Key witness in Chicago trial offers more details on 2008 Mumbai attacks

May 24, 2011

An officer in Pakistan’s intelligence service chose a Jewish center as a target for the 2008 Mumbai attacks and then helped launch a new plot against Denmark, the star witness in a terrorism trial in Chicago said Tuesday.

In his second day of testimony, David Coleman Headley, a confessed Pakistani American terrorist, revealed more details about close ties between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) and Lashkar-i-Taiba, the group accused of carrying out the attacks that killed 166 people, including six Americans.

Headley said his ISI handler, a man known only as Major Iqbal, deployed him on the last of five reconnaissance missions to scout targets that included the Chabad House, a Jewish community center where gunmen later killed three American rabbis.

“Major Iqbal told me the Chabad House would be added on whatever list [of targets] there was because it was a front office for the Mossad,” Israel’s intelligence agency, Headley said. He added that Iqbal “seemed upset the [Mumbai] airport was not included” as a target.

Nothing suggests that the claim about the Mossad was true.

Headley described in understated tones how terrorist leaders congratulated him for his work casing luxury hotels and other targets chosen to ensure that Americans and Jews would die. Asked his reaction to the three-day televised slaughter, he responded: “I was pleased.”

Headley, 50, has pleaded guilty to conducting months of crucial reconnaissance in Mumbai and for the Denmark plot. He has since cooperated with federal prosecutors in the trial of his alleged accomplice, Tahawwur Rana. Justice Department officials have also indicted Iqbal, who is a fugitive.

Pakistani officials deny any links to terrorism. They say Headley is not credible because of his past as a drug dealer.

But prosecutors presented evidence Tuesday indicating that Iqbal was at least aware of a plot to strike at the heart of Europe. Headley described a meeting in late 2008 in which Iqbal and Sajid Mir, his Lashkar handler, came together to his house in Lahore, Pakistan, for the first time. Until then, the two had coordinated his missions in tandem but separately, using Headley to collect military and terrorist intelligence.

Mir told Headley he would be sent to Denmark to scout for an attack on the Jyllands-Posten newspaper, which had enraged Muslims by publishing cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. “We were all angry about it,” Headley testified. “Major Iqbal said he was surprised such an attack had not taken place already.”

Headley testified that he conducted reconnaissance in Denmark in January 2009. Two months later, however, Lashkar put the Denmark plot on hold, he said, and Iqbal cut off contact, telling him to lie low because Pakistani authorities had put heat on Lashkar after the Mumbai attacks.

However, another ISI officer named Major Sameer Ali contacted Headley to recruit him for new operations and remained in touch with him until at least July, according to Headley’s testimony and e-mails between the two presented in court.

By then, though, Headley had shifted allegiance to al-Qaeda, urged on by a friend and former Pakistani military officer who had left Lashkar, Headley said.

“He said they [Lashkar] were conducting the ISI’s jihad and we should conduct God’s jihad,” Headley said.

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism.

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