Live Chat: Unraveling the Headley Mystery


November 23, 2011

American David Coleman Headley spent two years casing Mumbai, meticulously laying the groundwork for the most spectacular terror attack since 9/11. But the story of how he got to that point is just as revealing — and mysterious — as his role in the attacks themselves.

Headley’s odyssey took him from Philadelphia playboy to heroin smuggler to DEA informant to Pakistani terrorist to star witness. For the past year, ProPublica’s Sebastian Rotella and FRONTLINE’s Tom Jennings have been investigating his story: How did Headley manage his conflicting set of alliances? What did the United States know about his relationships with terror group Lashkar-i-Taiba and Pakistani intelligence? Could the U.S. have done more to prevent the attacks?

We’ve asked Rotella and Jennings to join us for a live chat to discuss these questions and answer yours. Submit questions in the chat box below anytime, and join us at 11 a.m. ET on Wednesday, Nov. 23.

We’ll also be joined by The Hindu’s Praveen Swami, our guest questioner.

A Perfect Terrorist correspondent Sebastian Rotella is a veteran investigative reporter who worked at the Los Angeles Times for nearly 23 years before joining ProPublica. His reporting has extended from terrorism to arts to the Mexican border.

Tom Jennings is an investigative reporter and producer. He has produced a number of episodes for FRONTLINE, including the recent award-winning report Law & Disorder.

Our guest questioner Praveen Swami writes for The Hindu newspaper. He has reported on Asian security issues for almost two decades. Most recently, he was associate editor at the Daily Telegraph.

  A Perfect Terrorist Chat (11/16/2011) 

The “A Perfect Terrorist” chat will begin at 11am ET on Wednesday 11/23. You can preview the film here:

Monday November 21, 2011 3:59 FRONTLINE

You can leave a question now by entering it below. Please note that your questions will not immediately appear in the chat, and that we may not have time to include all questions submitted. Questions may also be edited for length.

Monday November 21, 2011 3:59 FRONTLINE

Our panelists will be ProPublica reporter Sebastian Rotella and FRONTLINE producer Tom Jennings. The Hindu’s Praveen Swami will be joining us as guest questioner.

Tuesday November 22, 2011 7:21 FRONTLINE

Dig deeper into the Headley case with Sebastian Rotella’s extensive reporting for ProPublica:

Tuesday November 22, 2011 7:31 FRONTLINE

We’ll be getting underway in just a few minutes.

Wednesday November 23, 2011 10:57 FRONTLINE

Good morning everyone, thanks for coming. We’re here with ProPublica reporter Sebastian Rotella and FRONTLINE producer Tom Jennings.

Wednesday November 23, 2011 11:03 FRONTLINE
Tom Jennings: 

Hello, Tom Jennings here. I directed “A Perfect Terrorist.”

Wednesday November 23, 2011 11:04 Tom Jennings
Sebastian Rotella: 

Hello. I’m Sebastian Rotella, the correspondent.

Wednesday November 23, 2011 11:05 Sebastian Rotella

The Hindu’s Praveen Swami is our guest questioner today.

Wednesday November 23, 2011 11:05 FRONTLINE

Tom, Sebastian, I guess my first question is: why, three years after the Mumbai attacks, is the story of David Headley still important?

Wednesday November 23, 2011 11:07 Praveen

One note on time — Sebastian is here until 11:45, but we’ll stay on with Tom and Praveen until noon.

Wednesday November 23, 2011 11:08 FRONTLINE
Sebastian Rotella: 

Praveen, I think this case remains urgently important because of its impact on the US-Pakistani relationship and the very topical question of alleged links between the Pakistani security forces and terrorist groups. The Rana trial in Chicago this year aired unprecedented evidence about the links between elements of the ISI and Lashkar and the role of the ISI in a terror attack intended to kill Americans, Westerners and Jews in addition to Indians. The US even indicted an ISI officer in the case. This has only intensified the tension and suspicion in the vital US-Pakistani relationship along with the discovery of bin Laden’s hideout and other recent cases.

Wednesday November 23, 2011 11:12 Sebastian Rotella
[Comment From Aditya Nad Aditya Nad : ] 

There is talk about Major Iqbal being one of the main planner, but he must have been a proxy for other senior officers in ISI or Army, did any of the investigations reveal any Pakistani Generals names?

Wednesday November 23, 2011 11:12 Aditya Nad
Sebastian Rotella: 

This is one of the most crucial questions in the case. The evidence shows that Headley had contact with other ISI officers, including colonels. And he talked about a symbiotic relationship between Lashkar chiefs and higher-ranking ISI officers, including a brigadier who has been named. Headley testified that he believed Iqbal’s commanding officer and others in their unit knew about the plot. But the vital question remains: how high and wide did involvement or knowledge of the plot go in the ISI? Is this the cases of a few rogue officers, as some assert? Or were the top brass implicated?

Wednesday November 23, 2011 11:16 Sebastian Rotella

The big unresolved question, is the issue of whether Headley was also working for the United States; whether this in some way facilitated his operations. I know you’ve done a great deal of work on this, and had new insights

Wednesday November 23, 2011 11:18 Praveen
How did you find out about today’s chat?

 ( 7% )


 ( 7% )

Frontline website

 ( 20% )

ProPublica website

 ( 2% )

The Hindu website

 ( 61% )

Word of mouth

 ( 2% )

Wednesday November 23, 2011 11:20 

Did the U.S. Know More Than It Let On About #Mumbai Attacks Suspect? w/ @ProPublica [via Twitter]

Wednesday November 23, 2011 11:24 frontlinepbs
Sebastian Rotella: 

The question remains unresolved. One of the main things we established is that the DEA deactivated Headley as an official law enforcement informant by early 2002. This only heightens the mystery, though, because we found even more evidence that the government was behind his probation being ended early so he could rush to Pakistan in late 2001. This would suggest a transition from anti-drug work, as a registered official informant, to some kind of secret intelligence work. And strong US and foreign sources insist he was still some kind of US intelligence operative until as late as 2005. The problem is that agencies are pointing fingers at each other and refusing to tell the whole story. There’s also another scenario that we point out: he may well have stopped working for the US government, but some sources say there was more continuing awareness and monitoring of his activities than has been revealed.

Wednesday November 23, 2011 11:25 Sebastian Rotella
Tom Jennings: 

In India there does seem to be a presumption that Headley was working for the US long after his DEA contract expired. The speculation too exists in America, but what I’ve discerned is that the emphasis on the Headley case is how he slipped through the cracks after repeated warnings to federal law enforcement and intelligence officials. I think as people in the US become more acquainted – and even, like in India, impassioned about the case – this central question will be raised more and more.

Wednesday November 23, 2011 11:26 Tom Jennings
[Comment From Don Don : ] 

Since the DEA by its admission did not employ and therefore pay Headley after March 2002, all they (or any US law-enforcement) ever needed to do to unravel this man was to ask him to show how he was paying for his expenses. Right? Also, how does the US Embassy in Islamabad explain why they didn’t act when his 3rd wife complained to them? Lastly, how does the FBI explain disinterest in a person whose own mother is telling on his terrorist activities and all this is well after 9/11/2001 when billions have been spent and thousands hired to ‘connect the dots’ ?

Wednesday November 23, 2011 11:27 Don

Dig deeper into Headley’s story with Sebastian Rotella’s extensive reporting for @ProPublica: #Frontline #ProPublica [via Twitter]

Wednesday November 23, 2011 11:32 frontlinepbs
Sebastian Rotella: 

If you look at our companion story on the ProPublica site, we get into more detail about each of the warnings and how the authorities responded. It’s a troubling issue. In fairness, US officials point out that they are inundated with tips and warnings and manpower is limited; this was especially true after 9/11. The system has improved since early in the decade. One of the recurring defenses has been that the warnings were not specific enough and that angry spouses and relatives often give bogus warnings. But the key point about the wife’s embassy warnings is this: did US officials know about the three previous FBI inquiries? Because if they did, that should have given the tip much more credibility. And if they didnt, it’s a real breakdown in the system.

