Headley and i, p.13
HEADLEY AND I,
S. Hussain Zaidi
David and I travelled all over town in those days. We went to Ayub’s and Bade Miyan in Colaba, where we would gorge on delicious chicken. He came across as someone immensely interested in everything about Mumbai, which made him a delightful companion, for I love the city too. And he was always taking pictures and recording videos. I remember being pleasantly surprised at his genuine enthusiasm to arm and shoot that camera of his.
Once, during one of our frequent trips out, we went to Big Cinemas Metro, which is located near Azad Maidan and the Mumbai Police’s Special Branch, to watch a movie. The show was supposed to start at 3 p.m., but we had arrived half an hour early. I excused myself for a while and left him standing alone at the entrance of the theatre to go to an ATM. A strange sight greeted me when I came back. David had spotted a Bohra priest, complete with a flowing beard, and was talking to him earnestly. As I approached, I heard the conversation between the two, and I realized that he had got into a very random argument with the gentleman.
I watched spellbound as the two of them stood there engaged in earnest debate for at least twenty to twenty-five minutes in front of all the people who had come to watch the movie. In fact, some people were even listening to the argument. I could not figure out why David had to accost the unsuspecting old man, who most certainly had no idea of what was coming when this huge, tall American had walked up to him and started arguing about the real meaning of Islam and why he believed in it and so on. The poor man had to defend Islam in the face of this sudden onslaught, and I found it a hilarious, if somewhat bizarre, spectacle. Finally, I had to intervene and tell David to leave the poor guy alone, and dragged him in to watch the movie.
Meanwhile, one day Vilas told us that he had set up a meeting with the Shiv Sena for David. David had been telling Vilas that he wanted to know everything about the Sena, and that he was keen on getting an audience with Sena supremo Bal Thackeray. Vilas had already taken him to the Shiv Sena Bhavan in Dadar. David had been enthralled and had taken a number of photographs. Vilas said that he would take David to meet Thackeray the following week at Matoshree, the politician’s residence in Bandra East.
David was very excited at this opportunity and egged Vilas on to tell us more about the Sena. While Vilas was elaborating on the meeting, the party and his leader’s charisma, David suddenly turned to me and said, ‘Rahul, do you know there are 241 Sena shakhas in Mumbai?’
I was taken aback. I was a bona fide resident of Mumbai and Vilas was a Shiv Sena worker. But neither of us was aware of such a fact. And here was this American, a foreigner, standing in front of us and spouting details about Mumbai, including a minor statistic that we should have known!
I asked him how he was aware of such specifics. His answer stunned both Vilas and me. ‘You know, guys,’ he said, ‘according to the US Department of State, the Shiv Sena is a terrorist organization. So the US has all kinds of data.’ Vilas and I looked at each other and I knew that he shared my awe.
It was decided that sometime in the next couple of days, Vilas would pick David up from his hotel in south Mumbai and they would go to Bandra together.
Vilas later told me that David seemed quite excited when they arrived at their destination and told the men there that they had come to meet Bal Thackeray. They were then directed to a man named Rajaram Rege, who was probably the secretary to Mr Thackeray as well as to his son Uddhav.
But David was out of luck that day. Rege told them that Thackeray was too busy with several high-profile meetings and would not be able to meet them. He apologized to them and told them to give him details about why they wanted to meet him and said that he would set up a meeting very soon.
Vilas told me that within minutes, David had charmed the man with his vast knowledge of Mumbai and the Shiv Sena. Rege was practically eating out of David’s hand as he took down all the details, including addresses and phone numbers, and promised them as they left that a meeting with Thackeray would be set up for sometime next week.
As soon as the two of them came out of the building, David stopped and said that he wanted to take a few photographs of Matoshree. Vilas was amused as he watched David rush about taking pictures from different angles. He was using his digital camera, with which one can shoot both stills and video. Of course, Vilas had no way of knowing whether David was shooting stills or recording.
For nearly fifteen minutes, David kept clicking away on his camera, saying that it was a historic place and that he had a lot of respect for Bal Thackeray, who he said was very famous and known to many people in America. Happy at his party supremo receiving such praise, Vilas humoured him and let him take as many pictures and record for as long as he wanted to.
Sometime later, when the three of us met again, I commented on the security at Bal Thackeray’s residence, which was provided by his own party workers and by the State Reserve Police Force and various other security outfits. I remarked that Thackeray was definitely one of the best protected men in all of Asia, and that he had Z+ security.
David’s reply was both shocking and impressive. He turned to me and said, ‘You know what? There are many loopholes in that security setup. If you look carefully, you’ll see that Thackeray is actually a sitting duck.’
I looked at David, wondering if he had really said that. He saw my quizzical expression and continued, ‘Rahul, take it from me. A small bunch of desperadoes could break that security cover wide open and reach Thackeray. I have no idea why the police are so proud of the protection that he has been given. I can quite clearly see that he is not well protected at all.’
When we asked him how he knew of the loopholes for sure and what dangers he could see, David refused to elaborate.
Vilas and I looked at each other, puzzled. This man had been there for hardly a few minutes and had managed to assess the security of the area and had supposedly found several loopholes in it. And to top it all, he was saying that Thackeray could be assassinated at will! David never ceased to amaze me, and I told him that. My conviction that he really was an American agent grew even stronger.
David seemed to be in a mood to talk that day. He said there were many things that the Mumbai Police didn’t know or were clueless about. He also said that Indian security agencies were not aware of a host of important things, and that there were thousands of small things that the average smart spy could take advantage of.
Surprised, I asked him what these things were.
I half expected David to fall silent, as he usually did when any of us broached such a subject. But that day, he just kept talking.
‘Let me give you an example,’ he said. ‘You see these mobile phones that we carry? They are all connected to the service provider’s signal tower. Now, suppose I don’t want my movements to be traced via this phone. Well, it can be done very easily. Let’s say I wanted to meet you in Worli. I would come to Lalbagh, and this would be traced by the mobile towers. The moment I reach Lalbagh, all I have to do is switch off my phone. Now there is no trace on me, and no one can know where I am. So, from Lalbagh I can travel to Worli, and from there I can come back to Bandra without being traced. Back at Bandra, when I switch my mobile phone on, the agencies will immediately deduce that I left Lalbagh and arrived in Bandra, but they would have no idea of what happened in between. What I did and where I went would remain completely untraceable.’
I was amazed, but also wondered out loud if there were any agencies that were capable of tracing a suspect who tried to shake off a shadow by such methods. David replied, ‘Well, it’s only the FBI which can ensure that a dead or switched-off phone in your pocket becomes a microphone that can relay each and every piece of information to the listeners without any hindrance. Not many others can.’
He then said that switching off one’s mobile phone was actually a very basic and simple trick, but there were many such tricks with which spies could easily mislead anyone tracking them. He laughed at the Indian agencies, who, he said, thought they knew everything and believed that the situation was under con
This convinced me beyond all doubt that David was anything but a businessman, and that his being an immigration lawyer was just a front. I was sure he was some kind of agent for a security or intelligence agency, given the knowledge that he displayed.
Another incident around this time gave me a glimpse of David’s chameleon-like ability to slip into any role instantly. I had sold a Cybex treadmill to my uncle Mukesh Bhatt for Rs 1.35 lakh. My aunt wanted to use one and my uncle didn’t like to go out to exercise either, preferring to walk for sixty minutes on a treadmill at home instead. Since I had some contacts at Cybex, I ensured that the machine was delivered with utmost care to my uncle’s residence in Bandra.
Unfortunately, within a few weeks, the treadmill developed a technical snag and was rendered almost unusable. Mukesh and his wife Nilima kept calling me and asking me to come and see if I could identify what the problem was and if I could do anything about it.
One day, when I was sitting in a cafe in Bandra with David, chatting about inconsequential things, I received one such call from my uncle. He reminded me that he had paid a lot of money and didn’t want to see the machine go to waste. Since I was close to their house, I decided I would drop in and see what I could do. I asked David if he would mind tagging along with me for just a bit, to which he answered that he would be delighted.
We went to Mukesh Bhatt’s place, which was within walking distance from the cafe. When we reached, my uncle wasn’t at home, it was my aunt who welcomed us. She gazed curiously at David, who cut a rather impressive figure in his green polo-neck T-shirt and jeans, with his differently coloured eyes and ponytail.
On the spur of the moment, I decided to play a prank on both David and my aunt. When she looked at David, expecting me to introduce them, I walked up to her and said, ‘You guys were so upset and distressed about the treadmill that I spoke to the people at Cybex. This gentleman here is David Headley, the vice-president of Cybex India, who has come personally at my request to see if he can help you.’
My aunt looked at David, clearly impressed that the vice-president himself had come to look at the faulty machine. I waited to see how David would react, and was mentally already chuckling, imagining him fumble with the situation.
But I shouldn’t have bothered trying to trick David. Once again, he amazed me with his presence of mind and his chameleon-like personality.
David slipped into the role of vice-president, Cybex India, with élan. ‘Don’t worry, Mrs Bhatt. If you are so dissatisfied with the product, I shall personally see to it that your machine is replaced completely free of charge. You needn’t worry about the machine at all, and I apologize that you have been so inconvenienced. We want our customers to be 100 per cent satisfied. They should have no cause for complaint at all,’ David rattled off, sounding thoroughly reassuring and convincing. I had expected him to fumble, or stay quiet and just nod, and was floored at how he rose to the occasion.
We came out of the house laughing at the prank. That day I discovered an entirely new side to David, a mischievous streak I had never seen in him before. I realized once again that the man could change roles and step into the shoes of any man that he wanted to in a matter of seconds, and do so convincingly.
Once, I suggested to David that he and I launch an executive protection agency in Mumbai, as I was also interested in crime and security and he was a storehouse of information on the subject. Initially, David was not very keen, but after I explained my idea to him at some length, he seemed to fall in with it and said that he would speak to some friends of his in the US who were in the same business and see if such a venture was possible and whether it would be profitable or not. However, we never got around to taking the idea any further.
Throughout the early part of 2008, David and I kept meeting each other on and off. Vilas told me a very strange thing one day, which I did not understand at the time. In hindsight, though, it becomes clear. Vilas said that once, when he had gone to pick David up from where he was staying, he had seen the American reading a book in Arabic. At the time I dismissed it without a thought, saying David was probably just skimming through a volume which he didn’t understand but was curious about. I thought that maybe it was some kind of religious text.
Now I know why he had that book on him, why an American would carry an Arabic book with him.
As the world has discovered, in his head David wasn’t an American at all.
‘May I have some coffee please?’
Headley’s request was immediately fulfilled; the FBI man signalled to the camera, and in less than a minute, a steaming cup of coffee arrived.
Behera was impatient to get on with the interrogation. He said, ‘So what happened next?’
Headley took a sip of coffee, leaned back and closed his eyes. Then he started to speak.
By the time I arrived in Mumbai on 10 April 2008, my seventh visit, I had been to all the important locations in Mumbai that I thought could be targeted. All the sites—which included the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), known till recently as the Victoria Terminus (VT), the Taj Mahal Hotel near the Gateway of India, the Leopold Cafe near the Taj, and the Trident Hotel—had been identified. I felt these were important as they were all famous landmarks of the city and were almost always crowded. The casualties would be huge. And it would create a major furore internationally.
But my surveillance was not complete. I had not yet filmed or videographed any of the targets. This was essential, as it would help the strategists planning the attack to visualize the area and prepare accordingly. My Pakistani handlers had confirmed that I would have to make videos of the targets. And they would have to be detailed enough for the attackers, who would not be locals or even Indians, to be able to identify everything around them at first glance and know exactly what to do without getting lost or disoriented.
Major Iqbal gave me a camera and taught me the finer points of video recording. He first showed me how people usually shoot videos using a digital camera, and then demonstrated how to do it from a different perspective. He taught me how to record a target from a terrorist’s point of view. For instance, the height of a building is very important, and so is the floor on which the attack is to be carried out. Everything in between can be covered if, say, you manage to plant a bomb in the foundations of the building. You can find your way out and then detonate the explosive from afar, without any risk to yourself. However, the situation is very different if the plan is to launch a full-fledged attack.
When targeting a tall building, it is important to know the height of the structure. If you manage to sneak into the building and reach the top floor, you will have to know how to escape from it too—either by jumping on to a neighbouring building or by climbing down somehow.
These were the things—the minute details—that Major Iqbal taught me to notice and capture on film. When I went back to India, I used his technique and recorded all the targets I had identified as well as the surrounding areas very carefully, taking care not to leave out any detail. To the world, I looked like any interested tourist taking pictures and recording videos. But I managed to capture everything on film—every entry and exit point, each fire exit, the security, the guard shifts, the local populace. I left nothing out, from the Taj Mahal Hotel to CST.
I even went to the Sena Bhavan a second time to conduct a video surveillance. I chanced upon the Shiv Sena PRO Rajaram Rege, who remembered me from our first meeting at Matoshree. We spoke for a while, and I took him out to lunch. I must have made an impression on the man, because he emailed me several times afterwards.
Rege’s emails were full of self-promotion and the promise of big bucks if we set up business in Mumbai. He kept telling me that he had a lot of powerful political connections, both in the Indian government and the Maharashtra government, and that he was handling projects worth hundreds of crores. He was eager to be the middleman if I could bring some major US compan
I checked with my superiors about how to handle the man, given that he was a part of the Shiv Sena. Major Iqbal asked me how I could use him to my advantage, and finally gave me carte blanche to handle him as I saw fit.
I replied to Rege saying that I was quite interested in doing business with him, although I didn’t go into specifics. I also told him to provide me with some details of the finances he was in charge of. We exchanged a couple of emails, but nothing came of them.
The videography continued into my eighth visit to Mumbai, in July 2008. It was then that I found another target. As I moved around Colaba, taking in the sights around the Taj and Leopold Cafe, I chanced upon a Jewish centre, off the Colaba Causeway from where one aproaches the Taj. It was a five-storey building called Nariman House. I asked around as surreptitiously as I could, and found out that the building was actually a Chabad Lubavitch Jewish religious centre, also known as the Mumbai Chabad House. It was described as the epicentre of the Jewish community in the city.
When I told Sajid Mir and Major Iqbal about Nariman House, they rubbished my words, saying that it wasn’t just a Chabad house, and that it was actually a front for the Mossad. But they were wrong. When I visited Nariman House, I spoke to the people there and realized that it was a religious centre, and nothing to do with the Mossad.
At Chabad House, I met the man who ran the place, Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, and his wife Rivkah. To make sure that I didn’t do anything to give away my identity, I had procured a book titled To Pray As a Jew. I had studied it thoroughly before I ventured into Holtzberg’s territory, and I realized that the Muslim way of offering namaz and the way the Jewish prayed were very similar. Both genuflect, both prostrate, and except for the specific words they recite, the actions are more or less similar. So it was very easy for me to imitate their prayers and pass myself off as a Jew without raising any suspicion.
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