headley, saying, “They didn’t trust him either.”