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

By Sebastian Rotella
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.

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.

Mir convicted in Paris

As Mir and Headley plotted in 2006, French investigators were confronting the potential dimensions of the threat posed by Lashkar, a longtime al-Qaeda ally founded in the late 1980s and used by Pakistan as a proxy army in the fight against India for the Kashmir region.

France's top counterterrorism magistrate, Jean-Louis Bruguiere, had spent three years investigating Mir after one of Mir's French operatives, Willie Brigitte, was arrested in a foiled bomb plot in Australia. Brigitte gave a long confession identifying Mir as his Lashkar handler, describing him as a figure whose influential connections made him "untouchable in Pakistan." With the help of foreign investigators, Bruguiere built a case that Mir was a kingpin leading terrorist operations on four continents.

The evidence also convinced Bruguiere that Mir was an officer in the Pakistani army or the ISI, a branch of the military. This point is murky: Senior European and U.S. counterterrorism officials concur with the French judge, but some U.S. investigators do not think Mir was in the military. Pakistani officials say they have no information on Mir or Maj. Iqbal and deny any role of the security forces in terrorism.

In October 2006, two years before the Mumbai attacks, Bruguiere issued an arrest warrant for Mir that was circulated worldwide by Interpol. There was no response from Pakistan.

A Paris court convicted Mir in absentia and sentenced him to 10 years in prison in 2007. Nonetheless, Bruguiere says most Western investigators he dealt with continued to view Lashkar as a regional actor confined to South Asia.

"For me it was a crucial case, a turning point," Bruguiere said, "because of what it revealed about the role played by Pakistani groups in the global jihad and about the role of the Pakistani security forces in terrorism. We had the impression that Mir was protected at the highest levels of the state."

In summer 2007, Bruguiere met at the White House with a top security adviser to President George W. Bush. The French judge shared his fears about Lashkar and his suspicion that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was playing a "double game." (Musharraf has asserted publicly that he was a staunch ally in the fight against terrorism.)

Bruguiere said the White House official, whom he declined to identify publicly, did not seem convinced.

"The U.S. government is a huge machine," said Bruguiere, who is now the European Union's envoy to Washington in efforts against terrorism financing. "It's difficult to make it change course."

Warning signs

In 2007, Headley carried out two more reconnaissance missions.

Before and after each trip, he met with Mir and Maj. Iqbal in Pakistani safe houses, turning over photos, videos and notes, according to investigators and U.S. court documents. At one point, Mir showed Headley a plastic-foam model of the Taj that had been built using the information Headley had gathered, according to investigators and documents.

Mir focused Headley on terrorism targets around India. Maj. Iqbal directed him to also collect military intelligence, according to officials and documents.

Headley's work was complicated by a tangled personal life that got him in trouble again in December 2007. His estranged fourth wife, a Moroccan, told officials at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad that she believed he was a terrorist. She made references to training and suicide bombings and described his frequent travel to Mumbai, including her stays with him at the Taj hotel, U.S. law enforcement officials say.

But U.S. agents at the embassy decided the woman's account lacked specifics. Headley continued to roam free.

As the plot took shape in 2008, the FBI and CIA began hearing chatter about Lashkar. The agencies warned India at least three times about threats to Mumbai. The intelligence may have come from communications intercepts or sources in Pakistan. But privately, some U.S and Indian anti-terrorism officials express suspicion that U.S. agencies were tracking Headley's movements and picking up bits and pieces about the plot without realizing he was deeply involved.

U.S. intelligence officials say they did not warn the Indians about Headley because they did not connect him to terrorism until months after the attacks. Although they say Headley was no longer working as a DEA informant by early 2008, it isn't clear when that relationship ended or whether it evolved into intelligence-gathering. The CIA and the FBI say Headley never worked for them.

In April 2008, Headley's Moroccan wife returned to the embassy in Islamabad with another tip. She warned that her husband was on "a special mission." She also linked him to a 2007 train bombing in India that had killed 68 people and that India and the United States blamed on Lashkar, U.S. officials say. Authorities have not implicated Headley in that still-unsolved attack, however.

