Headley and i, p.6
HEADLEY AND I,
S. Hussain Zaidi
‘Thank you, sir, thank you very much. But what about Vilas?’
‘My words apply to both of you, Rahul, you should know that. Just lie low for a while.’
After nearly three hours of anxiety, Vilas and I left for home, less frightened than before, but aware that our interrogation was far from over.
In fact, the interrogation continued the next day. Only, this time it was not the Mumbai Police. The Intelligence Bureau (IB) dropped in, all the way from Delhi, to interrogate me.
I had been feeling feverish from even before the meeting with Rakesh Maria. It was in the same state that I opened the door that evening to two men who introduced themselves as officers from the IB. The man who was obviously in charge introduced himself as Vikram Thakur, the IB’s deputy director. With him was the head of the IB’s Maharashtra unit, Gopal Guru. I took an instant liking to Gopal. He struck me as a good man, just from the way he talked and behaved with me. I came to have a great deal of respect and regard for him.
Both the cops met my mother and asked her some questions, but her answers soon made them realize that she was not involved in this mess at all. They asked me all the same questions Maria had asked the previous day, and it all seemed quite cursory and lasted for not more than half an hour. In fact, Thakur even joked that had I not been ill, he would have taken me out for dinner. A typical Delhi guy.
It was over soon, but I could not shake off the feeling that had come over me after my talk with Maria. I knew that the interrogation was far from over, and Vilas and I would have to face the music again.
I was still unable to figure out why I had not been able to see through the charming David Headley. All along, the debonair American had managed to dupe me and fool me so convincingly. He had clearly been using me. How could I have been so obtuse?
There was something I came back to, again and again. Without really meaning to, I had kept referring to David as Agent Headley, which annoyed him no end. In fact, he got upset whenever I called him by that nickname; I, of course, had no idea how close to the truth I was. I kept accusing him, though in jest, telling him that I knew he was a Yankee CIA agent, and that he was in Mumbai to snoop on us and gather intelligence on Indians. And he kept denying this, saying that he didn’t work for the Americans.
How did I not figure out that he was probably a real agent? Of course, I could never have guessed that he was an LeT man, but he did seem the type to be working for the CIA. I was left wondering what else about him I did not know. I wanted to find out, I needed to find out, but who would tell me?
The IB had very little information. They had tried to get to Headley; soon after his arrest in October, two IB sleuths had been sent to the US to find out more, as they say, straight from the horse’s mouth. But the US government had sent them back without giving them any access to Headley.
Although Headley’s activities had been confined to Mumbai for the most part—his recces and stays, the people he cultivated—Mumbai Police’s Crime Branch knew very little about these, as information from the IB and the NIA was inevitably diluted by the time it trickled down and reached them—they were clearly at the very bottom of the chain.
Ultimately, I had to fall back on newspaper clippings about Headley and reports in the electronic media. I decided to talk to my journalist friends and go online and try to find out as much as I could about David Coleman Headley—or Daood Gilani, as he was being referred to again and again. The more I read, the more I realized what a murky life he had led and how little I had actually known him. He had mentioned his drug days to me, but I had no idea how deeply compromised he was.
I found out that the man had been first arrested in 1988 for dealing in drugs in Frankfurt, while he was on his way from Lahore to Philadelphia. The arrest had been made by a DEA agent who was stationed in Frankfurt and had received a timely tip-off. To me, it seemed a strange coincidence that his arrest in October—his final arrest on charges of terrorism—had also taken place while he was on his way to Philadelphia, from Chicago.
For two days after he was arrested, Headley had undergone intense interrogation. Over and over again, the DEA questioned him about his drug deals, whom he dealt with, who his customers were, who his fellow drug traders were. I read in the Philadelphia Inquirer that the agents had told him that he could help himself by cooperating with them, and that was the only way out for him. It didn’t take Headley, then Daood Gilani, long to agree. Throughout the meeting, he was very, very quiet and very in control.
Two days later, in a sting operation at his New Street apartment, Headley delivered some drug dealers into the hands of law enforcement officers. DEA agents had the entire apartment wired for sound and video footage. That day, Headley offered fifteen kilograms of heroin to drug dealers Richard Roundtree and Darryl ‘Tank’ Scoggins. The drug cache was to be hidden in suitcases with false bottoms that Scoggins had brought with him. Scoggins looked at the pile of heroin on the coffee table in the living room of Headley’s apartment and said incredulously, ‘Is this all ours?’ He gave Headley a high five. The next moment, he was in DEA custody.
One of the articles I read gave a detailed account of Headley’s career with the DEA, which, I was astounded to find, had lasted several years. So Headley had turned into a double agent, betraying his fellow drug dealers and turning them in to the DEA.
That first time, Headley’s assistance to the DEA got his sentence reduced by half to about four years. After he was sentenced, the judge who was hearing the trial told Headley that he was giving him a break because of his cooperation and because he did not have an earlier record. The judge also admonished him, saying, ‘It’s up to you, Mr Gilani. Do what you want with your life, because you are still a young man.’
