Once again, 26/11 Mumbai Terror Attack is in news rubbing salt in the wounds of those who lost their kin or were inflicted with critical injuries and consequent disability or scar for life consequent to the gory incident. David Coleman Headly, one of the key plotters of the Mumbai terror attack has divulged with the details of the direct involvement of Pakistan’s military intelligence establishment during a deposition via a video link from the United States’ from an undisclosed location. Currently, he is serving 35 years of rigorous imprisonment on terror charges including 26/11 attacks on Mumbai and lodged in a Chicago prison. His disclosures once again raise questions on the unholy nexus between Pakistan’s military and ISI with the terror outfits like Lashkar-e Taiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and such other Islamic militant organisations based in Pakistan.
Headly is a US national of Pakistani-American descent whose original name was Daood Gilani. During his operation in the Indian sub-continent, he had worked for LeT (by his own admission too) after getting influenced by the Lashkar Founder and Chief Hafiz Saeed during 2002. During his testimony before the special judge in a court of the Metropolitan Mumbai, he spoke at length about the direct involvement of Pakistani military-intelligence wing that closely worked with the LeT Chief Hafiz Saeed and his outfit in planning and execution of the Mumbai attacks.
To recap the ill-fated events of 2008, 10 members of LeT carried out a series of 12 coordinated bombing and shooting attacks starting from 26th November across the Mumbai. These attacks and counter operations lasted for almost four days till the terrorists were finally liquidated by the Indian security forces with one caught alive too. 166 people were reported to have been killed and over 300 injured during the spree of violence which invited widespread global condemnation. The lone survivor terrorist Ajmal Kasab had later during interrogation confessed about the country of his and other killed terrorists’ origin and their connection with the LeT - a fact which Pakistan constantly denied for long. Under the constant persuasion and international pressure, some cosmetic measures were taken by Pakistan including the arrest of one of the crucial masterminds of the attacks, Zaki ur Rehman Lakhvi. Case against him, however, kept lingering on for long without substantial progress and he was finally granted bail in 2015 citing the lack of sufficient evidence.
In fact, 26/11 was not the only terror attack on Mumbai, instead it has a long history of such attacks. As back as March 1993, coordinated bomb explosions led to the killing of some 257 and injuring about 700 people. The mastermind of these attacks was allegedly the underworld Don Dawood Abraham who later took shelter in Pakistan and ever since created a large empire running into hundreds of crores mainly on account of illegal drug, extortion and arms trade. Besides, these two much talked about attacks, there have been several other terror incidents during the last two decades causing significant loss to to life and property of Mumbaikers.
Salient Points of Headley’s Deposition
Mumbai police had originally identified 37 suspects including two army officers for their alleged role in 26/11 attacks and most of them are believed to be Pakistani nationals. Later two suspects were arrested and prosecuted in the United States in 2009 for their alleged role in many terrorist incidents including the Mumbai attacks of 2008. One of these suspects was David Headly who was found to have made several sorties to India before the said attacks and collected crucial video and GPS information including the recce of spots identified for attack on the behest of the key conspirators.
Reportedly, the key admissions made by Headly during the current video testimony from his undisclosed location in US are as under:
Headly was in regular contact with the ISI agents Major Ali and Major Iqbal (could be pseudonyms) and it was the latter who had suggested Headly’s suitability for intelligence work in India.
There were two unsuccessful attempts too by the same group of terrorists before 26/11. On one occasion on 8th September, the boat carrying them reportedly crashed into the rocks in the sea leading to the loss of weapons and explosives but the terrorists survived. Another attempt in October 2008 too had to be abandoned.
Headly visited India at least eight times from 2006 to 2008 and barring one trip to Delhi, all trips were made to Mumbai. Another visit to Delhi was made in March 2009 after the Mumbai attacks.
Headly admitted that he had met LeT founder and spiritual leader Hafiz Saeed and head of military wing Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi. In 2003, he expressed desire to fight the Indian Army in Kashmir but was told by LeT mentor Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi that he was too old to fight and he would instead be used for ‘something else’.
