Spy vs. spy: Headley the ‘strategic asset’

March 22, 2010

a version of this was printed in the DNA newspaper on 23rd march:


Spy vs. spy: Is Headley a protected ‘asset’?

Rajeev Srinivasan

The fact that the United States’ Department of Justice has agreed to a plea-bargain by David Coleman Headley (born Daood Sayed Gilani) is worrying. Headley, the Pakistani-American accused of being a Lashkar-e-Toiba operative and the person who did much of the planning and surveillance for the 11/26 terrorist attack on Mumbai, pleaded guilty to 12 counts, including conspiracy to murder Indians and Americans in India, and to support terrorism in India. Apparently, Headley has pleaded guilty so that he might escape the death penalty as a co-operating witness.

In and of itself, this is not surprising, because the Americans have dropped hints from day one about their reluctance to let Indian investigators interrogate Headley. Around the time of Headley’s arrest around October last year, Indian sleuths flew to the US, but returned empty handed. Suspicions were raised at the time that Headley was in fact a ‘strategic asset’ for American intelligence, because he had gotten off surprisingly lightly in a drug-related incident, a serious offense in the US.

However, it is worrisome because it implies that the Americans have many skeletons in the closet regarding Pakistan-related terrorism incidents. The plea-bargain insulates Headley from being examined in court, suggesting that the Americans did not want him to ‘sing like a canary’, revealing various things they would rather keep well-hidden. There will be no trial in the US, no depositions and no public disclosures, and he will not be extradited to India to stand trial for 11/26.

This is yet another instance of the ambivalent nature of the American attitude to Pakistan and its terror apparatus. Even though it is obvious that most terrorism has links to Pakistan, and that its spy agency ISI nurtures terrorist entities such as the LeT, the Americans pretend to not see this. Symmetrically, the Pakistanis pretend to reduce their terror sponsorship, periodically rounding up some unimportant or washed-up terrorist and delivering him to the Americans; this charade keeps everybody happy.

A particularly egregious example of American collusion with the ISI was seen in 2001 at the siege of Kunduz in Afghanistan. At the time, the Northern Alliance, in full cry, were besieging a thousand Taliban in an old fort in Kunduz. Astonishingly, the US allowed the Pakistani air force to air-lift most of these alleged Taliban, who, it turned out, were mid-level officers of the ISI and the Pakistan Army who had traded in their uniforms for the Taliban’s baggy pants and beards.

There is speculation that Headley is a double agent for America’s spy agency, the CIA. The world of double agents is complicated, as the CIA itself learned to its chagrin just a few weeks ago when most of its agents in Pakistan were massacred by a Jordanian double agent. This could be why, even though Headley was indirectly responsible for the deaths of several American citizens in Mumbai, they are not throwing the book at him.

Contrast Headley’s treatment with the fuss over Adam Gadahn, a white American convert, a senior spokesperson and propaganda advisor for Al-Qaeda. Even though Gadahn has not killed any US citizens, he is the first American charged with treason in over fifty years. Clearly they are bothered by Gadahn’s actions, but not so much by Headley’s. There is also no indictment of the LeT despite the fact that Headley is accused of attending several training camps run by them, in jihad indoctrination, combat, counter-surveillance, and weapons usage.

The tenderness shown to Headley suggests there is more to his story than meets the eye. Could it be that Headley, and his fellow-accused, Pakistani-Canadian Tahawwur Rana, breezed in and out of India and did their reconnaissance because the CIA was greasing the wheels? Maybe they even helped Headley erase his past, his Pakistani name Gilani, and his record as a drug-dealer so that he could travel as a white American to India. It is true that white Americans arouse less suspicion, as has been seen in the cases of blonde converts Jamie Paulin-Ramirez and Colleen R LaRose, aka ‘Jihad Jane’.

The Headley saga may well be a practical demonstration of the attitudes of the Obama Administration towards India. Obama has distinctly downgraded India in his priority list. When Obama made a trip to Asia, India was not on the itinerary. If and when Obama finally makes it to India, we can be assured that there will be a hyphenating visit to Pakistan included.

The DoJ’s willingness to protect Headley after he pleaded guilty to abetting terrorism and mass-murder in India, and admitted that he had attended terrorism training camps operated by the LeT, leads to a simple conclusion: the US government does not care about the killing of Indians. This, after all the honeyed words about the beginnings of a beautiful relationship, leads us to a sad truth: India cannot depend on anybody other than itself. And there are plenty of Headleys and sleeper cells out there.


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