Journalism in the Public Interest

Chicago Terrorism Trial: What We Learned, and Didn’t, About Pakistan’s Terror Connections

Questions linger after the conviction of a Chicago-based businessman for supporting the group behind the Mumbai terror attacks.


David Coleman Headley testifies in the trial against his boyhood friend Tahawwur Rana, who was found guilty in connection with terrorist funding of a Pakistani terror group on attacks in India and in Denmark. (Courtroom sketch by LD Chukman)

The terrorism trial of Tahawwur Rana, a minor accomplice whose trial ended Thursday in a guilty verdict on two of three counts, offered an extraordinary look into the underworld of terrorism and espionage in South Asia and had repercussions much closer to home.

The five days of testimony of confessed American terrorist and Pakistani spy David Coleman Headley were unprecedented in a U.S. courtroom. Headley delivered explosive revelations about how officers in Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) funded, supported and directed the 2008 Mumbai attacks along with the Lashkar-i-Taiba militant group.

Because of his mix of front-line experience and high-level contacts, Headley's testimony was like a seminar in how terrorists communicate in code, do surveillance on targets and assemble plots while spies oversee the operations from the shadows like puppeteers.

The case also showed how a growing number of serving and former Pakistani military officers have put their lethal talents at the service of Lashkar, al-Qaida and other groups. It revealed the impunity with which ISI officers and terrorists alike operate in Pakistan even when they target Americans and other Westerners. (See our readers' guide to the trial.)

The evidence combined with the indictment of Headley's ISI handler in the murders of six American victims of the Mumbai attacks has worsened the already troubled U.S. Pakistani-relationship.

"The trial has been yet another bump in the road for U.S.-Pakistan relations," said Stephen Tankel, author of a forthcoming book titled Storming the World Stage: the Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba.

At the same time, the trial left enduring mysteries.

It did not answer questions about whether Sajid Mir, a Lashkar mastermind caught on tape directing the slaughter in Mumbai by phone, was once a Pakistani military officer. It did not explore the extent to which ISI chiefs beyond Headley's handler, known only as Major Iqbal, were aware of the Mumbai plot, which ultimately killed 166 people. Headley testified that he believed top ISI leadership was not aware, but he also said he thought Iqbal's commanding officer and his unit of the spy agency knew about the operation.

Finally, prosecutors managed to skirt two delicate and interconnected issues that the U.S. government refuses to discuss: Headley's role as a U.S. informant and the failure of the FBI to stop his terrorist activity despite at least six warnings during seven years. Headley revealed that he was simultaneously an extremist and an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration for at least two years and that he gathered counterterror intelligence as well as doing anti-drug work.

Headley testified that he stopped working for the DEA in September 2002, but that did not change contradictions and gaps in the U.S. government's official version. The DEA has stated that he was deactivated in early 2002, while other agencies have said he remained an informant until as late as 2005.

The lack of clarity reinforces suspicions that the U.S. government knew more about Headley than it has revealed and that his role as an informant shielded him from more aggressive scrutiny in the years before his arrest in October 2009.

"I don't feel we got the whole story about Headley as an informant from the Americans," said a European counterterror official involved in the investigation. "I believe he was a drug informant and also some other kind of informant."

The jury did not get the whole story either. Headley had already pleaded guilty to doing reconnaissance in Mumbai and for a plot in Denmark. The official focus of the trial was the narrower issue of charges of material support of terrorism against Rana, who owns an immigration consulting firm in Chicago. He was accused of supporting Headley's reconnaissance for the Mumbai and Denmark attacks and of overall support for Lashkar. Prosecutors charged that Rana let Headley open an office of the firm in Mumbai and use the business as cover for his surveillance in India and Denmark.

The verdict suggested a common-sense analysis by the jury. Headley testified that the Mumbai plot was a joint operation in which he was directed by Major Iqbal of the ISI and the Lashkar handler named Mir. The defense established that Rana communicated with Major Iqbal, but not any Lashkar masterminds. Rana's lawyers argued that Headley, Rana's boyhood friend, was a skilled manipulator who convinced Rana that he was doing intelligence for the ISI against India, Pakistan's arch-enemy, and kept him in the dark about the Mumbai plot.

