NEW DELHI -- Being friends with a terrorist can send you to jail, but sometimes it can land you a TV reality show and a book contract.
A young Indian gym instructor was befriended by David Coleman Headley, the U.S.-born man sentenced last month to 35 years in prison for helping plan the terror attacks in Copenhagen and Mumbai, during his many reconnaissance visits in the run-up to the 2008 deadly attacks on Mumbai. During the strikes, 166 people died, including six Americans.
But what went almost unnoticed was the story of personal loss and betrayal felt by the instructor, Rahul Bhatt. When Headley was arrested in Chicago in 2009 and his meetings with Bhatt became public, the latter was pilloried by many in India for being a possible accomplice. Bhatt’s private world crashed.
That story is the subject of a new book called “Headley and I”, written by Bhatt and co-author S. Hussain Zaidi. It lays open the details of what drew Bhatt to Headley, how meticulously Headley surveyed the city, and how the truth about Headley pushed Bhatt into “an emotional cesspit.” But more importantly, the book holds an unflattering mirror to the appalling loopholes in India’s security apparatus that allowed someone like Headley to enter and exit India without any scrutiny, and the knee-jerk reactions of the Indian public in terror investigations.
Headley used the gullible Bhatt to scout possible targets in the city for terror strikes, the book says, and relayed back the information and video-recordings to his bosses in Pakistan’s Islamic radical group, the Lashkar-e-Toiba. The book weaves together Bhatt’s memories of meetings and Headley’s own confessions to Indian investigators.
For Bhatt, a socially awkward, resentful and estranged son of a famous Bollywood movie director, it was a friendship forged out of his desperate search for a father-figure and mentor. Headley’s knowledge of drug mafias, counter-terror operations, police interrogation techniques, guns and women fascinated Bhatt who grew up on a diet of James Bond movies.
“With a dysfunctional family like mine and an absentee father…David’s presence was the best thing that had happened to me,” Bhatt writes.
It was painful to learn that Headley had used Bhatt’s name as a codename, referring to Mumbai as “Rahul city” in e-mails to his Pakistani handlers.
“His betrayal was unpardonable, I was in complete shock,” Bhatt said. “He was hanging out with me like a friend on one hand and plotting to blow up people like me in my city at the same time.”
The Times of India splashed Bhatt’s photo on the front page with a headline: “Did he help Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorists?”
For six months, Indian investigators grilled him with questions like: Do you speak Arabic? Have you ever been to Pakistan? How can you explain the 240-plus phone calls that you made to him?
When Bhatt was born, he was almost given a Muslim first-name “Mohammed” to mark his grandmother’s religion. But family friends advised against it and he got a Hindu name “Rahul” instead.
“If I was named Mohammed Bhatt, the police would have locked me up and thrown the key away,” Bhatt said.
The police did not find anything against him. Instead, Bhatt appeared on India’s biggest reality TV show and posed for magazine photo-spreads.
But questions remain.
Two weeks before the Mumbai attacks, Headley called Bhatt and asked him not to go anywhere near the southern parts of Mumbai over the next few days. That was where the attacks occurred later that month. It was a “friendly tone, a kind of a paternal concern for me”, Bhatt writes.
The question whether Headley had any affection for him will remain unanswered.
“I will take certain questions to the grave,” Bhatt sighed.