He admitted that he was a true follower of LeT and Saeed’s speeches motivated him to join Lashkar, having undergone necessary training in camps in 2002;
That ISI gives financial, military and moral support to LeT, JeM and Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) who in turn work closely with Pak’s intelligence agency;
That Let, JeM, HM and Hazrat-ul-Mujahideen (MuM) worked under the united Jihad Council umbrella and were operating from the Pakistan soil with the objective of launching attacks against India;
That ISI wanted Headley to recruit officers from the Indian military as spies to which he had agreed;
That he saw Maulana Masood Azhar in 2003 at a LeT gathering where the latter was a guest speaker and gave a lecture on jihad;
That when Headley suggested challenging US government’s decision to ban LeT, Lakhvi told him that the issue needed to be discussed with the ISI;
That Headley had received cash in Indian and foreign currency from the ISI handler and LeT operatives on various occasions during his recce missions in India from 2006 to 2008.
The above depositions could easily be explained as explosive revelations on the role of Pakistani military and ISI where Headley underlined how the ISI was joined at the hip not only with LeT but also the JeT which is also an accused of the recent attacks on the Pathankot airbase. In a way, these revelations also vindicate India’s stand against Pakistan’s use of terrorism as a covert state policy. The Indian agencies have claimed for long that Saeed has a special relationship with the Pakistani military which treats him as a strategic asset and that the LeT camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir have often been located in close proximity of army establishments.
Headley’s deposition before the Mumbai Court is significant as Hafiz Saeed continue to deny his hands in Mumbai attacks of 2008 despite his open support to militants’ strikes and violence against India. Only recently too he has openly threatened that Pathankot-type attacks would continue to occur against India. Headley’s deposition is in consonance with what Indian agencies have been claiming for long that Saeed enjoys a special relationship and patronage from Pakistani military.
In response to a question if Lakhvi was in-charge of the attacks in India, Headly responded that to his assessment the terrorist activities in India would have been conducted on Lakhvi’s instructions as he was the head of the military wing of LeT. Among other things, he also disclosed that Lakhvi’s handler was one ‘Brigadier Riyaz’ though he was not aware if the said Brigadier was from the ISI, he only got to know that the said Brigadier was the handler from the ‘other people’.
Headly’s aforesaid deposition is relevant in the context that he has turned approver in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. He categorically admitted to have worked for both the ISI and LeT and that his surveillance details on Mumbai were also shared with the Pakistan’s intelligence agency. During his trial in United States for the terror crimes, he had entered into a plea bargain with the US prosecutors that in exchange for his cooperation as a witness to terror plots, especially information on LeT, the prosecutors would not seek the death penalty and he would be granted immunity from extradition to India, Pakistan and Denmark. In India too, the special judge Govind A, Sanap had accepted Headley’s plea to turn approver and granted him pardon on December 10, 2015 for terror crimes in India.
Reaction in Pakistan
So far Headley's deposition has not generated any noticeable interest or enthusiasm in the Pakistani electronic and print media. While a few Urdu and English newspapers have posted the news in small columns, almost all the leading television channels and newspapers in Pakistan have given no or very little attention to Headley's testimony. Remarkably, Headley was not given attention in Pakistani media even when he was tried in the US court where too he had deposed that Pakistan's ISI provided financial, military and moral support to terrorist organisations such as the LeT, JeM and HM. Apart from the fact that Headley has by and large repeated the same information that he had admitted before the US prosecutors, any coverage directly accusing the ISI of planning and executing a terror attack would be considered by the establishment as anti-Pakistan material which neither the media would take risk to highlight nor it would see the light of day in that country. Pakistan has consistently maintained that the ISI has no links with LeT and there is no state connection to the Mumbai attacks.
In fact, the only known official reaction have come from the then interior minister of Pakistan, Rehman Malik, who now chairs a committee on interior and narcotics control in Pakistan's Senate (the upper house of parliament). While talking to reporters in Islamabad, dismissing Headley's disclosures as a pack of lies, he claimed that Headley was an agent hired by Indian intelligence agency RAW and that India itself was involved in the 26/11 attacks. He also raised pointer on the Indian intelligence agency for its failure to nab the terrorist who repeatedly travelled to India on recce mission, photographed and videographed potential targets and remained undetected. However absurd this statement may appear to rational minded people on either sides of the border, it is apparent that the Pakistani establishment is seemingly not bothered.
Is Headley’s Deposition Reliable?
The question is whether depositions of Headley as approver can be treated as reliable and what if his statements are pack of lies as alleged by Pakistan. So far he has divulged with the same information by and large what he had already deposed before the prosecutors during his trial in the United States. Additionally, he has referred to two failed attempts by the same team of terrorists in September and October 2008 in the context of 26/11. Even the much hardened criminals are known to be truthful in situations either at the call of conscience or when they are certain that they have nothing to gain or lose in the case. Headley was 52 when he was given a jail term of 35 years followed by another five years of supervised release. He is now 55 and will be in his eighties by the time he is completely free provided he survives till then. Obviously, he has nothing to gain or lose now and it can be reasonably believed that his depositions are based on the call of his conscience.
There is no doubt that the deposition of Headley, an alleged co-conspirator of the 26/11 attack on Mumbai, before the Indian court, will raise considerable heat and debate among the Indian media and public. Now that Headley has agreed to spill beans as approver, it is almost certain that his deposition will lead to implication of ISI, role of Lakhvi and his interlocutors in ISI and Pakistan military will get exposed and finer details of conspiracy will roll out to establish that the state actors were indeed involved with the non-state rogues to unleash terror during the Mumbai attacks.
But was it really the lack of evidence that prevented Pakistan to act against the perpetrators of Mumbai attacks from its soil. After all Lakhvi was kept in jail for almost seven years before being released last year citing the lack of evidence. He reportedly enjoyed all possible luxuries and freedom in prison to meet people with hardly any visible restrictions to stop his operations. Another mastermind Hafiz Saeed (Founder of LeT) and his re-christened outfit Jamaat-ud-Dawa continue to prosper under the state patronage. Saeed is freely moving in Pakistan and noticed so often giving inflammatory speeches including a call for jihad against India.
Obviously, it’s not the lack of evidence that is preventing India’s neighbour from acting against the anti-India terrorists on its territory but actually these are her compulsions to carry on the legacy of its geo-political and military strategy which flourishes on anti-India propaganda. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that causing harm to the Indian interests is encoded into its DNA and state agencies are religiously preserving this genetic purity. A few rationalists in Pakistan might occasionally debate the dubious ways of the state agencies like the ISI and military but perhaps the latter have the support of mass population. In fact, the role and authority of military in Pakistan is unquestionable and any civilian government cannot survive for long without its patronage and support. Anybody having any doubts in this regard can turn over the pages of the history of the post-independent Pakistan.
So the question is what all India will achieve from Headley disclosures apart from the sensation it might create for the time being. For illustration, among the whole range of topics, he has also spoken on the famous Ishrat Jahan case. As per Headley’s confession in the Mumbai Special Court, Ishrat, gunned down in an encounter by Gujarat police in 2004, was a LeT fidayeen and member of the LeT’s Women Wing. As per Gujarat police version, Ishrat and her accomplices were on a mission for a big political kill (the then Chief Minister) in the state. The incident took an ugly political turn and three senior police officers among others were prosecuted and pointers raised against Gujarat BJP political brass under the UPA regime at the centre. Some politicians and organizations had gone to the extent of christening her as shaheed (martyr). One would wonder what to say on the entire episode after Headley’s disclosure.
Headley’s deposition via video conferencing would certainly serve as a legal step forward to strengthen the case (using his admissions as evidence) in 26/11 attacks against the role of the likes of Hafiz Saeed, Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi and possibly some retired or serving officers in the ISI and Pakistan military. Headley’s testimony is crucial in a way that the evidence against Saeed, Lakhvi and some others is coming from a LeT operative who was directly in touch with the alleged masterminds. These revelations may be used even for sending letters rogatory to Pakistan as expeditors for investigation.
State as Actor in Terrorist Activities
Ironically, ex-president Musharraf did it in the past and has done it again when in an interview to an Indian TV channel on 12th February 2016 he said, “Inter-Services Intelligence trains Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists…Pakistan army is not training civilians…Intelligence organization on our side as well as on your side is involved.” What more is left to imagination when admission is coming straight from the horse’s mouth! Officially, Pakistan has always denied their involvement with LeT and JeM but they have always shied away too taking any substantive action against these terror outfits on their soil. The recent remarks of Musharraf once again corroborate what Indian side has been maintaining in the context of the state patronage of these terror outfits.
Is Terrorism Only Core Issue?