Headley had told me of that first term in prison, when he had gone in unfit and naive and had come out toned and fit. I remembered that he had mentioned some of the people he had served time with. I now realized that this was when it had happened; the anecdotes and the reminiscing were about his four-year stint in the Chicago State Penitentiary.
Headley was released from prison in 1992. He then asked the judge if he could have his passport back. It seems he wanted to go to Pakistan for an arranged marriage; in fact, that is what he told the judge in his application to be allowed to travel out of the US. Later, he did take advantage of this; his probation officer Luis Caso wrote, ‘He went to Pakistan and got married again in 1999, this time to Shazia Gilani.’
But the report also said that back in 1992, Headley had trouble staying clean and flunked drug tests. In 1995, he was sent back for drug treatment and rehabilitation, and was given an additional six months in jail.
After serving time in prison for the second time, Headley managed to keep his head above water for a year or so. But not for long. The more I read about the man, the more obsessed I became with him. He never seemed to learn from his mistakes despite the punishments and imprisonments. He was clearly an astonishingly thick-skinned man.
Two years later, in 1997, Headley was arrested again for moving heroin from Pakistan to the US. This time, he was caught by the DEA while he was on his way to deliver a consignment of heroin to drug dealers in New York.
And once again, the chameleon that he was, Headley changed colours immediately, and agreed to cooperate and rat on the drug dealers. He wore a wire, and as he delivered the heroin to the hotel room, where he had set up a meeting with the dealers, DEA agents swooped down and arrested everyone present.
This time, Headley had turned on a big-shot drug dealer called James Leslie Lewis. While he was given a fifteen-month sentence, Lewis got ten years. I was stunned to read that to get such a reduced sentence, Headley not only testified against Lewis but, according to court records, he also worked for the DEA as a confidential witness, setting up at least three subsequent sting operations, by which more drug dealers were ensnared.
I experienced a new kind of emotion now. After the admiration and respect, then the subsequent shock, di
The Philadelphia Inquirer quoted a law enforcement officer involved in the New York heroin bust case speaking about Headley, ‘It was easy for him because he was of both worlds—he was a Pakistani as well as an American.’
I also read something that made my blood boil with anger. Headley was not only a rat who sold out his fellow workers, he conned the innocent into doing illegal tasks on his behalf as well.
Barely a month had gone by after Headley had pleaded guilty to smuggling heroin into New York in 1997. According to reports maintained by the DEA, he then forced a fellow Pakistani living in New Jersey to buy heroin from him. This man, Iqram Haq, was not the most intelligent of individuals, did not speak English, and had been totally bowled over by Headley and his glib talk. The news report said that Headley had befriended him when they served time together in prison.
At the 1998 trial in New York, it was Headley’s word against Haq’s. The case, according to the media, was going to be an open and shut one, and everyone expected that Haq would be convicted and handed a long sentence. But justice was served. The jury acquitted Haq, providing a rare victory to a defendant who was claiming entrapment. During the trial, Sam A. Schmidt, Haq’s attorney, described Headley as a common run-of-the-mill drug-dealer-cum-informant, who was caught while trying to save his own neck.
In another drug bust case in 1998, Headley worked as a confidential informant for the DEA against a man called Zahir Babur, who pleaded guilty of flying to Lahore, acquiring one kilogram of heroin there and smuggling it back to New York. The heroin was hidden inside seven books in his luggage. With Headley’s inside information, the DEA arrested Babur, who was given a prison sentence of three and a half years. It was around this time, in November 1998, that Headley began serving his fifteen-month sentence at the low-security Federal Correctional Institution in Fort Dix, New Jersey.
The original sentence called for Headley to remain on probation for five years after he served his sentence, until mid-2004. But, within six months, Headley was out of jail and headed to Pakistan for a month-long trip, with the approval of a federal judge and the Department of Justice, a Philadelphia Inquirer report said. Furthermore, at the end of 2001, his attorney as well as the prosecutor asked the judge to end Headley’s probation early. The judge agreed.
I could not believe my eyes. How could the US have been so callous as to let this man off lightly when he had been arrested twice and clearly had connections with the drug mafia?
According to Rocco Cipparone, a former federal prosecutor, in a scenario such as this, eight or nine times out of ten, the accused is certain to be cooperating with his captors, or is being rewarded for past cooperation. In fact, if he was still an informant for the DEA, it would make it even easier for everyone to grant him leniency. And if he was not on probation, he would no longer need to seek permission from the court to travel anywhere.
All this meant only one thing—that Headley was heavily supported and protected by the DEA because he was constantly helping them bust one drug deal after another, and handing them both Pakistani and American drug dealers.
After about two months of imprisonment on drug charges, Headley was back in Pakistan, this time doing more than dealing in drugs. I realized, as I continued to read, that the Headley case was just one of a number of recent cases in which Americans had been linked to terrorist acts.