It is not known how the U.S. Embassy personnel responded to the wife's allegations, but a federal official said the FBI did not receive the information until after the attack. Headley returned to Mumbai on a fourth scouting mission in May. He went on boat tours, using a GPS device that Mir gave him to assess landing sites for an amphibious attack, court documents say.

That same month, U.S. agencies alerted India that intelligence suggested Lashkar was planning to attack the Taj and other sites frequented by foreigners and Americans, according to U.S. and Indian anti-terrorism officials.

The group also considered hitting the U.S. Consulate in Mumbai. Indian and U.S. investigators say another accused Lashkar scout had a map identifying the consulate along with other targets that were ultimately attacked.

Mir and the other Pakistani masterminds decided on a classic Lashkar "fedayeen raid" in which fighters take hostages to inflict maximum chaos and casualties. (Fedayeen is an Arabic word for guerrilla fighters and means "one who sacrifices himself.") Mir oversaw a veteran Lashkar trainer who prepared 32 recruits during months of drills in mountain camps and at the group's headquarters outside Lahore, according to investigators and court documents.

The plan called for a team of fighters to infiltrate Mumbai by boat. Fifteen candidates were sent to Karachi for swimming and nautical instruction. But the youthful country boys had little experience with water. Some got seasick. Some ran away from swim training. Trainers had to bring in eight replacements, Indian and U.S. anti-terrorism officials say.

In July, Headley began his final scouting trip. In September, the anti-terrorism chief of the Mumbai police visited the Taj hotel to discuss new U.S. warnings. Hotel management beefed up security, Indian officials say.

The plotters isolated the 10-man attack team in a safe house in Karachi in mid-September and outlined their mission, using videos, photos and maps. In November Headley also headed for Karachi, where he met again with Mir but had no contact with the attack team, according to documents and officials.

On Nov. 18, eight days before the attacks, American officials told Indian intelligence that a suspicious ship might be en route to Mumbai. The Indians requested more information, the Indian anti-terrorism official said.

The strike

The attack squad left Karachi at 8 a.m. on Nov. 22.

The gunmen hijacked an Indian fishing trawler, killed the crew and sailed to about five miles off the shores of Mumbai. On the evening of Nov. 26, the squad transferred to an 11-seat dinghy and landed in a slum where lights, phones and police were scarce.

Lashkar had set up a remote command post in a safe house or a hotel that U.S. and Indian officials believe was in Lahore or Karachi. The room was stocked with computers, televisions, voice-over-Internet phones from a New Jersey company and satellite phones that were manned by Mir and five other handlers, according to U.S. and Indian officials and a report prepared by Indian intelligence.

The assault began about 9:30 p.m. Two-man teams hit four of the targets within a half-hour. Assault rifles chattered; time bombs exploded in taxis; panic engulfed the city. Despite the U.S. warnings, Indian security forces were caught off-guard. Elite National Security Guard commandos did not fly in from Delhi until the next morning, according to the Indian intelligence report.

Indian intelligence officers frantically checked known phone numbers associated with Lashkar and were able to intercept and record nearly 300 calls. Mir's voice dominated the conversations, according to officials and documents. Thanks to Headley, he knew the targets inside-out.

Using the alias Wassi, Mir oversaw the assault on the Taj hotel, the prime target, where 32 people died. The phone handlers in Pakistan made the attack interactive, relaying reports about television coverage to the gunmen and even searching the Internet for the name of a banker they had taken hostage. After killing 10 people at the historic Leopold Cafe, a second assault team joined the two gunmen at the Taj.

"They wanted to see the Taj Mahal burn," a senior U.S. law enforcement official said. "It was all choreographed with the media in mind."

Mir chided a gunman who grew distracted by the luxuries of a suite instead of setting the hotel ablaze, according to one intercepted call.

"We can't watch if there aren't any flames," said Mir, who was viewing the action on live television. "Where are they?"

"It's amazing," the gunman exclaimed. "The windows are huge. It's got two kitchens, a bath and a little shop."

"Start the fire, my brother," Mir insisted. "Start a proper fire, that's the important thing."

At the nearby Oberoi Hotel, two attackers hunted Americans and Britons, demanding passports at gunpoint, according to U.S. investigators. They stormed the restaurant and shot Sandeep "Sam" Jeswani, 43, an Indian American customer relations director for a radiation therapy company in Wisconsin. At another table, they executed Alan Scherr, 58, and his daughter Naomi, 13. The former art professor from Virginia had taken his daughter on a spiritual pilgrimage to India.

