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U.S. Man Arraigned for Allegedly Plotting Mumbai Attack

December 9, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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A Chicago man with ties to Pakistani high society was arraigned in federal court Wednesday for his alleged role in plotting last year's terror strike in Mumbai. Jim Lehrer talks to a reporter for an update.
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JIM LEHRER: He is American-born, lives in Chicago and has roots in Pakistani as well as American high society, and, today, David Headley was arraigned in federal court in Chicago, charged with being a key plotter in the Pakistani terrorist attack in Mumbai, India, last year.

For more on that story, we go to Sebastian Rotella, national security correspondent for The Los Angeles Times and Tribune newspapers. He previously covered international terrorism from Europe.

Sebastian, welcome.

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA, The Los Angeles Times: Thank you. It’s a pleasure.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Headley entered a plea of not guilty today, right?

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: Yes, that’s correct.

JIM LEHRER: And what exactly is he charged with doing?

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: He’s charged with acting as a scout for doing an intense — intensive reconnaissance for Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistani terror group that is accused of carrying out the attacks.

Using a cover as an American businessman, he travels to Mumbai, opens — actually opens a front business there, and spends months before the attack, scouting, videotaping the targets that were ultimately hit by these commando teams that killed 170 people.

He’s also accused in a follow-up plot this year of doing the same kind of scouting in Denmark for what would have been a plot to attack the newspaper that published the caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed some years ago. So, he’s accused in both that successful attack and in a follow-up plot of the same nature.

JIM LEHRER: We will get back to the specifics in a moment. But who is this guy? How old is he? Where was he — well, he was born in Chicago, lives in Chicago now?

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: He was born in the states. He lives in Chicago now, but he was actually born in — his mother’s from Philadelphia, grew up in Pakistan, went to military school there, then comes back to the states as a teenager.

So, he’s really born and partly bread in the states. He’s a different and very interesting profile from many extremists in other cases. He’s older, for one thing. He’s 49. He’s a businessman, or at least he has this cover as a businessman. He is someone who travels the world.

JIM LEHRER: What kind of business?

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: It’s an immigration business, immigration consulting business that had offices in Chicago, Toronto, New York, and opened one in Mumbai. It’s not clear how much business they did, but it’s certainly…

JIM LEHRER: No evidence that he actually did anything?

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: Well, some people did come to the states through this business.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: So, there was some activity going on. But the allegation are that it was basically a front, but he seemed to have unlimited resources to travel.

He’s also someone who is accused of having trained in the extensive camps that Lashkar-e-Taiba operated in Pakistan earlier in the decade and where many Westerners were trained and then sent out on plots against the West.

JIM LEHRER: This is a serious group, is it not, this Pakistani group?

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: I think it is. Some would say that it’s as or more dangerous than al-Qaida, in the sense that it’s formed originally with connections to the Pakistani security services in the struggle against India and for Kashmir. And its target has been, above all, India, but it’s evolved.

And it has kind of a paramilitary, commando-style flavor to it, because a lot of the people who have trained the recruits are actually people connected to the Pakistani security forces.

JIM LEHRER: What was Headley trained to do? He wasn’t trained to be a commando. He was trained to do what?

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: Well, it appears that he under — he did repeated trips to the camps, so it appears that he did different types of training. But it’s clear that this is someone who has some kind of training in — in tradecraft, in techniques of espionage. This is someone who was able to talk his way in, for example, to the offices of this newspaper in Denmark, pretending to be — wanting to sell ads for his business.

So, he’s someone who had training both, it appears, in sort of paramilitary activity, but also very sort of sophisticated surveillance, espionage activities as well.

JIM LEHRER: What’s known about his motives? What’s behind all this?

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: There are intercepts and telephone conversations in the charging documents that suggests he’s true-believing ideologue, that he’s an Islamic fundamentalist, an extremist, and that he revered, for example, Ilyas Kashmiri, who is an ally al-Qaida and an extremist commander whom he had met during — and plotted with during the course of his trips to Pakistan.

So, there does seem to be this ideological fundamental radicalization at work.

JIM LEHRER: What’s the level of his education?

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: He’s someone who had this military school education in Pakistan.

JIM LEHRER: Pakistan.

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: But he seems to have somewhat of a troubled youth, some trouble with drugs, things like that. But he’s clearly someone who is worldly and who is well-traveled and, the accusation is, quite slick.

And it was actually — he actually changed his name at some point. His original name was Daood Gilani. He changes his name to David Coleman Headley, so he could travel more freely, more effectively with his American passport, and pose as something other than a Pakistani-American.

JIM LEHRER: His — clearly, his hatred, I guess is the word, for the United States, do we know where that came from? Did that come from the training, or did he bring it to it, or do we know?

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: I mean, it’s one of these things. Every case of radicalization is somewhat different, but certainly there’s conversations when he talks about the classical sort of jihadi narrative of the U.S. at war with Muslims.

Yet again, this is someone who, like others here in the states, come from immigrant backgrounds, came to the states, were not raised in abject poverty by any means. But, clearly, there’s, it appears, that perhaps this mix of experiences that he has may have — in many cases of radicalization, there’s this question of seeking an identity. And that identity becomes an extremist, hard-core one.

JIM LEHRER: What’s your reading whether there are more like this guy? Or is he a unique — for all the reasons you just outlined, is he a unique figure for this?

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: I would say he’s a unique figure in some of the facts as alleged in terms of the sophistication of what he did.

In terms of radicalization here in the states, unfortunately, I would say this year has shown us there’s been a real flurry of cases that suggest that there’s quite a few of Americans who are plugging into this radical discourse, who are traveling to Pakistan to train and plot with al-Qaida and its allies, and also others who are becoming radicalized here, and without benefit of foreign training, attempting attacks at home.

So, he’s not unique in that sense, unfortunately.

JIM LEHRER: How did the FBI get on to him?

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: It’s not completely clear, but it seems clear, at least, that they focused and started tracking him after Mumbai. Don’t forget that there are Americans killed in the Mumbai attacks.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: And…

JIM LEHRER: And the FBI participated in the investigation…

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: And was very key in determining…

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: … some of the — there were myriad international links. There were connections to Italy. There was a connection to the states. So, it seems that it was quite a bit of physical evidence, intercepts, things like that, that focused them on him.

And they clearly track him as he — particularly during these trips to Denmark and his communications back to his handlers in Pakistan.

JIM LEHRER: Is he an American citizen?

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: He is, indeed.

JIM LEHRER: So, is he eligible for the death penalty, if this thing should go that far? I mean, is that that serious a crime?

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: Yes. I mean, he is charged with killing the — as a direct accomplice in the killing of the 170 people who died in Mumbai, so he absolutely could face the death penalty.

JIM LEHRER: What’s the next step?

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: The next step is to see what — how this case goes forward. There’s reports and it’s even clear from the documents that he’s begun talking about this, that there’s some cooperation going on.

So, the next step would be to see if this goes to trial or — and at what level, and what his — how far his cooperation goes. But I would say, I would assume that he’s going to be prosecuted in these cases.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

Sebastian, thank you very much.

SEBASTIAN ROTELLA: My pleasure.