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26/11: What US knew & didn't tell

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By K.P. NAYAR
  • Published 17.10.10
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Obama

Washington, Oct. 16: The Mumbai leg of President Barack Obama’s visit next month, already entangled in a web of intractable issues, has been further complicated by a revelation here that three years before the November 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai, US officials knew that co-conspirator David Coleman Headley was undergoing training with the Lashkar-e-Toiba, which plotted the attack.

In September 2005, officers of no less than New York’s joint terrorism task force investigated a tip-off from Headley’s American wife, who showed them audio cassettes and described his emails and phone conversations with those in Pakistan who want to create mayhem in India.

The new details, product of an investigation by ProPublica, an independent non-governmental organisation which “focuses exclusively on truly important stories with moral force”, suggest that the repeated warnings from the US to India of an attack on Mumbai were prompted by what they knew and did not share with New Delhi at that stage about Headley.

It is unlikely that India would have given a visa to Headley for his repeated visits to Mumbai to scout Lashkar targets if his photographs had been shared with India to be put on an immigration blacklist.

“The warnings included details such as a threat to the iconic Taj Mahal hotel, which became a target,” the investigation by ProPublica said. It raised the question “whether a different response to the tip about Headley might have averted the Mumbai attacks”.

The American media is already being deluged during the weekend by the revelations, not because any tears are being shed here for Mumbai but because several US citizens were killed in the 2008 terror attacks in the city.

The expose is being viewed by the Obama administration to be damaging enough for their President’s coming visit. The US ambassador to India, Timothy Roemer, took the unusual step of issuing a weekend statement that “we are looking into published reports about possible information related to David Headley that goes back before the Mumbai attacks and how such information may have been handled”.

Roemer’s pre-emptive statement to control potential damage before the revelations spread in India said: “When we have determined exactly what transpired, we will be in a position to speak to the specific claims made in the... media reports.”

The ambassador recalled: “We have also provided Indian authorities with access to Headley in US custody so that the Government of India could put questions directly to him.”

What Roemer did not address at this stage was whether the Indians were ever told about the critical role played by Headley’s wife in tracing her husband’s links with Lashkar or whether any access to her was provided to Indian investigators.

The fear here is that such information may reveal that the US did not do all that it could have done to prevent the attack on Mumbai.

It has been officially acknowledged here after Headley’s arrest that he was an informant for the US drug enforcement administration in the 1990s. It is believed that he later became a double agent.

Possibly because of fears that his intelligence connections with the US government would be exposed, Headley was not detained until almost a year after the attack on Mumbai. He was detained only after it became known to British intelligence that he was plotting similar attacks with al Qaida in Europe.

The latest Headley saga revealed by ProPublica begins on August 25, 2005, when the Lashkar conspirator’s wife demanded a divorce after learning that he had another wife and children in Pakistan.

“They argued... and she filed an assault complaint alleging that he ‘struck her several times in the face’,” according to new accounts.

“She phoned a tip line of the Joint Terrorism Task Force in New York, an FBI-led, multi-agency unit with hundreds of investigators. Her tip was assigned an FBI lead number under guidelines developed after the September 11 attacks.”

The New York police department confirmed that on August 31, 2005, Headley, still going by his original Pakistani name of Daood Gilani, was arrested on the wife’s complaint for alleged misdemeanour and assault, but was never prosecuted for reasons that can only be speculated on.

“Not long after the arrest, task force investigators met three times with his wife. In addition to a detailed account of his activity with Lashkar, she showed them audio cassettes and ideological material and described his emails and calls from Pakistan and to individuals whom she thought to be extremists,” the new revelations said.ProPublica was a recipient of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. It is led by Paul Steiger, the renowned former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, and its team includes credible top American investigative reporters.