Trial in Mumbai attacks could strain U.S.-Pakistan relations


In 2008, 166 people were killed in a terrorist attack in Mumbai. A Pakistani intelligence officer is alleged to have been involved. (David Guttenfelder/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
May 7, 2011

It could be years, if ever, before the world learns whether Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) helped hide Osama bin Laden.

But detailed allegations of ISI involvement in terrorism will soon be made public in a federal courtroom in Chicago, where prosecutors late last month charged a suspected ISI major with helping to plot the deaths of six Americans in the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

The indictment has explosive implications because Washington and Islamabad are struggling to preserve their fragile relationship. The ISI has long been suspected of secretly aiding terrorist groups while serving as a U.S. ally in the terrorism fight.The discovery that bin Laden spent years in a fortresslike compound surrounded by military facilities in Abbottabad has heightened those suspicions and reinforced the accusations that the ISI was involved in the attacks that killed 166 people in Mumbai.

“It’s very, very troubling,” said Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees funding of the Justice Department. Wolf has closely followed the Mumbai case and wants an independent study group to review South Asia policy top to bottom.

“Keep in mind that we’ve given billions of dollars to the Pakistani government,” he said. “In light of what’s taken place with bin Laden, the whole issue raises serious problems and questions.”

Three chiefs of Lashkar-i-Taiba, the Pakistani terrorist group, were also indicted in Chicago. They include Sajid Mir, a suspected Mumbai mastermind whose voice was caught on tape directing the three-day slaughter by phone from Pakistan. Mir, too, has ISI links. He remains at large along with the suspected ISI major and half a dozen other top suspects.

Despite the unprecedented terrorism charges implicating a Pakistani officer, the Justice Department and other agencies did not issue news releases, hold a news conference or make any comments when the indictment was issued. The 33-page document names the suspect only as “Major Iqbal.” It does not mention the ISI, although Iqbal’s affiliation to the spy agency has been detailed in U.S. and Indian case files and by anti-terrorism officials in interviews with ProPublica over the past year.

“Obviously there has been a push to be low-key,” said an Obama administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the pending trial.

The first public airing of the ISI’s alleged involvement in the Mumbai attack will begin May 16 with the trial of Tahawwur Rana, owner of a Chicago immigration consulting firm. Rana was arrested in 2009 and charged with material support of terrorism in the same case in which the four suspects were indicted. The star witness will be David Coleman Headley, a Pakistani American businessman-turned-militant who has pleaded guilty to scouting targets in India and Denmark. Rana allegedly helped Headley use his firm as a cover for reconnaissance.

Rana’s attorney, Charles Swift, contends that Rana is not a terrorist because he thought he was assisting the ISI with an espionage operation. Swift said the U.S. indictment omits the ISI in hopes of mitigating tensions.

Even before bin Laden was killed, the Obama administration had taken a tougher tone about the ISI’s alleged militant links. But a U.S. official said this month that U.S. counterterrorism agencies still think that any involvement in the Mumbai attacks was limited to rogue officers.

“No one is saying we can’t work with the ISI — people are just pointing out the problems that exist,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “I think the problems are largely with individual officers as opposed to the institution.”

Pakistani officials deny that the security forces were involved in Mumbai. A senior Pakistani official questioned the credibility of Headley, who was an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration when he began training with Lashkar in 2002.

“When somebody is a double agent, whatever he says in a U.S. court is not credible from our perspective,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the pending trial.

Headley has opened a door into an underworld in which spies, soldiers and terrorists converge. Although most of the prosecution’s documents in the Chicago court file remain sealed, a recent judge’s ruling in the Rana case says Headley admitted to working for the ISI as well as for Lashkar and al-Qaeda.

“I also told [Rana] about my meetings with Major Iqbal, and told him how I had been asked to perform espionage work for ISI,” Headley testified, according to the April 1 document.

Headley described an almost symbiotic bond between Lashkar and the ISI, which helped create the group as a proxy army against India. His account has been corroborated through other testimony, communications intercepts, the contents of his computer and records of phone and e-mail contact with ISI officers, anti-terrorism officials say.

Senior ISI officers served as handlers for Lashkar chiefs and provided a boat, funds and technical expertise for the Mumbai strike, according to a report by India’s National Investigation Agency on its interrogation of Headley last year in Chicago.

Headley trained in Lashkar camps before being recruited in 2006 by an ISI officer, Maj. Samir Ali, who referred him to Iqbal in Lahore, the report says. Iqbal became Headley’s handler, according to the Indian report, which officials say repeats Headley’s confessions to the FBI.

The U.S. indictment alleges that Iqbal gave the American $28,000 for the front company in Mumbai and other expenses. Iqbal and Mir directed Headley’s scouting of luxury hotels and other targets chosen to ensure that Americans and other Westerners would die.

Headley also met at least twice with Iqbal in late 2008 to launch a Lashkar plot against a Danish newspaper that had printed cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, according to the Indian report and investigators. Prosecutors charged Mir in the Denmark case but did not mention the suspected role of the major.

Nonetheless, Headley stayed in touch with Maj. Ali and another ISI officer, Col. Shah, as he continued the Denmark plot for al-Qaeda, according to investigators. His al-Qaeda interlocutor was allegedly a well-connected former Pakistani army major, Abdur-Rehman Syed, whose ISI handler was Col. Shah and who had contacts with bin Laden, the report says.

ProPublica is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.

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