Headley and i, p.2
HEADLEY AND I, p.2S. Hussain Zaidi
Finally! After eight long months of negotiations between the US and Indian governments, frantic parleys and several moments of utter helplessness and frustration, they had the man in front of them. The man who was responsible for a ruthlessly executed carnage, one of the deadliest in the world during which, in the space of fifty-nine hours, 166 people were brutally killed and over 300 injured in Mumbai. The man who had made it possible for ten terrorists to come all the way by sea from Karachi and attack the economic capital of India, maiming the city and leaving a deep scar in the psyche of Mumbaikars. For eight long months, the Indian investigators had tried everything they could to find a way to get to him, and finally, here he was, sitting in front of them.
The three men knew that they did not have much time with him, maybe a week at most. It would have to count; they would have to make it count. It had taken the Indian government a lot of effort and patient dialogue to get them to where they were, and they did not intend to waste any of it.
The three men from India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) were Inspector General of Police (Internal Operations) Loknath Behera, Deputy Inspector General of Police Sajid Shapoo and Superintendent of Police Swayam Prakash Pani. They were aware that one of the most powerful men in India, Home Minister P. Chidambaram, had had to swallow his pride and personally speak to United States Attorney General Eric Holder in order for them to be allowed to interrogate the accused. A similar request had earlier been rejected by the US authorities.
The man they had come to interrogate was fifty-one-year-old David Coleman Headley, a.k.a. Daood Gilani. A man who was in every sense an American, but who worked for Pakistan and, more disturbingly, for the Lashkar-e-Taiba, and who had orchestrated the terror attacks in Mumbai on 26 November 2008. This was the shocker—the white man creating mayhem, the white man as the harbinger of terror instead of its perpetual victim. Headley was arrested on 3 October 2009 in Chicago, at the O’Hare International Airport; he was on his way to Philadelphia and from there to Pakistan. The Indian government found out about the arrest on 28 October, more than three weeks later.
Soon after the Indians heard of Headley’s arrest by the US government, they sent two officers from the Intelligence Bureau to the US. They had camped in Chicago for days but had not been given access to Headley, leaving Chidambaram annoyed at the haughty attitude of the US government, which claimed to be India’s partner in fighting terror.
Then ensued a hectic dialogue between the two countries. Despite the strongest of letters and alternately honeyed and caustic requests to the US, India was consistently refused access to Headley. In vain did the officials try to convince their counterparts in the West that the very fact that the attacks had taken place on Indian soil should be reason enough for them to be granted the right to question him. The only response they got was a stoic, stony silence.
This time too, it hadn’t been easy. The Indian team had arrived in Chicago on 31 May but could gain access to Headley only on 3 June. And the rules for the interrogation were unambiguous. The two men from the FBI had spelt it out in precise, unwavering tones to the three NIA men. No questioning on earlier matters pertaining to the American Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), or even regarding any previous association with the CIA or the FBI. At any moment, if they felt that the NIA was overstepping its limits, the interrogation would immediately be brought to a halt. And these were just some of the easier rules to remember.
But all that was over. The NIA had finally gained access to the man who could nail Pakistan’s complicity in attempts to destabilize India; he could turn out to be the proof that India had been looking for to show the world. The three men were ready.
Headley, however, showed absolutely no signs of concern or fear. He leaned back in his chair, folded his arms and threw a lazy smile at his interrogators. There was no sign of remorse, at least none they could see. He even indicated that he was willing to answer any question that they wanted to ask him.
With a shock, the three NIA men realized that the man sitting in front of them was entirely unrepentant. That he felt no regret for the horror of 26/11, he believed in the rightness of what he had done and was convinced that the terror attacks of 26/11 were justified. Could it be that Headley was more than just someone who carried out reconnaissance missions, they wondered. Could it be, thought Behera, that the man was a jehadi? The NIA had come half expecting that it would have to grill an American who had been led astray by radical forces. That was clearly not the situation here. They realized that their questions would have to be slightly modified and even more detailed than they had originally planned to make them.
Thus began the week-long interrogation that would last over thirty hours.
As I heaved the 250-pound weight off my shoulder, the tiger on my back expanded its maw and roared. I slowly raised the weight, my eyes on the feral animal in the mirror behind me. The roar faded as I brought the weight back down. It rose again in fury as I lifted the weight, in tandem with my own screaming muscles. As I held up the weight, sweat trickled down my arms and over its feline face, which was distorted by the silent but angry roar.
I saw people in the gym looking at me curiously, watching the magnificent tiger on my back. The tattoo was very well done, and it gave me grim satisfaction to know that it expressed my feelings at that moment perfectly.
‘Rahul, don’t you think that’s a bit too much? You could tear a ligament and be injured for life.’
I heard Vilas say the words, but they didn’t really get through to me. Anything … anything to take my mind off the last few days.
More sweat trickled down my arms and back as I held up the weight. I looked up and glared at the man staring back at me in the mirror. Idiot! How could you have been so trusting?
No, no going back there. Have to get it out of my mind. Come on, push!
