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Before '08 Mumbai attacks, U.S. was warned key figure in plot had terror ties
FBI officials said they could not comment on the agency's role in the case because of ongoing prosecutions in Chicago and overseas. A DEA spokesman declined to comment because of a policy against discussing informants. New York police officials confirmed the details of the arrest in the assault case, but they declined to discuss the terrorism inquiry.
Anti-terrorism officials noted that federal authorities in New York City are deluged with tips and warnings about suspected extremists.
"They get half-a-dozen leads a day like this," a U.S. anti-terrorism official said. "People ratting out family members, people with grudges. Something like this does not ramp up to the White House."
The tip came at a time of heightened fears about Pakistani terrorism. A month earlier, al-Qaeda suicide bombers trained and directed in Pakistan had struck the London transport system. In previous years, a group of militants in Virginia had been given life sentences for training with and supporting Lashkar. Former Lashkar trainees had also been prosecuted in foiled plots against New York, London and Australia.
Mumbai joins a list of cases in which plotters caught the attention of authorities beforehand: London in 2005, Madrid in 2004, the Sept. 11 attacks. Such advance glimmers are part of the landscape of counterterrorism. Facing many threats and limited resources, authorities must make hard choices, a British spymaster said recently.
"We appear increasingly to have imported from the American media the assumption that terrorism is 100 percent preventable and any incident that is not prevented is seen as a culpable government failure," said Jonathan Evans, chief of MI5, in a speech. "This is a nonsensical way to consider terrorist risk."
'A fascinating study'
Official silence makes it hard to assess what happened in the Headley case. Court documents and interviews depict Headley, who is now 50, as a chameleon-like figure with a taste for risk and a talent for deception. Because of his sophistication and unusual profile, he was a valuable asset to police, spies, criminals and terrorists, officials say.
"Headley's a fascinating study," the U.S. anti-terrorism official said. "I see him as a mercenary, not ideologically driven. He's not an Islamic terrorist in the classic sense."
Headley was born Daood Gilani in Washington, D.C. His Pakistani father was a renowned broadcaster. His mother, whose maiden name was Headley, came from a wealthy Philadelphia family.
Gilani moved to Pakistan as an infant and attended an elite military school. Returning to the United States at 17, he married, divorced and slid into the drug underworld and heroin addiction, court records say. He had a fast-talking charm and, strikingly, a green eye and a brown eye. In addition to Urdu and English, he told associates he spoke Pashtun, Farsi and some Arabic.
In 1988, the DEA arrested him in Germany for smuggling heroin from Pakistan, court records show. He cooperated and was sentenced to four years in prison while his co-defendant received 10.
In 1997, three years after Gilani moved to Manhattan to run two video stores purchased by his family, the DEA arrested him for another heroin deal. Agents soon obtained his release and he became a prized informant, records show.