US-Pak intelligence ties a ‘labyrinth,’ ‘complicated dance,’ says documentarian on Headley.
By Asif Ismail
WASHINGTON, DC: Last month, David Coleman Headley was sentenced to 35 years in prison, by a federal court in Chicago, for his role in the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Few journalists have covered Headley, a former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration informant who scouted targets in Mumbai prior to the terror attacks there that killed 160 people, as exhaustively as Sebastian Rotella, a Washington-based investigative reporter for ProPublica. Perfect Terrorist, his critically acclaimed 2011 documentary on Headley, details the Pakistani American’s rise from a “small-time drug smuggler to international terrorist and spy.”
Rotella, who worked for The Los Angeles Times for 23 years, has authored two books, Twilight on the Line: Underworlds and Politics at the U.S.-Mexico Border, and Triple Crossing, a novel published in 2011. In a recent interview to the American Bazaar, he speaks about Headley’s sentencing and the Pakistani American’s murky past, among other topics. Excerpts:
You have been writing about David Coleman Headley for a number of years. Tell us about the man.
Headley is one of the most interesting and dangerous and unique figures I have come across in the many cases of terrorism I have looked at around the world, whether American or foreign. He is different than a lot of the Jihadis you come across. He is older for one thing. He is almost twice as old — he is a man who really gets involved in this in his 40s — he’s 52 now. He has this profile of someone from both the Pakistani and the American elite. He is a businessman, he is very cosmopolitan. There is a curious set of contradictions going on because, on the one hand he is very extremist, or fundamentalist, even fanatical with his Islamic belief. But his lifestyle is certainly not the typical jihadi austere, self-denying lifestyle. He is someone who enjoyed the good life, who would drink, who would use drugs, who sort of had a kind of a playboy lifestyle. And he is also different because he is fundamentally, not just a terrorist. As the evidence shows, he is an intelligence operative. He is a trained operative, a trained agent, a trained spy of the Pakistani intelligence service. So he has much better trade craft than a lot of the people you see involved even in successful terrorist plots because of this state connection, the state-sponsored aspect of the plot he is involved in. And the other thing, I think, that is interesting is he also has a bit of a mercenary quality in that he starts with Lashkar-e-Taiba and moves, kind of brings his plot, to Al Qaeda, which is kind of interesting, kind of shopping his skills and his expertise. And of course, one of the things when you ask about his personality is [his] almost like a chameleon [ability] … to be very at ease and very western if he needs to be, very Pakistani, if he needs to be to be able to function in India, which is a country he says he hates. He is very good, very manipulative in fooling people in general. He juggles relationships whether with intelligence or law enforcement agencies — he was a Drug Enforcement Administration informant — then he is also a drug trafficker, works for the ISI (Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence), Al Qaeda, Lashkar. He juggles relationships, where he has different wives at different times, some of them simultaneously, and manages to keep those relationships somehow compartmentalized and secret from people. So he really is a master of manipulation, of deception, and he has this capacity, as many … informants do, to be able to turn around and betray people when he needs to betray them, to gain confidence, and then to betray people at the drop of a hat to survive. He always has something when he gets caught, he always has something that he tries to bargain with, and it usually works to some extent.
What made Headley choose the path he chose? Was it a fascination for the craft?
I think partly. One of the intelligence veterans we talked to said he has this love of the game. And I think that certainly is part of it: his love for adrenaline, for danger. There are some signs that he really was attracted by that. This is a guy who goes to military school in Pakistan and tries to go to military school in the United States. Washes out both times, but I think there remained this fascination for being a soldier and being a warrior and being part of the special forces, and sort of channels that into being an undercover operative and spy. I think he really [is] a Pakistani nationalist and Islamist, which goes together in the Pakistani context. The Islamic extremist and Pakistani nationalist ideology — that cocktail of ideology — he believed in, I think, it was instilled in him from a young age, and there was always a core of him that held on to that. That explains the hatred of India. And though he became very western, I think that whole part of him that has a real hatred for western excess—what he would see as western excess. There was an ideological core to him. But he was also flexible about it in terms of his lifestyle that always didn’t hew to that rigid discipline.
He also worked for the US intelligence, right?
Well, he certainly worked as an informant of the US Drug Enforcement Administration. That is absolutely documented, and it’s also clear that, right after 9/11, in September 2001, his mission expands. The DEA contacts him in the days after 9/11, and tasks him to start gathering intelligence on militants and on extremists, both, at a mosque on the ground in New York, and working his extensive contacts in Pakistan over the phone and seeing who he can deal with. He was ideal for the DEA and other US agencies at the time because there was a great need for intelligence in Pakistan and he was someone who had contacts, and spoke the language, who could travel back and forth. His role expands, and he starts gathering intelligence on terrorism. Then there’s a still mysterious chapter, where the official story is that he is deactivated as an informant, but the facts and the recollections of many people would suggest that he … [was] a kind of, off the books informant, more focused on intelligence than on law enforcement… His probation is abruptly terminated three years early, which is extraordinary, and he’s rushed off to Pakistan or he rushes off to Pakistan. He, in fact, tells people close to him that he’s going to work for the US government and different people in the US government have different versions. The DEA says, no, he was deactivated within months after that departure. Within a couple of months after that, he starts training with Laskhar. Others say, no, he started training with Lashkar at the same time he was still an informant and that’s because he was gathering intelligence. That is still one of the murkiest things in the case, which the US government has been very reticent to talk about.
A lot of people in India think that Headley got away with it, and this is despite that fact that he was responsible for the deaths of six Americans as well. Do you think, in this case, US national security trumped criminality?
I can certainly understand the frustration and the anger in India, and certainly it’s pretty extraordinary to have someone pleaded guilty to that many murders — because ultimately he was a direct accomplice in that number of murders in Mumbai, and a very barbaric plot in Denmark, don’t forget — to get the sentence he got. But it is also true that the US law enforcement system to fight terrorism is based very much on these kinds of plea agreements, and there’s case after case of people connected to Al Qaida and other groups, who were involved in very murderous [activities], who have gotten very reduced sentences. Let’s look at it coldly and analytically: the man is going to spend most of the rest of his life, if not the rest of his life, in prison. He is going to get out when he is in his late 70s, early 80s. And if you look at the amount of information he gave, it’s true that… even though US intelligence and law enforcement had a lot of information already on the case, without Headley’s evidence, it’s hard to believe that, the US government, for example, could have indicted people in the ISI or indicted Sajid Mir, the mastermind of the [Mumbai] attack. So people in India who are angry, I certainly understand that, but they should look also that because of Headley, this information has come out to the public arena, perhaps for the first time, if that’s what they are angry about, which is the involvement of Laskhar-e-Taiba, people who are still being protected or sheltered in Pakistan, and, at least one Pakistani intelligence officer, who it seems there’s very strong evidence, played a direct role in this plot, that is thanks to this plea bargain. I think what’s more frustrating for a lot of people in India and the United States are two things: one, not as much the sentence he got, but the fact that he’s it, in other words he got that sentence and, if that plea bargain would have then lead to the immediate capture of higher ranking people, it would be easier to understand. It would be, okay, they had Headley, who was kind of mid-level, and the masterminds fell as a result. But the masterminds, yes they’ve been charged, but they haven’t fallen and it looks like its going to be difficult for them to fall anytime soon because they are in Pakistan, apparently protected by the security forces. The other thing that’s very frustrating, for both in India and for people who follow this in the United States, is to have done this deal in such secrecy and to still not, for the US government, not to have explained so many questions and mysteries and strange things about this case. I can certainly understand [if] someone in India, for example, were to say, imagine that somebody involved in the September 11th attacks had been arrested in India, and the Indian government would have grabbed him, made a deal with him, put him in prison and say, “Don’t worry, we are taking care of it.” Even though the guy would be in prison and justice would be done, I can understand how Americans would be frustrated. So I think there are things that mitigate, or put in context that sentence, but I can certainly understand the frustration.
Do you think the United States is still pursuing terror masterminds that are implicated by Headley? How far it can go because of national security implications?
I think there is no doubt that the US investigators and the prosecutors have made a very determined effort to go after people like Sajid Mir and Major Iqbal in trying to identify them, into pressuring the Pakistanis to go after them, in trying to locate them. I think we shouldn’t see also the US government as a monolith. Maybe [there are] agencies… that have to deal with Pakistan, and the reality of the turf of intelligence, for whom this has to be less of a priority because they are worried, for example, about going after other people. But I think the law enforcement agencies that are investigating this would like nothing better than to bring these guys to justice. If you look at past cases of terrorism, it’s true that the FBI, for example, has a long memory. People have been caught three, four, five, ten years after the fact. So I wouldn’t say that, “No, there’s nothing being done.” There’s a lot being done behind the scenes. People are being monitored, as we saw for example, the person who was arrested in Saudi Arabia, the Indian suspect [Sayed Zabiuddin Ansari], that was thanks to the US help, and the US monitoring. But yes, the bottom line is there’s only so much the US government can do if these guys are in Pakistan, as the Pakistani security forces, absolutely, will not cooperate with having them arrested, even though it is clear who they are, and in some cases, even where they are.
What kind of relationship is there between the US and Pakistani intelligence agencies? On the one hand, they are cooperating, but because Americans are pursuing operatives like Major Iqbal there’s also a tension between them…
Absolutely! And it’s a real labyrinth because I think, as one European counter-terror chief told me, the culture of the Pakistani intelligence is very strange —and Americans have said similar things to me — you may have one unit or wing or sector of the ISI that is working closely with the Americans in going after Al Qaida people and risking their lives and suffering losses. Let’s not forget, Pakistan is also a victim of terrorism and groups like Al Qaida attack the Pakistani state, and Pakistan goes after them. Yet, there’s this strange dance where groups like Lashkar are allowed to function in the open and do get away with things like Mumbai and even they have alliances with Al Qaida. So there’s a very blurry world, where it appears that some people are working on the side of the west, some are working against it, and some are in the middle, and it’s not clear, even though, for example, one of the things that the Mumbai case shows is that Headley and people close to him make a transition from Lashkar to Al Qaida supposedly distancing themselves with the Pakistani security forces, and expressing anger at the ISI, yet they still have their own relationship with the ISI, and some of them, even though they are supposedly in Al Qaida, seem to be protected. So it’s very murky, and I think it’s very frustrating for the US law enforcement but there is still cooperation, as you say. And there’s also, I think tacit unspoken agreements like the drone strikes, which clearly go on. Pakistan protests them, but I think Pakistan much prefers the drone strikes that they have to be sending people into the wilderness to try and go after these guys and result in casualties as a result, so there’s a real complicated dance going on in that labyrinth.
Do you think India had enough access to Headley?
I’ve talked to people, who are directly familiar with the interrogation of him by the Indians, and my impression is that they had good lengthy access to him. I will say there was a sense that he wasn’t talking about certain things. In fact, and I’ll say this because it was said on the record, a high-ranking Indian official said to me that there were certain things, that there was some indication, don’t ask about this, like his relationship with US agencies. But if you look at just what has been made public, the NIA report on his interrogation, they covered a lot of ground. And I get the sense that, in terms of access to him, I think it was pretty good. I think what may frustrate certain Indian officials is access to certain information about him. In other words, this whole question of the relationship with him, and this whole question that we’ve spent a lot of time working on, which is all these warnings about him to US law enforcement — at least six warnings about him, five of them before the Mumbai attacks, and one right afterward, over a period of about seven years, where people close to him repeatedly went to, above all, the FBI and said, “This guy’s a terrorist, this guy is involved with Lashkar, this guy is going to Pakistan to train.” Yet he wasn’t stopped sooner, he wasn’t identified sooner. And could the Mumbai attacks have been prevented as a result? That is one of the great tragic questions hovering over this case that has not been answered.
India recently hanged Afzal Guru in a controversial manner. Do you think the inability to get at terror masterminds such as Headley, and others, played any role in the haste with which Guru was sent to gallows?
I am not a great expert on the Indian politics, or on the [Guru] case. My impression is certainly that, as time goes on, and the masterminds of Mumbai remain at large — and India did certainly show great restraint after the attacks on Mumbai, which were an incredible, devastating, spectacular attack, and India showed great restraint in not striking back and trusted in the justice system. But as time goes on, and we see that the masterminds remain at large, we see the supposed trial in Pakistan of the Laskhar military chief seems to be in a permanent limbo, we see these questions about Headley not being answered, I think there is frustration, some nationalist sentiment in India, which is always dangerous — you know that happens in the United States, too — certain anger, certain desire to somehow both get revenge, strike back and send a message of [deterrence], which to some extent is understandable. You worry that terrorists who’ve gotten away with something, if they feel that there is not going to be a consequence, they are going to try again. I think that, my impression is that the hanging of Kasab after, I think, the death penalty has not been implemented in India for quite some time, the hanging of Kasab and then this recent hanging may fit into that context of some frustration, some anger, some rising nationalism and new tensions, even though there [are] attempts at some rapprochement with Pakistan, new tensions at the line in Kashmir, I think all of that, probably plays in perhaps played into the political context in which this has happened.