Two women in Minnesota, both US citizens, had been convicted of channelling funds to a terrorist group in Somalia called al-Shabab, which was allegedly aided by the Al Qaeda. They were also charged with recruiting fighters for a terrorist cell. This was followed by several more arrests in connection with alleged terror plots in Denver, Boston and Dallas. Separately, five young Americans were arrested in December 2009 in Pakistan for planning to attack US soldiers in Afghanistan.
Luis Caso, Headley’s former probation officer who was himself intrigued at the developments, was quoted in another newspaper report as saying, ‘All I knew was that the DEA wanted him in Pakistan and as fast as possible, because they said they were close to making some big cases.’ Clearly, I thought, Headley and his association with the DEA showed that his government ties ran far deeper than had been generally known. And all I had done was peruse news articles. God knows how much more dirt there was in the records of the US agencies dealing with him.
That Headley’s cooperation was highly valued was apparent from a September 1998 letter which the prosecutor had submitted to court. The letter showed that Headley, who had admitted to distributing fifteen kilograms of heroin, had come to be considered over the years to be so ‘reliable and forthcoming’ that they sent him to Pakistan to ‘develop intelligence on Pakistani heroin traffickers’.
However, according to Caso, the government took great pains to not reveal which agency was handling Headley, or even whether he was working for more than one agency.
Headley did not just help these DEA agents on the field by masquerading as a drug dealer himself. In that same letter, the prosecution told the court that Headley, who was facing anything between seven to nine years in prison, had become such a trusted partner for the DEA agents that he helped translate hours of taperecorded telephone intercepts and coached drug agency investigators on how to question Pakistani suspects. In short, he had become an invaluable asset to the DEA.
Now I knew that Headley could manipulate anybody and worm his way out of any situation. If he could deceive even DEA agents by coaching them on drilling drug dealers, he could manipulate pretty much anyone.
While he was on probation, in October 2001, a woman called up the FBI, saying she used to date Headley. She told the authorities that she believed her former boyfriend was sympathetic to extremist groups in Pakistan. A senior American official later admitted that the FBI hadn’t paid enough attention to this tip-off, because in those days, just a month after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, the government was flooded with thousands of such calls. They merely thought that a fair number of people were using the opportunity to try and fix their enemies and settle scores, and this woman’s tip-off was not to be taken seriously either.
It is unclear how widely disseminated the girlfriend’s warning was, but within a month, Headley’s help was enlisted, and his sentence suspended in exchange for what court records described as ‘continuing cooperation’. According to a transcript of that hearing, the whole thing was a rushed affair.
Obviously, to me at least, from the little that I had found out about David Headley from the Internet, and from what I knew of him personally, the US was then, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, considering ‘assignments that went beyond drugs’ for him. Headley helped the DEA to infiltrate the very close-knit Pakistani narcotics-dealing community in New York. He also travelled to Pakistan to gather intelligence.
After 9/11, the US was desperate to get details about terrorists and their activities, and Pakistan was on its radar. And since Headley was already their trusted confidante, who better to help gather intelligence on terrorists than him?
Incredibly, through all this, Headley maintained a string of relationships with women. This, despite the fact that he had an obvious antipathy towards so many things. In fact, his first wife had even told the police, after they had divorced, that he would get so enraged if he saw an Indian on the street that he would stop, curse at the fellow and spit on the street, and spit again.
Headley married Shazia Gilani in 1999, which was when, I remembered, he had applied to the court to be allowed to go to Pakistan for an arranged marriage. And in 2002, he married his girlfriend in New York. But apparently, he was still not satisfied. Before his visit to India, in the last week of February 2007, he got m
By then, he was already spending most of his time in Pakistan. I realized that this was when he started to change. In 2002, he was given a free US pass to travel to Pakistan as many times as he wanted, and this must have been when he started harbouring radical ideas, and fell in with the Lashkar-e-Taiba.
That must have been when he became double agent Headley.
The five men sat in the room, waiting for Headley. Nobody spoke. But this time, the Indians were more focused and eager to get on with their work. They hadn’t slept the night before, preferring to pore over their notes. Just like before, Headley was brought in, followed by a man with a cup of coffee.
Behera had had enough of Headley’s ramblings about his early life. He was here primarily to investigate the terrorist attack on Mumbai, and he was not interested in Headley’s version of wrongdoings towards Pakistan.
What Behera was interested in was how the LeT fit into all this. He knew they were responsible for the attack, but how were they involved with Headley? How did a white American get access to one of the most dreaded terror organizations in the world?
As Headley started speaking again about the American way of life, the NIA team leader interrupted unceremoniously. ‘Yes, Mr Headley. Thank you for your details and the background you gave us earlier on those terrorist groups in Pakistan. Can you please come to the point?’
Headley turned to Behera and gave him a winning smile. ‘What would you like me to tell you? You know I’m only here to cooperate.’
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