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Decoding the Headley-Rana case

November 16, 2009 16:53 IST
The key to the conspiracy hatched by David Coleman Headley and Tahawwura Hussain Rana may lie in Bangladesh and Pakistan, notes Wilson John.

Who controlled the activities of David Coleman Headley and Tahawwur Hussain Rana, the two key Lashkar-e-Tayiba operators arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Chicago early this month? Was it Hafiz Saeed, the Lashkar supremo still roaming free in Pakistan? Or were there more than one handler?

Some important keys to these puzzles lie in Bangladesh and Pakistan.

First key is the Lashkar network based in Bangladesh with extensive links to the trans-national terrorist group, Harkat-ul Jihad al Islami and its several local allies, including some influential political and religious leaders. Lashkar has been expanding its network in Bangladesh for 14 years.

Within days of the Rana-Headley arrests, the Bangladesh security agencies arrested three Lashkar operatives from Dhaka -- Mufti Harun Izahar, son of Islami Oikya Jote leader Mufti Izaharul Islam, Shahidul Islam and Al Amin alias Saiful. All three had regular conversations with Hadley, Hafiz Saeed and Lashkar's Bangladesh coordinator, Sheikh Abdur Rehman.

Harun, who also ran an Islamic kindergarten school in Chittagong, said Saeed spoke to him on the mobile and asked him to target the US embassy in Dhaka. He said Saeed spoke to him in Arabic and gave him specific instructions on how to carry out the attack. Harun had recently visited Pakistan. For the attack, Harun and his associates got 600,000 takas (about Rs 402,000) from Lashkar's chief financial officer, Indian-born Saudi national Mahmoud Mohammad Ahmed Bahaziq.

Bahaziq, who recruited fugitive Indian gangster Dawood Ibrahim and Azzam Ghauri to the Lashkar, is a close associate of Saeed.

Ghauri was one of the first Lashkar commanders in India, and a partner of Abdul Karim Tunda, who became the operational commander of the terrorist group in Bangladesh. Ghauri was killed in an encounter in 2000.

Following the arrest of Harun and his two aides, the Bangladesh police arrested three more Lashkar operatives subsequently. The police suspect that there were at least 20 more, both Bangladeshi and Indian nationals, who could be involved in the foiled terrorist plot. Some of them are from Kerala and other south Indian states and work primarily in the textile sector.

Harun and his aides were not an independent Lashkar cell but only part of a larger network which was being strengthened for quite sometime. The first inkling of such a network, incidentally, came when two key Lashkar leaders were arrested in Bangladesh in July -- Maulana Mohammad Mansur Ali alias Maulana Habibullah and Mufti Sheikh Obaidullah. Ali is an Afghan jihad veteran. Both worked closely with HuJI in Bangladesh, training several Indian and Bangladeshi nationals in weapons and explosives.

Two intriguing links can be found in the dossier which project the trans-national nature of Lashkar's expansion in Asia for the past several years. One is that both Habibullah and Obaidullah were arrested on the basis of information provided by two aides of Dawood Ibrahim, Zahid Sheikh and Dawood Merchant, arrested in Dhaka earlier.

Sheikh said there were about 150 paid D-company men in Bangladesh and their associates included former ministers, senior police officers and top businessmen.

Lashkar operations in Bangladesh, incidentally, draw large funding from some top businessmen dealing in pharmaceuticals.

Both Habibullah and Obaidullah drew a month salary of 7,000 takas (about Rs 4,600) from Sheikh Abdur Rahman, Lashkar's commander for Bangladesh based in Pakistan. Rahman has since been arrested in Pakistan, but strangely enough, there is no word on it in Pakistan media. Rahman had also bankrolled Maulana Harun who was working with David Headley to carry out terrorist attacks. Hardly any detail about Rahman is known.

There are two Abdur Rahmans in the Lashkar hierarchy -- one is Mufti Abdur Rahman Hafiz, one of the teachers at Muridke (the Lashkar headquarters in Pakistan), and another is Abdur Rahman Makki, in charge of Lashkar's external affairs, and Hafiz Saeed's brother-in-law. Makki, a fierce proponent of suicide terrorism, has been in charge of organising Lashkar's networks in Asia and Europe.

Another intriguing link is Amir Reza Khan, commander of the Asif Reza Commando Force, a little known group which was involved in the 2002 attack on the US consulate in Kolkata. Reza, like Rahman, is today in Pakistan. The Bangladeshi maulanas told the police they were in constant touch with Amir Reza while organising the Lashkar network.

Amir Reza is wanted for the abduction of Kolkata businessman Partho Roy Burman (July 2001) in which a part of the ransom money, $100,000, was wired to the 9/11 leader Mohammad Atta via Aftab Ansari and Omar Syed Sheikh.

Reza is also involved in creating the Indian Mujahideen, the new terrorist group which carried a series of attacks in India in 2008.

The third key in Pakistan is Illyas Kashmiri, a former Special Services Group member who took up terrorism and linked up with Lashkar although he floated his own outfit, the 313 Brigade. He was a favourite of the Pakistan army; the then Rawalpindi Corps Commander, Lieutenant General Mahmood Ahmad, had visited his training facilities at Kotli, Pakistan occupied Kashmir.

Kashmiri is a mercenary jihadi, offering his services to groups that were in need of expert trainers. He was a key trainer of mujahideen during the Afghan jihad and an expert in explosives.

He had several former army officers in his group, one of them was Major Haroon Ashique, another former SSG officer, who worked with Lashkar operational commander, Zaki ur-Rahman Lakhvi. Lakhvi was one of the masterminds of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. Headley and Rana were in touch with Kashmiri.

Lakhvi's contacts in the army were Brigadiers Ijaz Shah and Riaz-ul Chibb, both retired ISI departmental heads in Punjab. Shah, a close confidant of former President Pervez Musharraf and creator of the Jaish-e-Mohammad, handled Kashmiri before he fell out with him. Chibb was accused by former prime minister Benazir Bhutto of conspiring against her.

Rana, in his e-mails, had referred to two of his relatives in the Pakistan army -- Brigadier Mohawat Rana and Brigadier Sibte Hassan Rana -- who were willing to help them.

Though nothing more is known about Headley-Rana's Pakistan army links, there are enough indications that a transnational terrorist operation of the magnitude the duo were planning could not have been carried without the active support of the Pakistan army and ISI, facing a serious threat from terrorist groups that have cut their umbilical cords with them.

The attack plan, as becoming evident now, had two specific targets -- Denmark and India -- and one strategic objective: to divert the global attention and pressure on Pakistan's western front and in Afghanistan. The Denmark attack could have come from a Western country while the Indian plot was to be carried out by Lashkar networks from Bangladesh.

Wilson John is Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

Wilson John