The acquittal on the charge of supporting the Mumbai plot indicates that the jury accepted that argument. But they apparently rejected the idea that Rana remained a dupe once the carnage in India had happened. Headley soon enlisted Rana to assist his reconnaissance on a newspaper in Denmark that has become an internationally known target of terrorists after publishing caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad in 2005. Because Rana was a devout Muslim, it seems hard to believe he did not suspect anything at that point.

Rana's conviction is a small victory. Washington has been pressing Pakistan for more than a year to arrest Major Iqbal as well as Mir and a half-a-dozen other Lashkar chiefs who have been implicated as masterminds. Despite abundant evidence and the U.S. federal indictment, the Pakistani government has not pursued those fugitives. They are not in hiding and continue to be involved in terrorist plotting, U.S. investigators say.

Lashkar is simply too powerful and too close to the Pakistani security forces, according to Western and Indian counterterror officials. Pakistani officials fear that arresting major figures in Lashkar, which has not attacked the Pakistani state, could result in violent backlash and further instability.

"They think they have to leave these Lashkar cadres free to control the organization," an Indian anti-terror official said. "They are worried that if they move against them, it could be a civil-war situation."

The verdict was incomplete and disappointing; the jury appears to have placed more weight on a planned (but ultimately aborted) attack on a European city, and they dismissed as inconsequential a horrendous terrorist attack (that actually took place) on an Indian city.

Thanks for staying on the story! Indian govt needs to look at its business licensing policy towards non resident aliens. Its too much to expect the US govt to hold Rana responsible for what Indian rules allowed him to do in India(ie provide cover for terrorist activity).

@ Chl

The jury was not asked to judge whether an actual attack (Mumbai) was more or less serious than an planned but aborted attack (Denmark).  They were asked to judge whether Mr Rana was actively involved in one, or the other or both.  This they did.
Do not blame your, or my, disappointment in the verdict they came up with.

Cheers, all.

@Dolima, Headley testified that the Mumbai massacres were a joint operation of the ISI and LeT, and Rana was shown to be in communication with the ISI. And yet the jury in its wisdom saw it fit to acquit him because he wasn’t linked directly to the LeT. The chances that the Pakistani terrorist state would ever give up Major Iqbal or any of the ISI terrorists, or try them for crimes against humanity, are zero. Convicting Rana for his part in the mass murder of American and Indian civilians would have been the only chance of justice for the victims; and the jury dropped the ball. Nothing happened in Denmark. No one was killed. But this jury managed to feel stongly enough about what could have happened to convict Rana for this less serious terrorist role that he willingly played.

I gave up a long time ago on the uncaring and uninterested Indian government of ever carrying out justice on behalf of its unfortunate citizens who were victims of Pakistan’s state-sponsored terrorism. However, I had hoped for justice to be served in this mater in an American court, if only because a handful of American citizens were also targeted for slaughter; but it was not to be this time around. Perhaps the NYC trial brought by the murdered Rabbi’s family may be more sucessful in convicting the Pakistani masterminds of this henious act of terrorism, even if they are not physically present to be sentenced for their crimes against humanity.


You are talking about justice. I was talking about the judgment.  They are two different things.

Everything you surmise may very well be true.  But then again, things may actually be quite different.

Cheers, all.

V. C. Bhutani

June 11, 2011, 4:32 a.m.

It is not clear why the Chicago jury took such a limited view of things. It is possible that issues were framed by the court in a manner that did not require the jury to pronounce on the Mumbai 26/11 events and to limit themselves instead only to the planned action in Denmark. At the same time, I see an undercurrent of sympathy in the US for Pakistan and whatever it may do and a corresponding lack of understanding where India is concerned. Nothing can be done in a matter of this kind because this seems to be evidence of closed minds. The jury did not have an open mind. It may be expected that the court too shall evince a similar attitude.

The time and place where terrorists commit their heinous crimes should be the determining factors for the place and venue where the trials and deliberations be held. If OSB were to have been captured and tried under such settings many questions would have been answered.

Thank you for your relentless pursuit to cover this story from start to finish.

The idea that a criminal/terrorist should be tried where the crime was committed is an interesting one.
Thee certainly would be great satisfaction from the victims in confronting the perpetrator face to face.
It would make it more difficult in finding an impartial jury.  Imagine trying to find an impartial jury in New York for a trial of OBL for example.  It would turn into a circus.  And the result might very well be pure vengeance rather than justice.  Then, also, where exactly did OBL’s crime occur?  Was it in the hills of Afghanistan where the planning took place, or in the skies over eastern USA?
Anyone have any thoughts on that?

Cheers, all.

Definitely Rana got reprieve for the very fact that he knew that Headley was going to do spying work for ISI. As someone said, this trial may have been deliberately limited to certain aspects of the spectrum of Headley misdeeds so as to appear the justice is being done for Mumbai carnage.
But one things we shouldn’t forget is, were charges filed in such a way that US govt’s relationship with Headley was never a focus during the trial?
I have very uneasy feeling towards the fact that Headley worked for DEA and was ignored on 6-7 suspected terrorists complaints without US doing a thing? This seems unbelievable for the time line with enhanced anti-terrorists measures in place after 9/11. Was he being ignored by US govt as he seemed valuable in some aspects?
Was it a case of US gathering credible information from Headley on how Pak’s double game (terrorism related) work? Was he a CIA double agent?  And in this process, mostly Indians were sacrificed by allowing the attack to take place?

In addition, who knows the pre-trial plea deal provided to Headley contain? or masking things/operations?

One thing also seems obvious is that US does have a soft corner for Pakistan, due to their old ties, strategic interest and curr/future need in Afghanistan. I have a feeling, the average US jury also understands some aspect of these facts. So they may be not focusing on the obvious (Pak’s complicity)

India needs to protect it’s self interest cause west doesn’t believe the terror against western interest is same as against non-western interest.

bruce rappaport

June 13, 2011, 7:54 p.m.

I think there is a lot of sympathy toward India over the Mumbai attacks. Perhaps the average American does have a sense that India is part of the world’s future. They may just be worried about Pakistan from what they know. It doesn’t seem like our government knows what to do or feel either.

Good Evening !

James M Fitzsimmons

June 14, 2011, 8:39 a.m.

The facts about 6 unheeded allegations concerning Headley need to be made public. There appears to be a procedural problem here that needs fixing and only public pressure will overcome bureaucratic defensiveness and denial. Unheeded allegations about Headley are reminiscent of 1. the mishandled warnings to our Embassy in Nigeria by a concerned father about his own son who became the Detroit “underwear bomber” and 2. mishandled court authorized electronically intercepted information about the Fort Hood mass murderer. Exactly what prevented the JTTF’s, FBI and/or other agencies and task forces from being aggressive with follow-up in such cases?  It is contemplated that the current FBI Director’s term be extended for 2 years beyond the 10 year term by Congress pursuant to the President’s request. Hearings on the extension would be a good occasion to get some answers about these gaping holes in our defenses.

The story misses the motivation issues. Headley and his semi-literate accomplices from rural Punjab were seeing the videos of the murders and rapes of Muslims in Gujarat, of the 4,000/5,000 dead. The involvement by lower level ISI or Pakistani Army without full knowledge by the upper echelons is quite likely.

Anthony D'Souza

June 15, 2011, 3:19 p.m.

My Pakistani friend ‘Sandy Nabar’, you are doing the usual propaganda of Pakistani Muslims and helping spread the Pakistani Jihadi lies. For example - Disproportionately inflating the u fortunate deaths of Muslims in the Gujarat riots. You have coolly mentioned 4000/5000 dead. I have even read the figures of 10000 in Pakistani propaganda forums.

To put the records straight, as per official figures issued by the Government (these figures can be verified on Wikipedia), 790 Muslims and 254 non-Muslims died in the riots. Now compare these official figures with your ‘cool’ figures of 4000/5000! As if human life has no importance and it doesn’t matter whether 790 people are killed or 5000 are killed! The numbers of 790 or 5000, might be of zero importance in Sandy’s Pakistan, where humans are massacred like insects or animals, on daily basis in bomb attacks, but in India we value human life. Therefore, the figures matter for us and we are very sensitive to it.

It can not go unnoticed that the sole purpose of your comment here, by bringing irrelevant topic of some communal riots in India and by disproportionately inflating the casualty figures of Muslims, was an attempt to justify the Mumbai terrorist attacks and justify jihad.

The attempt to try to give clean chit to top ISI officers is part of the typical Pakistani mentality of repeated lies, denials and living in self-delusion. Otherwise, how can one imagine, the international project of such proportions could be handled by an isolated Major Iqbal without his organization knowing about it and without approval from his top bosses. One can not ignore that the major is a member of professional Army, where chances of disobeying or straying from official paths are almost impossible.

The planning, funds requirement, specialized marine commando training and jihadi indoctrination, intelligence training, complicated logistical support, transportation, communications, arms and ammunitions, etc was impossible without large official organizational sponsoring by ISI. The LeT, which is a paid irregular mercenary force of the Pakistan Army is unable to carry out even a small terrorist act anywhere, unless it’s activities are approved and supported by the ISI. The LeT continues to be under tight control of the ISI.

The differences between LeT and dozens of other terrorist organizations in Pakistan is quite distinct. The LeT is under tightly controlled by the ISI, several terrorist groups like Hizb-Ul-Mujahideen, JeM, etc have strong linkages with the ISI and there are a few terrorist groups like Pakistani Taliban who do not have any linkages with the ISI. The first two groups are nurtured by Pakistan whereas, the last group is targeted by Pakistan.

Excepts from a recent AP news article, related to the links between Pakistan Army & terrorists - 

[On the outskirts of the Pakistani capital lives a militant considered so powerful that Osama bin Laden consulted with him. Fazl-ur-Rahman Khalil heads Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen (HuM), a terrorist group closely aligned with al Qaeda and a signatory to Bin Laden’s anti-US fatwa in 1998. Khalil has also dispatched fighters to India, Afghanistan, Somalia, Chechnya and Bosnia, was a confidante of bin Laden and hung out with 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Pakistani authorities are clearly aware of Khalil’s whereabouts. But they leave him alone, just as they tolerate other militant groups nurtured by the Army and ISI, to use against India.

Khalil is also useful to the authorities because of his unusually wide contacts among Pakistan’s many militant groups, said a senior government official who is familiar with the security agencies and who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Khalil’s presence in an Islamabad suburb, confirmed to The AP by western officials in the region, underscores accusations that Pakistan is still playing a double game – fighting some militant groups while tolerating or supporting others – even after the solo US raid that killed bin Laden on May 2.

It is known, that Bin Laden had found refuge for five years, in a high security military town near the capital. Pakistan’s intelligence service has now arrested five Pakistanis who fed information to the CIA about the Bin Laden compound in Abbotabad, before the US raid.

A few days ago, CIA had informed ISI about the locations of bomb-making factories in border region of Pakistan. When the US and Pakistan Army reached the factories for secret raids, they found that the operatives of the factories had already escaped. The CIA Director Leon Panetta, during his recent visit to Pakistan, confronted ISI about tipping off militant-operatives running bomb-factories, aimed at killing US soldiers in Afghanistan. The militants belong to the Haqqani network, an Afghan Taliban faction that has ties to al Qaeda.

The compound where militant Khalil lives stands behind a high wall protected by barbed wire, in the suburb of Golra Sharif, outside Pakistan’s capital Islamabad. Khalil’s Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen, blamed for a deadly attack on the American Consulate in Karachi in 2002, has links to the Haqqanis and is considered a terrorist organisation by the US. Hundreds of militants are thought to belong to his organisation, though the strength of these groups is the links they share with each other.

The Pakistani senior government official who spoke with AP said Khalil has been arrested twice but each time was released on orders from Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI.

”He was significant for Osama bin Laden,” the official said. ”He has connections with all these terrorist groups but he is living here and we don’t go after him. He is the one you go to when you need to get to other groups”.

Khalil was once the boss of terror leader Ilyas Kashmiri. Like most of the militant groups that get a wink and a nod from Pakistan’s security agencies, Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen’s primary focus is Kashmir.
Khalil’s group has kidnapped/ killed foreigners in Indian Kashmir. His group also helped in the 1999 hijacking of an Indian airlines plane that resulted in the release of three militants, including Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who was responsible for the 2002 killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

Khalil’s militant ties include the anti-Indian Lashkar-e-Taiba group, blamed for masterminding the November 2008 assault on Mumbai that killed 166 people. The AP learned from the same official that seven training camps are operating in Pakistani Kashmir and most of them are run by Jamaat-ud-Dawwa, the name Lashkar-e-Taiba took after being banned under international pressure.

“There are seven jihadi camps working in Pakistan controlled Kashmir right now, giving them explosives training. Army and intelligence agencies say the camps provide Pakistan with strategic depth. It is only the Army and ISI. The government has no say” the official said.]

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:

Pakistan’s Terror Connections

The Mumbai terror attacks have revealed evidence of the extent of the ties of Pakistani intelligence to terrorist groups and the flaws in the U.S fight against Pakistan-based terror.

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