The gunmen killed 33 people at the Oberoi, then took refuge in Room 1856. Their handlers instructed them to divide ammunition magazines and keep their weapons on burst mode to conserve bullets. After one gunman was killed, Mir encouraged the other to go out in a blaze of glory.

"For your mission to end successfully, you must be killed," Mir said in one of the intercepted calls. "God is waiting for you in heaven. . . . Fight bravely, and put your phone in your pocket, but leave it on. We like to know what's going on."

Another team rampaged through Mumbai's central train station, killing 58 and wounding 104. Their tactics reflected Lashkar's expert training. They avoided running, which is tiring and churns up emotions. They stayed within arm's length in a "buddy pair" combat formation, a Lashkar signature technique that enabled them to support one another psychologically, sustain fire and exchange ammunition.

Unlike the others, however, the duo at the train station failed to call the command post. Instead of barricading themselves with hostages as ordered, they left the station. It was a dramatic error that underscored the crucial role of the handlers' round-the-clock phone instructions, their ingenious method of compensating for the limitations of their fighters.

In the running gunfights that followed, the chief of Mumbai's anti-terrorist unit was killed along with an attacker. The other gunman, a diminutive 21-year-old with a fourth-grade education, was captured. The confession of the lone surviving attacker proved vital to the investigation.

Death calls at Chabad House

The six-story Jewish center known as the Chabad House was attacked about an hour after the assault began.

Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, the red-bearded, 29-year-old director, and his pregnant wife, Rivka, 28, had entertained visitors in the second-floor dining room that night. Two rabbis from New York, Aryeh Leibish Teitelbaum and Ben-Zion Chroman, had stopped in to say goodbye as they wrapped up a trip to India to certify kosher food products.

When Holtzberg heard shots and screams, he grabbed his cellphone and called a security officer at the Israeli consulate.

"The situation is bad," he said.

Then the line went dead.

The gunmen shot the Holtzbergs and the visiting rabbis. The Holtzbergs' son, 2-year-old Moishele, wandered among corpses and debris until the next day, when his Indian nanny crept upstairs, grabbed him and escaped.

News that one of his men had been captured reached Mir in the command post. Mir decided to try to win his release by using the two female hostages who were still alive at Chabad House: Yocheved Orpaz, an Israeli grandmother, and Norma Rabinovich, a Mexican tourist.

Mir told a gunman to hand Rabinovich the phone. He ordered her to propose a prisoner exchange to Israeli diplomats. She reported back to him after her conversation with the Israelis, addressing him as "sir."

"I was talking to the consulate a few minutes ago," she said, her voice shaking. "They are calling the prime minister and the army in India from the embassy in Delhi."

Mir's serene tone made him sound like a helpful bureaucrat.

"Don't worry then, ah, just sit back and relax and don't worry and just wait for them to make contact," he told her.

Hours later, Mir gave the order to kill her. A gunman named Akasha sounded reluctant. Mir turned icy when he learned the two women were still alive. He demanded: "Have you done the job or not?"

Akasha executed the women as Mir listened, according to the transcript. The gunfire echoed over the phone.

The next morning, helicopter-borne commandos swooped onto the roof. Mir gave real-time orders as he watched the gunfight on television. Akasha reported in a hoarse, strangled voice that he had been wounded in the arm and leg.

"God protect you," Mir said. "Did you manage to hit any of their guys?"

"We got one commando. Pray that God will accept my martyrdom."

"Praise God. Praise God. God keep you."

The aftermath

The three-day siege of Mumbai triggered international outrage.

The United Nations put Lashkar chiefs on a blacklist. Pakistan detained Hafiz Saeed, the group's founder, for another in a series of short-lived house arrests. Western authorities scrambled to reassess the threat from Lashkar.

Unruffled, Mir and Headley were already at work on their next target: a Danish newspaper that in 2005 had published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. In November, Mir gave his scout a thumb drive with information about Denmark and the Jyllands Posten newspaper, according to documents and officials. They christened the new plot "The Mickey Mouse Project."