Wednesday November 23, 2011 11:35 Sebastian Rotella

Tom, I’m curious about how you set about researching a man no-one wants to talk about: not his wives; not his children; not the terrorists he worked with, for obvious reasons. Its a film-maker’s nightmare, surely, working on this kind of story?

Wednesday November 23, 2011 11:36 Praveen
Tom Jennings: 

Like any project, this one started with a wide horizon of possibility and presumption on my part. I simply assumed I’d get all the big gets and have no problem with access. That horizon quickly narrowed as the toxicity of David Headley became apparent, and the fact that most people who ever knew him wanted nothing to do with us. But what was not apparent in the film is that we actually did talk to many people on background – all of whom I of course cannot identify. Our sourcing was wide, expansive and complete vis a vis officials in intelligence, law enforcement and people close to Headley at different points in his life.

Wednesday November 23, 2011 11:40 Tom Jennings
[Comment From Seth Seth : ] 

is there a chance David is handed over to India? India keeps asking for this, but the US won’t agree. Is there a reason for this?

Wednesday November 23, 2011 11:41 Seth

Looking forward, Sebastian, what does David Headley’s story tell us about the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s global capabilities; about its capacity and intention to inflict harm worldwide and not just on India?

Wednesday November 23, 2011 11:43 Praveen
Sebastian Rotella: 

To Seth – Headley gave unprecedented evidence and intelligence to US prosecutors about Lashkar, the ISI and al Qaeda. As a result, he got a plea bargain in which he avoided the death penalty and extradition to India by pleading guilty to serious charges, including his role in the murder of six Americans. He faces a long time in prison. There is disappointment in India about this outcome and a continuing Indian effort to investigate and charge him. But the bottom line is that the plea bargain is done and he now awaits sentencing in the US. So extradition is very unlikely.

Wednesday November 23, 2011 11:44 Sebastian Rotella
Do you believe David Headley was still working with the US government at the time of the attacks?

 ( 62% )


 ( 7% )


 ( 31% )

Wednesday November 23, 2011 11:44 

Watch Confessed Terrorist David Coleman Headley Scramble to Save Himself via @azmatzahra @shankman [via Twitter]

Wednesday November 23, 2011 11:46 frontlinepbs
Tom Jennings: 

I think Lashkar’s global intentions are now more apparent and are a source of concern to intelligence officials around the world. It does seem to have been highly specialized in the development of operatives like Headley and others – such as the New Zealander, Charles Wardle, who we interviewed in the film. Most intelligence officials we talked to believe the threat of these individual operatives still exists. To the question,”are there other David Headley’s?,” the categorical response from intelligence experts on Lashkar was, simple. “Yes.”

Wednesday November 23, 2011 11:49 Tom Jennings
Sebastian Rotella: 

This story shows that Lashkar was always more involved in the global jihad than many Western counter-terror agencies realized. The targeting of Westerners in Mumbai and then Denmark has raised great concern among US and European agencies and made Lashkar a top priority. Especially because of the failure of pakistani authorities to arrest most of the masterminds. There is fear of Lashkar itself and of its offshoots. Some experts still feel Lashkar will be restrained from striking the West by the ISI because of concern about backlash against Pakistan. Others feel that is no guarantee and that Lashkar, with its strong funding, training and global networks, could be a worse threat than al Qaeda, which is seriously diminished. I think the case shows the militant groups are blurring together in Pakistan and that is a bad sign in terms of cranking up the global threat.

Wednesday November 23, 2011 11:49 Sebastian Rotella
Sebastian Rotella: 

I have to finish up now, but I want to thank everyone for their interest, insight and supportive comments.

Wednesday November 23, 2011 11:50 Sebastian Rotella
[Comment From Dan Dan : ] 

How was Headley able to change his name to Headley? Seemed the program glossed over exactly how he got it done and maybe why this was a big mistake for the intelligence community. Maybe they acquiesced even.

Wednesday November 23, 2011 11:52 Dan

Thanks Sebastian! Tom Jennings and Praveen Swami will be here for a bit longer.

Wednesday November 23, 2011 11:52 FRONTLINE
Tom Jennings: 

The name change was indeed an event that we were curious about for the very reason you mention, ie this seems to be another moment where the US anti terror surveillance system might have been able to stop him. What was of special interest to me was that at the time of the name change Headley had two federal felony convictions in his background. How could this have escaped notice? What appears to have happened though is that a name change is a state-authorized function and background checks are often incomplete. Many lawyers told us that this is a common failure and not related specifically to the Headley case. But I agree – this remains a moment ripe with possibility.

Wednesday November 23, 2011 11:53 Tom Jennings

Tom, telling a story like this visually must have been extraordinarily difficult. Can you tell us a little about the challenges of filming in so many countries, and of trying to make a complex story comprehensible?

Wednesday November 23, 2011 11:54 Praveen
Tom Jennings: 

This film was indeed complex but for me as a filmmaker that only provides inspiration and opportunity. That we did film around the world allowed the viewers to be taken on a Le Carre- like ride – at least that was the intent. And to reference your earlier question about not getting people on camera, the sweep of the journey and the amazing cinematrography of the camera person, Timothy Grucza, provided a sense that we were moving into and out of locations and people’s lives, mitigating somewhat the fact that I was not able to get someone like David Headley on camera for an interview.

Wednesday November 23, 2011 11:58 Tom Jennings
[Comment From Sri Sri : ] 

Why is the mainstream media in the US virtually silent on this issue?

Wednesday November 23, 2011 11:59 Sri
Tom Jennings: 

That’s a really good question, one that I’ve asked myself repeatedly. In some ways I’m happy that’s the case — more for me to break as a filmmaker, more opportunities to explore untrammeled ground. I think that part of the question has to do with the fact that this story is so India-based, and the US media’s lack of attention to international events other than wars and revolutions. There’s the issue of resources — media outlets simply don’t have much money these days to do expansive international investigative reporting. There is also the issue of complexity, which I too had to wrestle with on this film. But one thing that I can’t help but wonder about is how US federal agencies have clamped down so thoroughly on the Headley affair and how this very effectively discourages coverage. This story moved a bit during the Rana trial in May – when David Headley sat on the witness stand for five days – but beyond a few hard-bitten investigative reporters in the US, few are willing to explore this amazing realm.

Wednesday November 23, 2011 12:04 Tom Jennings

Based on everything you know about the Headley case, Tom, do you see the Chicago trial as the end of of the story, or do you think the questions still unanswered are going to haunt in months and years to come?

Wednesday November 23, 2011 12:04 Praveen
Tom Jennings: 

Praveen, I know that you’re haunted by questions. I know Sebastian is too. I certainly am. This story will only continue to develop. The Chicago trial only opened a small window into the murky world of David Coleman Headley’s past, present and future. I really do hate saying this – much less ending on it – but really there is no better time to suggest, “stay tuned.”

Wednesday November 23, 2011 12:07 Tom Jennings
Tom Jennings: 

Thanks everyone for the wonderful questions. Sorry we couldn’t get to them all.

Wednesday November 23, 2011 12:08 Tom Jennings

That will have to be our last question for today. Thanks so much for coming everyone, and for all your fantastic questions. As always, we wish we had time to get to more of them. A special thanks to our panelists and to our guest questioner Praveen Swami.

Wednesday November 23, 2011 12:10 FRONTLINE

Follow Praveen on Twitter @praveenswami

Wednesday November 23, 2011 12:13 FRONTLINE

And a final thanks to our partners on this chat, ProPublica and The Hindu. See you next time everyone.

Wednesday November 23, 2011 12:13 FRONTLINE
[Comment From Alan Wright Alan Wright : ] 

Thank you all so much for another stimulating live chat.

Wednesday November 23, 2011 12:14 Alan Wright
[Comment From r.a.bailey r.a.bailey : ] 

thanks for doing the hard work of getting the story…heck of a story too…take care.

Wednesday November 23, 2011 12:15 r.a.bailey

David #Headley is not his given name. He was born Daood Gilani. Learn more abt his path to Mumbai in our slideshow: [via Twitter]

Wednesday November 23, 2011 12:17 AzmatZahra

Follow Headley’s trail with this interactive timeline from @ProPublica #Frontline #PerfectTerrorist [via Twitter]

Wednesday November 23, 2011 12:19 frontlinepbs




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