The thing is that the terrorism is not the only key issue between India and Pakistan and one needs to look far beyond that. The birth of Pakistan itself was the result of two-nations theory with elements of hatred and jealousy built in from the beginning. Pakistan treats Kashmir as core issue and while talking of the right of self-determination by Kashmiri people, they are not likely to settle for anything lesser than ultimate amalgamation of Kashmir in Pakistan. India on the other hand maintains that the post-independence amalgamation of Kashmir was full and final and it is an integral part of India. For India the core issue is for Pakistan to stop all support to militant groups and terrorist activities from its soil. The ground reality is that it has been almost seven decades and irreversible demographic, geo-political, social and economic changes have taken place both in Jammu & Kashmir and POK (Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir) and any efforts on either side to rewrite the history would be futile and counter-productive.
Should Pakistan not realize then these facts and instead pursue the path of reconciliation for the mutual peace and prosperity? The obvious answer is ‘yes’ but the history of Pakistan has been turbulent since beginning largely dictated by the religious bigotry and anti-India sentiments. There have been frequent military take overs with long dictatorial regimes under Army Generals. In fact, the military regimes have been politically more stable and long-lasting compared to relatively weak and short-lived civilian regimes in Pakistan. The fact is that any civil regime has not survived for long without the military support. In Pakistan, it has been the compulsion of every civil regime to essentially take the military and ISI along. Hence it is also obvious that any long term settlement for the mutual peace and prosperity would not be possible without the consent and active support of the Pakistan military and ISI.
The problem is that the Pakistan military and ISI themselves have been thriving on mass support through their anti-India stand. Three successive wars and sporadic conflicts have proven beyond doubt that any concession on Kashmir or elsewhere cannot be forced on India by using force. Now that both the neighbours are nuclear powers, the use of overt force adds to another dimension of escalating full-fledged nuclear war ensuring mutual destruction. This leaves the only available option of escalating covert operations by proxy employing foreign mercenaries and exploiting misguided youth on either side of Kashmir border in the name of jihad besides direct low-intensity conflicts in selected sectors. The Pakistan military and ISI are precisely doing that. The LeT, JeM and such other outfits are “assets” which the alleged state agencies in Pakistan have assiduously built over the years and they cannot afford to let go of or estrange them.
For illustration, four most diabolical and virulent anti-Indian terrorists are roaming free in Pakistan. Hafiz Saeed, the founder of Lashkar and current spiritual head of Jamaat-ud-Dawaa - a UN-designated international terrorist carrying the US-bounty of US 10 million dollars - is famous for spitting anti-India venom every now and then in the name of jihad with openly threatening more Pathankot-like strikes. Another one is the dreaded terrorist Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, the head of the military wing of LeT, who was for the namesake in prison for almost seven years and let off by a Pakistan court last year citing the lack of evidence. The third one is the ill-famed Maulana Masood Azhar of JeM, who continues his anti-India activities from Pakistan ever since his release in exchange for the hostages of a hijacked Indian airlines plane in Kandhar in 1999. The last one is the most dreaded Don Dawood Ibrahim, a US-designated global terrorist, who allegedly masterminded and funded the 1993 bombings in Mumbai. Reportedly, they enjoy full freedom and state patronage for their movement and anti-India activities.
Is There A Way Forward for Peace?
The intention and ingenuity of the current civilian leadership in India and Pakistan is beyond doubt and the recent initiative of the Indian Prime Minister visiting Lahore and warm reciprocity of the Pakistan Premier is a case in point in their endeavour to work for the peace process through bilateral negotiations. But it is also true that there was an immediate attempt to disrupt the peace initiative through an attack by a Pakistan based terrorist group on the Pathankot Airbase in India possibly with the connivance of some state actors that has put the process on hold if not already derailed it.
Nobody should be in doubt that the key to the long lasting peace and prosperity of India and Pakistan lie only in realization that the emotive Kashmir issue should be put on the back burner, terrorist outfits are jointly dealt with iron hand and two countries focusing on promoting bilateral economic, sports and cultural ties to begin with at least for a decade. It's obvious what was not resolved in seven decades, it cannot be solved simply by giving it an overriding precedence on a negotiation table. But this again raises the same mute question whether Pakistan military and ISI will ever agree to support civilian leadership with nothing up their sleeves; after all terrorist outfits like LeT and JeM have been nurtured by them as strategic assets all these years. If not, then this again brings back the India-Pakistan relations to the razor’s edge.