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Headley trial could prove Lashkar-Al Qaeda link, says expert

By The Rediff News Bureau
December 16, 2009 16:17 IST
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Studying the court documents submitted in the trial of David Headley (originally Daoud Gilani) and Tahawwur Rana in Chicago, Bruce Riedel, former Central Intelligence Agency official, writes in the that Headley was closest to Ilyas Kashmiri among all his contacts in the terror network.

In fact, points out Riedel, so close was the American to Kashmiri that when he heard the news that the latter may have been killed in a drone attack in northern Pakistan this year, Headley became distraught. Naturally, his joy knew no bounds when his contacts told him that Kashmiri had in fact survived the attack and was looking forward to meeting him on his next trip to Pakistan. It was while trying to board the plane to Pakistan that Headley was arrested.

So who was Kashmiri? Riedel, senior fellow at the Saban Center in the Brookings Institution who chaired President Obama's strategic review of Afghanistan and Pakistan last winter and author of The Search for Al Qaeda, writes on 'He is a famous but shadowy figure in the insurgency fighting India's control of Kashmir. He was trained by the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence agency in the skills of insurgency in the 1980s, even given special training by Pakistan's elite Special Services Group, its top commandos. He began his career in Afghanistan fighting with the ISI-backed mujahideen against the Soviets. After the Soviet defeat, he was sent to his native Kashmir to fight the Indians and became a hero for his daring attacks on the Indian army and for taking foreign hostages. He was photographed holding the severed head of an Indian general he had killed. For a time he was the toast of Pakistan's security establishment.'

But this situation didn't last long. Riedel says, 'Sometime after 9/11, he became disillusioned with his Pakistani handlers and joined forces with al Qaeda. They sent him to Afghanistan again, this time to train the Taliban against the Americans and NATO. He also became active in the jihad in Pakistan and has been linked to many of the most violent attacks on the Pakistani army in recent years -- including the murder of a former SSG commander and an attempt on former President Pervez Musharraf. He has been accused of plotting to kill Pakistan's army commander, General Ashfaq Kayani. When he was allegedly killed last September, he was identified in some accounts as al Qaeda's chief of operations in Pakistan.'

Then came the denial of the death, says Riedel: Shortly after his reported demise, Kashmiri or someone claiming to be him gave an interview denying his death and promising that the Mumbai attack would be followed by much worse—saying "that was nothing compared to what has already been planned for the future" by al Qaeda.

While there were suggestions that this interview was fake, Headley's reported elation at hearing the news suggests it was not, feels Riedel.

Coming back to Headley, Riedel points out that the case against him is only the beginning, for there is much one doesn't know about him and his cohorts. 'We know Headley began casing targets in India more than two years before the Mumbai attack, but we don't know when he began working with Kashmiri directly.'

Headley's trial thus promises to be fascinating and important. If it is established that Headley was working for Headley all along, it will establish the Mumbai terror attacks as being a joint Lashkay-Al Qaeda operation, says Riedel. This, if true, is bad news for American counter-terrorism ops given the Lashkar's global network of supporters the Pakistani diaspora.

What Riedel doesn't say is that it will be worse news for India's counter-terrorism operations.

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The Rediff News Bureau in Mumbai