Five Surprising Facts About the American Behind “India’s 9/11”

April 21, 2015
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by Patrice Taddonio Assistant Director of Audience Development

Last week, Pakistan made international headlines by releasing Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, a suspected mastermind of the 2008 siege on Mumbai that killed 166 people, from prison on bail.

What many people don’t know is that an American citizen also played a key role in planning the attacks, which were so traumatic that they’re often described as “India’s 9/11.”

His name is David Coleman Headley — and he’s the subject of American Terrorist, a 90-minute special from FRONTLINE and ProPublica that premieres at 10 pm EST tonight on PBS (check local listings) and online.

Drawing on new analysis of Snowden documents, it’s an investigation that raises questions about the efficacy of mass electronic surveillance programs, showing that spy agencies failed to detect Headley before and after the Mumbai attacks, and challenging claims that NSA programs played a key role in his eventual capture.

In advance of tonight’s premiere, here are five surprising revelations about this American Terrorist.

1.) His mother was a local celebrity in Philadelphia.

Headley (born Daood Gilani) was born in the U.S. to an American mother who was the daughter of a prominent high-society family in Philadelphia, and a Pakistani father who was a well-known broadcaster back in his home country. The family moved to Pakistan soon after Headley was born, and when they eventually divorced, Headley initially stayed in Pakistan with his father. But as a teenager, he returned to Philadelphia — where his mother had started a popular bar called the Khyber Pass Pub, which she promoted using exotic tales about life in Pakistan, false charges of espionage, and escaping through the bar’s namesake. Headley’s nickname among Khyber Pass patrons? “The prince.”

2.) He was a heroin addict and drug smuggler.

Before his turn into terrorism, Headley was busted at an airport carrying two kilos of heroin. On the spot, he agreed to cooperate with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). One of his partners got 10 years in prison. The other got eight. Headley only got four.

3.) He became radicalized while he was working for the U.S. government as a DEA informant.

Three years after his first prison stint, Headley was busted again with drugs. Eager to cut his second prison stay short, he began working for the DEA. While doing so, he made several unauthorized trips to Pakistan, his father’s homeland — and fell in with an Islamic terror group called Lashkar-e-Taiba, dedicated to waging jihad against India and the West.

4.) His wife reported his radical activities to the U.S. embassy in Pakistan.

While being trained by Lashkar in Pakistan, Headley adopted the group’s ways. He already had two wives, but he decided to get married again to a Moroccan medical student. His new wife eventually tired of the arrangement. Angry that Headley, who left her alone for months at a time, was treating her like a mistress, she went to the U.S. embassy in Islamabad — telling officials there that her husband was a terrorist being trained by Lashkar. She even described how she had honeymooned with Headley at the Taj hotel — what would later be the main target in the Mumbai attacks. But embassy security officials filed the case as “low priority,” and nothing happened.

5.) He planned a Charlie Hebdo-like assault against a Danish newspaper.

Headley’s reconnaissance missions inside the Taj helped to make the Mumbai siege possible. Weeks after the attacks, he went on similar reconnaissance mission in Denmark, this time working for Al Qaeda. He posed as a tourist — riding his bike around Copenhagen, filming and narrating as he went. His target this time was the newspaper Jyllands Posten, which four years earlier had caused outrage across the Muslim world by publishing a dozen cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. The attack never came to fruition: Headley’s connection with a top Al Qaeda official had put him on the radar of Western intelligence officials, and Headley was finally arrested in October 2009. Only then, when Headley himself willingly offered up the information, did officials learn of Headley’s role in the Mumbai attacks.

Watch American Terrorist tonight on PBS to learn more about Headley, what happened next, and why he wasn’t stopped sooner. And in the meantime, here’s a six-minute drilldown of Headley’s dramatic journey:

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