The Memoir of an “American Terrorist”

April 21, 2015
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David Coleman Headley is not exactly a household name, but his is one of the more unnerving terrorism cases in the post-9/11 era. White male. Government informant. American citizen. In other words, he had the perfect cover.

It was under the safety of that cover that Headley — a former drug smuggler turned informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration — helped stage the November 2008 siege in Mumbai, an audacious attack that left 166 people dead, including six Americans. Working with the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, Headley used his U.S. passport to travel to India, scout locations for the plot, film them and even find a landing site for the plot’s attackers.

Within weeks of Mumbai, Headley was working on another plot — this time working for Al Qaeda, planning an assault against a Danish newspaper that had published controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. The plan: A group of attackers would take hostages at the paper, shoot them, behead them and then throw their heads out the window. Again, Headley worked reconnaissance for the mission until his eventual arrest by the FBI at O’Hare International Airport in 2009.

Today, Headley is serving 35 years for his role in Mumbai. His case, however, has hardly gone away. In the aftermath of the Edward Snowden revelations about NSA surveillance, U.S. intelligence officials pointed to the Headley case as an example of how bulk data collection can thwart a terrorist attack. But tonight, in American Terrorist, ProPublica and FRONTLINE investigate that claim.

In the course of our investigation, FRONTLINE was given exclusive access to a draft of a memoir written by Headley after his arrest. Excerpts from the draft offer a unique window into Headley’s turn toward extremism, his training with Lashkar-e-Taiba and his preparations for the Denmark attack.

In one passage, for example, Headley writes about his first encounter with Lashkar militants, describing how he was “very impressed with their dedication to the cause of the liberation of Kashmir from Indian occupation. As Headley tells it:

In 1999, after serving my sentence for drug trafficking, I decided to turn over a new leaf. To make amends for my unrighteous ways I worked … for the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) … I had spent the past fifteen years frequenting the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, on heroin procuring expeditions. This lawless land had remained the same, frozen in time, since the 18th century. The British had thought it wise to leave this place alone during their rule of India. I started leaning more and more on my religion as part of my change. I had not been a practicing Muslim the past fifteen years, but the seeds of Islam sown in me by my Father and in school had never completely died out. Another change I made was to break away from my Canadian girlfriend, who I had been planning to marry for the past five years, and agree to an arranged marriage in Pakistan. Still on probation, I kept visiting Pakistan four times a year, without the knowledge of the DEA or my Probation Officer, to see my new wife, who I had decided to keep in Pakistan.

On one of my trips, October 2000, I made my first contact with Lashkar-e-Taiba (LT), quite by accident. I attended their annual convection in November. I was very impressed with their dedication to the cause of the liberation of Kashmir from Indian occupation.

In a later passage, Headley marks his decision to join Lashkar “full time” following the 9/11 attacks, and says that by 2002 the group asked him to take “the Daura Aamma, the basic military training course offered by LT.” It was one of several training programs he writes about. In a separate section, he recalls a second course that he attended:

We hid most of the day in caves and under trees, while we were given instructions on various lessons. Most of the practical aspects of the lessons were carried out at night. During this course, I was trained in infiltration, survival, camouflage, raid/ambush tactics, hide out, hiding and retrieving weapons caches, more than a dozen night marches, target practice with AK-47 and 9 mm pistol, RPG, grenades, among other training. We also went through an extensive indoctrination process and were required to study many Quaranic Chapters and Hadith.

By 2005, Lashkar’s plans for Headley are coming into focus. He is trained in explosives, but perhaps most importantly, Lashkar asks him to change the name given to him at birth by his Pakistani father and American mother — Daood Gilani. He chooses David, which is English for Daood; Coleman, which was his grandfather’s name; and Headley, which was his mother’s maiden name. It was a bureaucratic act, but intelligence officials say the change made Headley that much more difficult to track.

Finally, in June, my immediate superior, Sajid Mir, instructed me to return to the United States, change my Muslim name to a Christian sounding name and get a new U.S. passport under that name. He now informed me I would be going to India, since I looked nothing like a Pakistani in appearance and spoke fluent Hindi and Urdu it would give me a distinct advantage in India.

As his training continued, so did his embrace of the Lashkar lifestyle. In 2007, for example, Headley takes a second wife. He describes the decision by saying:

Polygamy was aggressively encouraged by LT and they were really happy to see me take this step. I was definitely “one of the guys” now.

Around the same time, Headley was conducting regular reconnaissance of targets in Mumbai. On one trip, he checks into the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, which would later be the epicenter of the Mumbai attack, with his new wife for a “honeymoon.” As he cases locations on his trips to the city, Headley says he takes “extensive video.”

The plan was to capture an Indian fishing vessel, which constantly strayed into Pakistani waters, and commandeer it all the way to Mumbai. The hope was that the Indian Coast Guard would not notice an Indian vessel. The boys would carry a GPS device which would guide them directly to the landing site, I had selected earlier.

After the attack, Headley says he was told to “lay low.” Instead, he eventually connects with Al Qaeda and with the assistance of a contact he has inside the organization he travels to Denmark to scout the Jyllands-Posten newspaper for a possible strike.

This paper had published a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad and was on the top of the hit list for Al Qaeda. The Major told me that the leadership desired the attack to be carried out ASAP on the Newspaper Head Office. I visited Copenhagen in January 2009 and conducted detailed surveillance of the office there as well as their location in Arhus. I was able to make entry into both locations. …

A few days later he took me to North Waziristan, where I met Ilyas Kashmiri, the Al Qaeda number four. He gave me a further pep talk on the Denmark Project, saying that, both, Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri had stressed upon him the need to conclude this matter quickly. I agreed and assured him of my best effort.

Western intelligence would soon learn of the plot, and close in on Headley. At the end of his draft, he describes the days leading up to his arrest.

I received final instructions in Denmark and left for the United States. in July 2009, I flew to England from Chicago and met Kashmiri’s friends. … Both of these men were also under surveillance by British Police, as a result of which I too came under surveillance. They forwarded their information to the F.B.I. From England, I checked out Denmark one last time and returned to the United States. I had now reached the conclusion that since I was short on man power, I would modify the operation and, instead of assaulting the newspaper building, just take out the cartoonist, Kurt Westergaard, and do this deed myself. All I would need was a handgun, which I knew I could find in Europe … I was finally arrested on 3 October 2009, at O’Hare Airport, on my way back to Pakistan.

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