In December, Mir met Headley again, even though the other handler, Maj. Iqbal, had cut off contact with the American. Headley suggested narrowing the scope of the newspaper plot and killing only the cartoonist and an editor. Mir disagreed. Despite the uproar over Mumbai, he seemed eager to take an audacious terrorism campaign into Europe, according to documents and investigators.

"All Danes are responsible," Mir declared, according to U.S. officials and documents.

About the same time, the FBI was pursuing yet another tip about Headley. A friend of his mother in Philadelphia had come forward after seeing the news about the Mumbai attacks. She told agents that she believed Headley had been fighting alongside Pakistani militants for years. Agents conducted an inquiry but then put it on hold because they thought he was out of the country, U.S. officials said.

In January 2009, Headley traveled from Chicago to Denmark. Using his business cover, he visited the newspaper's offices and inquired about advertising his immigration firm. He shot video of the area and - because Mir mistakenly believed the editor was Jewish - of a nearby synagogue, documents say.

But a few weeks later, Mir put the plan on hold, according to documents and investigators. Pakistani authorities had finally arrested a big fish: Lashkar's military chief. They also arrested a Lashkar boss who had allegedly worked the phones with Mir at the command post for the Mumbai attacks, and some low-level henchmen.

In March, Mir sent Headley to India to scout more targets. But Headley was fixated on Denmark. For help, he turned to IIyas Kashmiri, an al-Qaeda boss. Kashmiri offered to provide Headley with militants in Europe for the attack. He envisioned attackers decapitating hostages and throwing heads out of the newspaper office windows, documents say.

Headley accepted the offer. Still, he kept urging Mir to return to the Mickey Mouse Project, according to documents and officials. In an e-mail in August, Headley described another reconnaissance trip to Copenhagen. He jokingly complimented Mir about his "music videos" - code for a TV program about Mumbai that had featured Mir's voice directing the attacks.

With affectionate exasperation, Mir warned his operative to be careful, according to documents and officials.

"Your skin is dear to me, more than my own," Mir wrote.

In September 2009, documents show, Headley again discussed joining forces with Mir for the Denmark attack, a sign that Mir was operating freely. But Headley wasn't so lucky. His contact with two known al-Qaeda suspects in Britain had put him on the radar of British intelligence, who alerted their U.S. counterparts. In October, the FBI arrested Headley in Chicago, where he had a Pakistani wife and children.

The FBI had been working the Mumbai case ever since a team of agents from Los Angeles rushed to India after the attacks. Their leads - phone analysis, forensics, money trails - had been instrumental to the Indian and Pakistani investigations.

Headley's cooperation gave the FBI a treasure trove of evidence and intelligence. In March he pleaded guilty to helping organize the Mumbai attacks and the Denmark plot. His confession and the contents of his computer showed he had scouted scores of targets, including American ones, around the world, officials say. Investigators say he did not do reconnaissance in the United States, but they noted a chilling detail: His immigration consulting firm had offices in the Empire State Building.

Headley helped U.S. investigators overcome a basic problem they had run into on the Mumbai case. American agencies lacked data on Lashkar: photo books, organizational charts, profiles.

"The intelligence was very thin before Mumbai," said Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.), whose House Foreign Affairs subcommittee held hearings on Lashkar this year.

Charles Faddis, a former CIA counterterrorism chief, contends the intelligence community did not dedicate enough resources to Lashkar.

"It's a classic problem in the U.S. intelligence community: failing to anticipate new threats and focusing completely on the one that already hit us," Faddis said.

A U.S. counterterrorism official disagreed, saying: "It's simply wrong to suggest that we've underestimated [Lashkar]."

It seems clear the government did underestimate Headley. A review this month by the director of national intelligence found that U.S. agencies had received six warnings about Headley from his wives and associates from October 2001 to December 2008. Yet federal agents didn't place him on a terrorist watch list or open a full investigation until July 2009, eight months after the Mumbai attacks. The office of the intelligence director has said nothing publicly about Headley's work as a U.S. informant.

Quest for justice

The Mumbai case could put Washington and Islamabad on a collision course. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has vowed to prosecute the killings of the six Americans as required by law. The prosecutions of the Mumbai and Denmark plots are being led by U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald in Chicago. But it's unlikely Pakistan would extradite the suspects to the United States, officials say. And Pakistani courts tend not to convict accused radical Islamists.

The evidence against at least half a dozen suspected masterminds of Mumbai who are still at large includes Headley's statements implicating officers in Pakistan's ISI along with Lashkar, officials say. There are also physical clues. The FBI identified a phone number that is believed to connect Mir, Headley and Pakistani intelligence officials. Headley called Pakistani military officers at the number while working for Lashkar; the number was also called by an accused ISI spy who went on a secret mission with Mir in India in 2005, investigators say.

The Pakistani government publicly denies any official link to the 2008 attacks.

"Why should there have been involvement of the Pakistani government in the Mumbai attacks at a time when Pakistan and India were dealing seriously with issues between them?" said a senior Pakistani official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. "The Mumbai incident provided a pretext for India to shy away from settling the contentious issues between the two countries."

The question of Pakistani government involvement drives a high-stakes debate. Some Western anti-terrorism officials think that, at most, Pakistani officials provided limited state support for the Mumbai attacks. A senior U.S. counterterrorism official believes a few mid-level Pakistani officials had an inkling of the plot but that its dimensions surprised them. Others speculate that the government of President Asif Ali Zardari may even have been a secondary target because of his overtures to India and his opposition to extremism.

"Perhaps it was done by people who didn't like the way the ISI and the army were moving, particularly in Kashmir," a European official said. "Maybe it was a rogue operation destabilizing the Pakistanis as well as the Indians."

In contrast, a number of Western and Indian anti-terrorism officials cite the in-depth scouting, amphibious landing and sophisticated communications as signs of Pakistan's involvement. Headley's disclosures and Lashkar's history make it hard to believe that military leaders were unaware of the plan, they say. Indian leaders go as far as accusing the ISI of planning and executing the attacks alongside Lashkar.

"It was not just a peripheral role," Indian Home Secretary G.K. Pillai said publicly in July. "They were literally controlling and coordinating it from the beginning till the end."

Mir and Maj. Iqbal are keys to the mystery because they allegedly connect Lashkar and the government. Western and Indian investigators suspect that Mir is a former military or ISI officer, or at least had close links to the security forces. They believe that Maj. Iqbal was an ISI officer using a code name. A recent Interpol notice of an Indian arrest warrant gives only his rank and last name.

It remains to be seen whether Mir, Maj. Iqbal and other suspected plotters will be successfully prosecuted. An Indian court convicted the lone surviving gunman in June. But U.S. officials say the Pakistani trial of the Lashkar military chief and six lower-level suspects captured last year seems hopelessly stalled.

Pakistani leaders say they have gotten tougher on Lashkar, freezing its assets and appointing an administrator at its headquarters.

"The government is working to prevent the preaching of extremism, bring them into the mainstream and implement curriculum changes," the senior Pakistani official said.

Critics call the crackdown largely symbolic, however. Lashkar camps, a longtime magnet for Western extremists attracted by slick English-language propaganda, still train aspiring fighters, a senior U.S. counterterrorism official said last week. And Pakistani leaders seem reluctant to confront the group and risk backlash from its trained fighters and the vast support base it has built through its charities and social programs.

Unlike al-Qaeda and other militant groups, Lashkar has not attacked the Pakistani government. But its professionalism, global networks and increasing focus on Western targets have made it one of the most dangerous forces in terrorism, many investigators say. Recent warnings of Mumbai-style plots by al-Qaeda in Europe reflect Lashkar's influence in the convergence of militant groups that a senior British counter-terrorism official calls "the jihadist soup in Pakistan."

"The American side is telling us that Lashkar is as much of a threat as al-Qaeda or the Taliban," the senior Pakistani official said.

As the second anniversary of Mumbai approaches, the families of the victims are waiting for authorities to keep their promises of justice.

"We are not going to give up," said Moshe Holtzberg, a brother of the slain rabbi. "The families want to see full justice being done for all those organizations and individuals involved in the Mumbai attacks."

ProPublica reporter Sharona Coutts and researchers Lisa Schwartz and Nicholas Kusnetz contributed to this report. ProPublica is an independent nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism. For more about the Mumbai investigation go to propublica.org.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company