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U.S. agencies were forewarned about suspect in 2008 Mumbai bombings

By Sebastian Rotella
Friday, November 5, 2010; 9:55 PM

A review being conducted for the director of national intelligence has found at least five cases in which U.S. agencies were warned that David Coleman Headley, who became a central figure in the 2008 attacks on Mumbai, was training or working with Pakistani militants.

In the seven years in which leads accumulated, Headley was not questioned or placed on a terror watch list, officials say.

The review, which is not complete, has found that allegations about the Pakistani American businessman's extremist ties began as early as 2001 and were more numerous and specific than previously disclosed, officials said. They described to ProPublica the results of internal inquiries being conducted by the FBI, the CIA and other agencies.

In a previously unreported tip just seven months before the Mumbai attacks, one of Headley's ex-wives told U.S. officials overseas that she suspected he was linked to a 2007 bombing in India that killed 68 people and has been blamed on the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group. She also warned that Headley was on a "special mission," according to a senior anti-terror official.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the government has invested billions of dollars in new threat-detection systems. But the Headley case suggests that flawed information-sharing, an overwhelming flow of raw intelligence and a lack of focus on Lashkar kept investigators from identifying the threat posed by an American terrorist.

"It's a black eye," said the senior anti-terror official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The problem is the information system. New York didn't know about Philadelphia. Islamabad didn't know about Philadelphia or New York."

The DNI launched a review of the Headley case after ProPublica and The Washington Post reported last month that federal investigators in New York City looked into a 2005 tip from Headley's wife. The New York Times then reported a tip from another of his wives in Pakistan in 2007.

The review has found four additional warnings, in 2001, 2002, April 2008 and December 2008 - a month after Lashkar killed 166 people in Mumbai, six of them Americans. Headley, 50, was not arrested until October 2009. He has pleaded guilty to terrorism-related charges and is cooperating.

DNI spokeswoman Jamie Smith said she could not comment on the findings.

"Reviews of this nature are not uncommon and an important part of improving existing processes," Smith said.

Federal officials point out that the first two tips surfaced after the Sept. 11 attacks, when agencies struggled to modernize databases.

The review is expected to address another question: whether Headley's work as a U.S. informant affected investigations of him. Headley spied on Pakistani drug traffickers for the DEA starting in the late 1990s, though officials say the DEA cut ties with him "well before" Mumbai.

'Should I tell someone?'

The first tip came in New York in early October 2001 from a former girlfriend, who told agents that Headley and his mother supported Pakistani extremists and quoted him as saying he was ready to fight in Pakistan.

Agents from the Joint Terrorism Task Force interviewed at least three people, including Headley's mother, Serrill, a wealthy Philadelphian. She told them her son was passionate about Pakistan's struggle with India over the Kashmir region.

The New York inquiry was closed because investigators saw no danger.

In July 2002, a second tipster came forward in Philadelphia: the owner of a business frequented by Headley's mother.

The business owner called an FBI tip line and said that Headley's mother had described her son as an increasingly fanatical extremist who talked about training with terrorists in Pakistan.

"She was concerned about him," the business owner, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, told ProPublica. "I'm thinking, here's this guy, he's traveling all over. I thought: Should I tell someone or should I not?"

The tip line conversation lasted about three minutes, the business owner said, and there was no further contact with the FBI

Investigators did record checks, but it is not clear whether they learned of the New York inquiry, officials say. The Philadelphia lead was closed.

As ProPublica has reported, the third tip came in 2005 after a domestic dispute that resulted in Headley's arrest. His wife in New York gave federal investigators an account of his training and other activities with Lashkar, which was designated a terrorist group in late 2001. Her tip went into the FBI's Guardian Threat Tracking System, but investigators found "no nexus to terrorism."

Looking into jihad

In 2006, Headley began scouting targets in Mumbai. In December 2007, his Moroccan wife went to the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan. She met with agents of the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security and of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She said Headley was "looking to participate in jihad against the U.S." and mentioned suicide bombing and terror training, officials say.

The CIA station chief and the FBI legal attache decided the allegations were too general to pursue, officials said. The senior anti-terror official told ProPublica that the agents in Islamabad did not know about all the previous tips. But the other federal official said that hasn't been confirmed.

Four months later, the Moroccan wife returned to the embassy with a more specific - and previously unreported - warning.

"She said Headley had been given a special mission and that he had both U.S. and Pakistani passports," the senior anti-terror official said. "She said she felt she had been innocently used in an express train bombing" in India that had killed 68 people in 2007.

Officials gave no details on how the embassy personnel responded. The three-day assault on Mumbai began on Nov. 26. 2008.

On Dec. 1, 2008, a final tip surfaced in Philadelphia. A friend of Headley's mother - who had died 11 months earlier - told the FBI that Headley "had been fighting alongside individuals in Pakistan to liberate Kashmir for the past five to six years," officials say.

FBI agents tracked down a cousin who told agents Headley had lived in Pakistan for the past five years, officials say. But Headley was actually dividing his time among Pakistan, India, New York and Chicago.

Agents checked Headley's background and found at least some of the previous leads, officials say. Nonetheless, the Philadelphia agents closed the case, because they believed Headley was overseas, officials say.

Weeks later, Headley traveled from Chicago to Denmark and did reconnaissance for a new attack. Lashkar suspended the plot that March, but Headley worked on it with al-Qaeda until his arrest in October 2009.

ProPublica research director Lisa Schwartz and researcher Nicholas Kusnetz contributed to this report. For more details about the Headley case, go to ProPublica.org.

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