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An intricate plot unleashed in Mumbai, the West confronts a new threat

More than 160 people were killed in November 2008 in coordinated attacks by gunmen in India's commercial capital, Mumbai, with two five-star hotels among the targets of gunmen. Despite the diplomatic sensitivities, administration officials say they are pursuing those responsible.

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By Sebastian Rotella
ProPublica
Monday, November 15, 2010; 12:17 AM

David Coleman Headley seemed like a gregarious, high-rolling American businessman when he set up shop in Mumbai in September 2006.

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He opened the office of an immigration consulting firm. He partied at swank locales such as the ornate Taj Mahal Hotel, a 1903 landmark favored by Westerners and the Indian elite. He joined an upscale gym, where he befriended a Bollywood actor. He roamed the booming, squalid city taking photos and shooting video.

But it was all a front. The tall, fast-talking Pakistani American with the slicked-back hair was a fierce extremist, a former drug dealer, a onetime Drug Enforcement Administration informant who had become a double agent. He had spent three years refining his clandestine skills in the terrorist training camps of the Lashkar-i-Taiba militant group. As Headley confessed in a guilty plea in U.S. federal court this year, he was in Mumbai to begin undercover reconnaissance for a sophisticated attack that would take two years to plan.

In 2006, U.S. counterterrorism agencies still viewed Lashkar primarily as a threat to India. But Headley's mentor, Sajid Mir, had widened his sights to Western targets years earlier. Mir, a mysterious Lashkar chief with close ties to Pakistani security forces, had deployed operatives who had completed missions and attempted plots in Virginia, Europe and Australia before being captured, according to investigators and court documents.

Now Mir's experience in international operations and his skills as a handler of Western recruits were about to pay off. Lashkar had chosen him as project manager of its most ambitious, highly choreographed strike to date.

Mir's ally in the plot was a man known to Headley only as Maj. Iqbal, who investigators suspect was an officer of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) and a liaison to the Lashkar terrorist group. Iqbal is a common Pakistani last name, and investigators have not been able to fully identify him. Maj. Iqbal and Mir worked as handlers for Headley, their lead scout, during his missions in India, according to investigators and court documents.

The iconic Taj hotel was the centerpiece of the plan. When Headley returned to Pakistan after his first scouting trip to Mumbai, Mir told him he needed more images and also schedules for the hotel's conference rooms and ballroom, which often hosted high-powered events, according to investigators and court documents.

"They thought it would be a good place to get valuable hostages," an Indian anti-terrorism official said.

ProPublica has tracked the rise of Lashkar through Mir's career as a holy warrior. It is a story of a militant group that used political clout and support from Pakistani security forces to develop global reach and formidable tradecraft, according to investigators and court documents. It is also a story of how, despite a series of warning signs, anti-terrorism agencies were caught off-guard when Lashkar escalated its war on the West with a 2008 attack on Mumbai that targeted Americans, Europeans and Jews as well as Indians.


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