I heaved away the weight and started the squats, my third round. In the mirror I could see Vilas standing right behind me, ready to spot as all gym trainers are trained to do. He was frowning, his whole body tense, watching my movements with a worried expression. Behind him, I saw others watching me. Almost everyone in the gym had stopped their various activities—bench presses, lateral presses, lunges, cycling, running; one guy was actually holding forty-kg weights in each hand, ready to start his shrugs but waiting to see how I would fare. Curiosity and awe were written all over their faces as they watched me at the military press.
I shut them all out. This was my world, my own hell, and none of the people here would ever know what I was going though. Only Vilas, my friend and confidante and fellow sufferer, inhabited this void in me, because he had seen what I had seen, been through some of what I had been through. And right now, he too was oblivious to everyone else. I knew he was concerned for me. My friend. Just like David.
No, don’t go there. Just keep pushing.
I wasn’t counting how many squats I did. I just kept pushing the weight up and down. Up and down … I could feel my muscles strain against the weight, the veins in the neck and shoulders throbbing, running lines down my body. It helped me to relax. It made me feel that the world would go on, that everything would be sorted out soon.
I kept looking at my reflection in the mirror. You, all of this is your fault, I told it. If only you had trusted him less.
But how could I have known? David, a terrorist? A laughable thought. How could David be a terrorist? A Pakistani terrorist? No way in hell, not the David I knew. There had to be some explanation. But no, everything pointed to that. However much I tried, I simply couldn’t ignore the facts, couldn’t ignore the hard evidence. How ironic that he was the one who taught me never to do that.
David Coleman Headley. The man I trusted with my life, who meant the world to me—a terrorist. Daood Gilani.
Suddenly, I couldn’t come up from the squat. I felt my strength ebbing, my body starting to give way. My back and legs felt like wood, like they would never move; my neck was on fire with the strain.
Suddenly, through the haze, I heard cheering. Turning around, I saw that all the people who had stopped their workout to watch me were clapping. I looked at Vilas. He was watching me now, and gave me a slight smile. I too had often stopped my workout to cheer a guy on when I saw he was attempting something really difficult, something that required enormous power. After all the clapping, the guy would inevitably give an acknowledging nod to his appreciative audience.
But all I felt was a deep numbness. No feeling of achievement, no elation at the intense workout, nothing. I just nodded blankly at everyone and started towards the bench press when Vilas laid a hand on my arm.
‘Dude, you’ve just done three sets of dead lifts of five hundred pounds,’ he said quietly. ‘You have gone through three sets of squats of five hundred pounds. And there was the military press with two hundred and fifty pounds. And you didn’t even warm up first. That’s enough for one day. Don’t kill yourself.’
I wiped the sweat from my eyes. I felt a sudden rush of irrational anger towards Vilas welling up inside me, but fought it back. The man was only trying to help.
‘Thanks, man. Maybe you’re right. I’ll go cool off,’ I said, and walked towards the treadmill.
Half an hour later, I was outside the gym, Five Fitness, standing on a busy Juhu road. I decided to take a cab home to my flat in Bandra.
Flagging down a cab in Mumbai during peak hour is always an uphill task, but I was fortunate this time. I got an empty one in five minutes and was soon homebound.
Only when I had settled into the seat did I allow myself to think back to the workout. I realized that I was feeling better, because I had found the courage to face the demon that was lurking in a corner of my mind, one that I had been pointedly ignoring. I reclined and let my mind drift back to that terrible day.
It had been on the news for a while, but I didn’t see it till late in the evening. I had come home at around 8.30 p.m. My mother was watching TV. As usual, she had it on a notch too loud, I’ve never understood why. I was just going for a shower when the name ‘David Headley’ caught my attention. Curious, I went to the sitting room, where Mom had just switched channels. I took the remote from her and found the earlier channel while she went to get a drink of water. At first, I was convinced it was a mistake or it was some other David Headley they were talking about. But the next moment I saw a grab of his face on the news channel Headlines Today.
My whole body went rigid. David? Arrested? Had he got into drugs again? But no, he had told me that chapter of his life was over, that there was no way he would get back into drug dealing.
Then came the other piece of news—another guy had been arrested along with David. The name rolled off the reporter’s practised tongue: ‘Tahawwur Rana.’
How could David have been arrested? Maybe he was a CIA agent, an American spy on a mission to India. I told myself I would have to find out.
But the horror was just beginning.
‘Both men have been charged with carrying out terror-related activities on foreign soil. They have been charged with conspiring to attack the office of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten over its publication of cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, which had sparked widespread anger amongst Muslims. Headley had allegedly scouted out the place for a planned attack by a Pakistani terror group, allegedly the Lashkar-e-Taiba, to whom he was giving out information on the location and surroundings of the office …’ The man’s voice droned on, metallic, excited by the fact that he was the one disseminating such sensational news.
The newsreader also went on about David’s role in the Mumbai attacks on 26 November 2008, and how he had conducted extended reconnaissance of south Mumbai and other places in the financial capital for the attack orchestrated by the Lashkar-e-Taiba. ‘Headley also conducted a recce of Taj Mahal Hotel, Trident, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus …’
I couldn’t believe it, it was so bizarre. A white man—an American at that—as a conduit for Lashkar? The source of jehadi mayhem in Mumbai? The pivot for Mumbai’s bloodiest carnage? I had dealt with quite a few upsets in my life, but now my world came crashing down. This was the man I had known so well, or at least thought I had known so well! I wanted to call him Dad, something I had missed doing all my life. And they were actually calling him a terrorist!
When you hear of some horror from afar, it is easy to sympathize with it, but when it happens in front of your eyes, it takes on a whole new meaning.
To me, and to the people of Mumbai, a terrorist had always been … well, just that, a terrorist, a monster who killed people in cold blood in other countries or in other times. That was until 26/11. Mumbai found out the hard way what a terrorist is. Sure, there was 1993 and the 2007 serial train blasts, but there was something so completely audacious, so merciless and inhuman about the way those ten men mangled Mumbai in 2008. We found out that a terrorist is nothing but a brute personification of evil. And they were saying David was one! And that he was actually a member of the dreaded Laskhar-e-Taiba.
I couldn’t think. I had to speak to someone about this, and I didn’t want to worry my mother just yet. Before she came back and recognized David Headley from the one time they had met, I quickly changed the channel, gave her back the remote and went to my room. From there I called Vilas.
The poor guy, who was at a friend’s place, had no inkling whatsoever. I broke it to him curtly, as briefly as I could. I told him that the man we had known and trusted had turned out to be something else entirely.
‘What the fuck are you talking about, man? David? You’ve got to be kidding! Wait, lemme switch on the TV … Dude, can you just give me a minute to myself? Thanks. Yeah, Rahul. Headlines Today, right? Yeah, okay, wait … Oh shit!’
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘I wasn’t kidding.’
‘Shit, man! What do we do?’
I heard the panic in his voice, and tried to speak as calmly as possible. ‘Don’t do anything right now. Just sit tight and let me figure this out,’ I told him.
Vilas took it very hard. I’d gone numb from what I’d just found out and wasn’t feeling anything at all, just an emptiness. Vilas, however, got really scared. That night, he didn’t even ride his motorcycle home; he took a taxi instead.
I locked myself in my room. I didn’t tell my mother anything. I knew she would worry. I was torn between wanting to know more about what had happened to David and Rana, and fearing I would find out something worse. Irrationally, for a moment, I even thought of calling David.
All through the next day, Vilas tried to call me. I was too shattered to speak. I only picked up his call once to tell him that I would talk to him later, and hung up. I had to come to terms with this to some extent before I spoke to anyone, even Vilas, who was the only other person who knew what I was going through. I spent the whole of 29 and 30 October at home. I didn’t go near the TV, so apprehensive was I that the channels would air news that was even more disturbing.
On 30 October, I realized I couldn’t take the risk of my mother finding out on her own. I had to tell her. I knew she would freak out, start worrying terribly about what might happen to me. But the truth needed to be told.
I decided to first do something to clear my mind a little, or I’d go crazy. So, on 30 October, I called Vilas and told him I’d meet him at the gym, Five Fitness, where I usually worked out. He said he still hadn’t told anyone, and I asked him to keep it that way.
I hoped the workout would help. Maybe I’d be able to forget this nightmare for just a little while. Maybe I’d be able to figure out what I should do. Should I go to the police? But what if all this was just a mistake? Then I’d be betraying David, and I don’t ever betray my friends. But what if it was true?
‘Where in Bandra, sir?’
Inside the apartment, I flung my gym bag to its corner, got a cold bottle of water from the fridge, settled down in front of the widescreen TV, and switched it on. Let’s see what the news channels have to say tonight, I thought.
Within minutes, I realized that the nightmare was far from over.
The man on Times Now was dramatical, in the way every news anchor is when something is turning into a big story. ‘Home officials say that they have still not been able to find out the exact identity of the mysterious Rahul whose name features prominently in Headley’s email correspondence with the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Sources are still speculating as to whether this Rahul is a target, and whether it could be Rahul Gandhi, or even Bollywood megastar Shah Rukh Khan, whose character in several movies was named Rahul. However, the code has still not been broken, and authorities are trying to ascertain this mysterious Rahul’s identity. Home Minister P. Chidambaram, meanwhile, has dismissed the view that the mysterious Rahul is Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi.’
It had happened. They had figured it out, they knew I was involved in the whole thing. But no, wait! They said they still didn’t know who this Rahul was! So they were still investigating.
For the first time in my life I felt as if the ground was moving beneath me. It was eerie. The floor and walls were closing in on me. I closed my eyes. Fear had put my heart into overdrive and I could hear its loud thumping against my chest. My tongue had gone dry and I am sure if anybody had looked at me, he would have done a double-take: what the hell has happened to this guy in the space of just a few seconds! In one moment, my life had changed, forever.
HEADLEY AND I by S. Hussain Zaidi / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes