Sheela Bhatt reveals the inside story on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's revelations to India in the Headley-Rana case, and of how the findings have turned the 26/11 attacks into an Indo-US case.
Indian intelligence agencies got a reality check December 7, when a joint team of US' department of justice officials and the Federal Bureau of Investigation briefed them on American terror suspect David Headley's alleged role in the November 26, 2008, terror attacks on Mumbai.
The revelations have embarrassed India's intelligence establishment, which clearly had no idea, even after its inquiries into 26/11, about Headley's activities.
"We never doubted any United States citizen, especially whites," a senior official in India's home ministry told rediff.com.
After the FBI briefings, he said, India's internal security apparatus had become painfully aware that "there could be many Headleys in India".
Embarrassment apart, the briefing has clearly been very fruitful. The FBI agents have given their Indian counterparts details about Headley's associate, Pakistani-Canadian Tahawwur Hussain Rana, and also a long list of sites that are on the Lashkar-e-Tayiba radar, including over two dozen dams, information technology hubs in Bangalore and Hyderabad, the National Defence College in New Delhi and some elite schools in Dehradun.
The FBI, which charged Headley and Rana with criminal conspiracy in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks last week, has detailed Headley's hatred for India, and how he helped his mentors in Pakistan by collecting data on sensitive installations across India. He would, the FBI said, visit India, collect information and visuals on various target sites, and then go to Pakistan where he helped the Lashkar plan acts of mayhem.
Significantly, the FBI shared vital information about two serving officers in the Pakistan army who are believed to have links with Headley.
"The threat of terrorism in India from Pakistan-based elements still exists," the home ministry said while summing up the briefing. "Pakistan's internal disturbances, the 26/11 attacks and the promises made in its aftermath by Pakistan have not impacted on these anti-India elements."
The US team is believed to have informed Indian authorities that various Pakistan-based terrorist organisations are alive and active.
Further, Indian officials point out, the FBI probe into Headley proves that Pakistan's Federal Investigation Agency did not pursue its own investigations into 26/11 as sincerely as it claimed.
The FBI agents are now in Pakistan for further inquiries into the possible involvement of the two army officers.
Indian diplomats have, in repeated off-record briefings in the wake of 26/11, been arguing that the Mumbai strikes were not possible without active help from sections of the Pakistan establishment. The FBI team that visited India now confirms that impression, telling their Indian counterparts categorically of the role of the serving army officers.
If this information is verified, Pakistan will have some hard questions to answer from both India and the US, and such verification could become a game-changer for diplomacy.
The FBI has also highlighted Bangladesh-based elements posing threats to India. According to the FBI chargesheet against Headley, Abdul Rahman Hashim Syed, a former Pakistan army officer, was the main conduit for Headley in Pakistan. FBI officials say Rahman had close links with Bangladesh-based Afghan jihad veteran Abdul Mutaliq, and that he was in charge of the Bangladesh affairs of the Lashkar-e-Tayiba.
The trio of Headley, Rahman and Mutaliq had made further plans for post 26/11, but following Headley's arrest, and due to US pressure, Mutaliq had been arrested in Bangladesh even as he was planning an attack against the Indian high commission in Dhaka.
A significant aspect of Headley and Rana being charged in the US is that 26/11 has become more than an Indian issue, with US courts now involved and asking for additional evidence.
Mumbai police officers told rediff.com they would now file supplementary charges involving Headley and Rana in the ongoing 26/11 trial.
Indian officials pointed out that since Headley is a US citizen, that fact alone is sufficient for him to be prosecuted first in the US. However, over the past few years it has been noticed that the Justice Department and the State Department do not always work in sync.
The US judiciary is independent in its nature, and does not often taken into account the foreign policy angle of legal cases. Thus, the Indian government is aware that only the dynamics of US law, and its justice delivery system, will count as the case of Headley proceeds to trial.
The FBI has told its Indian counterparts that they are still "negotiating" with Headley; there is a possibility that he might be turned into a prosecution witness, while Rana will remain an accused.
Home ministry sources in New Delhi told rediff.com that Pakistan has been stonewalling. They have thus far not allowed US agents access to Lashkar mastermind Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhwi, and it is highly unlikely that they will now cooperate in the case of serving army officers.
The US and India have repeatedly asked Pakistan for voice prints of Lakhvi, his deputy Mazhar Iqbal alias Abu al-Qama and Abdul Wajid alias Zarar Shah, who are facing charges in Pakistan for the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai.
India requires the voice prints for comparison against its tapes of conversations between the Mumbai terrorists and their handlers in Pakistan. However, Pakistan authorities have repeatedly told the home ministry that the "accused are not cooperating".
India has now requested the FBI's help in this matter.
This in fact underlines the most significant aspect of the visit of the FBI team -- namely, that intelligence cooperation between the US and India has now reached trend-setting levels.
On the eve of the visit of the FBI team, US Ambassador to India Timothy Roemer told the media that "the FBI trip and briefing of Indian law enforcement officials is clear and concrete evidence that the US and India are fulfilling President Obama's and Prime Minister Singh's vision of unparalleled and unprecedented cooperation in the counter terror arena".
Both New Delhi and Washington believe the visit of the FBI and Justice Department teams is a direct follow-on to the Counter Terrorism Cooperation Initiative launched during Singh's recent visit to the US.
"Both our countries are working closely together to share information on the Headley-Rana case and are working to detect and prevent future threats," Roemer said.
"The US and India are working as partners better than ever before to facilitate information sharing, build capacity to prevent and respond to terror threats, and assist in the prosecution of those who commit terror," he said.
Asked if the flow of information is two-way, and if the FBI is cooperating with India as actively as Indian agencies have been cooperating with the FBI, a senior official in the home ministry told rediff.com, "There are issues, but on balance India is at an advantage. We have got very significant information this time."
The official pointed out that not much could be read into the fact that the US has not yet allowed Indian officials access to Headley.
"It was almost six months after 26/11 that we gave the FBI access to Ajmal Kasab (the terrorist captured during the 26/11 attacks)," the official pointed out.
"We also took our time, as per our laws."
He said it was too early to say if -- and when -- India would get to interrogate Headley and Rana. "The FBI is still negotiating with Headley. We don't know what they have decided. We are not sure how and when the case in America will move," the official said. "We are initiating the legal efforts to get access and of possible custody of Headley, but it is a long legal route."
Asked what factors had helped India enjoy a largely terror-free year following 26/11, the official's response was pragmatic. "We were just lucky," he said.
What the FBI told India:
- Terrorism threat on India not reduced after 26/11
- Two serving Pakistani army officers linked to David Headley
- Retired Pakistan army officer Major Abdul Rahman Hashim Syed was Headley's Pakistan conduit
- Rahman was the mentor of the Bangladesh-based jihadi Abdul Mutaliq, who plotted to bomb the Indian high commission in Dhaka in November
- Headley walked in and out of India, easily
- He was trained in the Manshera area of Pakistan
- Lashkar has prepared a long list of targets of various sensitive sites within India including dams on major rivers
- Pakistan is not helping in getting voice proof needed by India and the US in the 26/11 case
- Pakistan has so far refused the FBI access to Lashkar lynchpin Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhwi.