Saturday, October 16, 2010

U.S. was told of American's ties to Pakistani militants


U.S. was told of American's ties to Pakistani militants

By Sebastian Rotella
Saturday, October 16, 2010; A1

Three years before Pakistani terrorists struck Mumbai in November 2008, federal agents in New York City investigated a tip that an American businessman was training in Pakistan with the group that later executed the attack.

The previously undisclosed allegations against David Coleman Headley, who became a key figure in the plot that killed 166 people, came from his wife after a domestic dispute that resulted in his arrest in 2005.

In three interviews with federal agents, Headley's wife said that he was an active militant in the terrorist group Lashkar-i-Taiba, had trained extensively in its Pakistani camps, and had shopped for night-vision goggles and other equipment, according to officials and sources close to the case. The wife, whom ProPublica is not identifying to protect her safety, also told agents that Headley had bragged of working as a paid U.S. informant while he trained with the terrorists in Pakistan, according to a person close to the case.

Federal officials say the FBI "looked into" the tip, but they declined to say what, if any, action was taken. Headley was jailed briefly in New York on charges of domestic assault but was not prosecuted. He wasn't arrested until 11 months after the Mumbai attack, when British intelligence alerted U.S. authorities that he was in contact with al-Qaeda in Europe.

In the four years between the wife's warning and Headley's capture, Lashkar sent him on reconnaissance missions around the world. On five trips to Mumbai, he scouted targets for the attack, using his U.S. passport and cover as a businessman to circulate freely in areas frequented by Westerners. He also met in Pakistan with terrorist handlers.

In March, Headley pleaded guilty to charges of terrorism in the Mumbai attacks and to a failed plot to take and behead hostages at a Danish newspaper. He is cooperating with authorities.

It is not clear from the available information whether a different response to the tip about Headley might have averted the Mumbai attacks. It is known that U.S. anti-terrorism officials warned Indian counterparts several times in 2008 about a possible attack on Mumbai, according to U.S. and Indian officials.

Former DEA informant

The handling of Headley's case calls into question the progress of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies in improving their coordination and the ability to "connect the dots" and deter attacks. It also raises questions about a complicated relationship between U.S. authorities and a confessed terrorist.

Court records and interviews show that Headley served as an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration, starting in the late 1990s. But a former senior U.S. law enforcement official said Headley's work as an informant ended before the Mumbai attacks in 2008. He could not say whether Headley worked for the drug agency during the years when he was helping to plan the attack.

"Headley was closed as an informant because he wasn't producing anything," the former senior official said. He said he thought Headley's relationship with the DEA ended "years" before Mumbai, but he did not have more precise information.

Federal officials refused to discuss the 2005 tip, other than to confirm that the FBI conducted an inquiry into the allegations made by Headley's wife.

FBI officials said they could not comment on the agency's role in the case because of ongoing prosecutions in Chicago and overseas. A DEA spokesman declined to comment because of a policy against discussing informants. New York police officials confirmed the details of the arrest in the assault case, but they declined to discuss the terrorism inquiry.

Anti-terrorism officials noted that federal authorities in New York City are deluged with tips about suspected extremists.

"They get half a dozen leads a day like this," a U.S. anti-terrorism official said. "People ratting out family members, people with grudges. Something like this does not ramp up to the White House."

The tip came at a time of heightened fears about Pakistani terrorism. A month earlier, al-Qaeda suicide bombers trained in Pakistan had struck the London transport system. In previous years, a group of militants in Virginia got life sentences for training with and supporting Lashkar. Former Lashkar trainees had also been prosecuted in foiled plots against New York, London and Australia.

Becoming radicalized

Headley was born Daood Gilani in Washington, D.C. His Pakistani father was a renowned broadcaster. His mother, whose maiden name was Headley, came from a wealthy Philadelphia family.

Gilani moved to Pakistan as an infant. Returning to the United States at 17, he was married and divorced, and he slid into heroin addiction, court records say.

In 1988, the DEA arrested him in Germany for smuggling heroin from Pakistan, court records show. He cooperated and was sentenced to four years in prison.

In 1997, three years after Gilani moved to Manhattan to run video stores bought by his family, the DEA arrested him for another heroin deal. Agents soon obtained his release and he became a prized informant, records show.

"He . . . helped the DEA infiltrate the very close-knit Pakistani narcotics dealing community in New York," prosecutors said in a 1998 letter urging a lenient sentence. He also "traveled to Pakistan . . . to develop intelligence on Pakistani heroin traffickers."

Gilani was sentenced to 19 months in prison, but was freed on probation in less than a year. Records show that while he was on probation he got permission in 1999 to go to Pakistan for an arranged marriage. Previously casual about his Muslim faith, he became radicalized. He sought new recruits, raised funds for Lashkar and began preparing for its mountain training camps, getting corrective eye surgery and taking horseback-riding lessons, according to a person close to the case who requested anonymity.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Gilani told associates he planned to train with Lashkar as part of a secret mission for the U.S. government, the person close to the case said. "I want to do something important in my life," this person quoted him as saying. "I want to do something for my country."

Wife contacts task force

In December 2002, Gilani married his girlfriend of eight years in New York. He used return visits to buy ropes, hiking boots and military books, and to research prices for night-vision goggles. He also continued to assert he was a paid U.S. informant, the person said.

His wife contacted authorities in August 2005. She had demanded a divorce after learning he had a wife and children in Pakistan. They argued, and on Aug. 25 she filed an assault complaint.

On Aug. 26, she phoned a tip line of the Joint Terrorism Task Force in New York, an FBI-led, multi-agency unit.

On Aug. 31, New York City police arrested Gilani for alleged misdemeanor assault, according to police officials. He was released on bond and was never prosecuted for reasons that remain unclear, officials say.

Not long after the arrest, task force investigators met three times with his wife. It is not known if the investigators questioned him about her revelations.

The tip came after he had finished training and soon before he met with terrorist bosses in Pakistan and launched into the Mumbai plot, court documents say. To conceal his Pakistani Muslim background, he legally changed his name to David Coleman Headley in February 2006.

After the Mumbai attacks, Lashkar deployed Headley on a plot against a Danish newspaper that had published cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Lashkar soon put the plot on hold, so Headley turned to Ilyas Kashmiri, an al-Qaeda kingpin in Pakistan, documents say. Kashmiri put Headley in touch with militants in Europe, but when Headley contacted them, he was detected by British intelligence, officials say.

ProPublica researchers Nicholas Kusnetz and Lisa Schwartz contributed to this report. ProPublica is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism. ProPublica is supported entirely by philanthropy and provides the articles it produces, free of charge, both through its Web site and to other news organizations.

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