The operative was highly prized by US security forces but he was a double agent who masterminded the Islamist slaughter in India
AN AMERICAN double agent masterminded the Islamist terrorist attack on Mumbai that killed 166 people in 2008 while he was being used by the CIA to hunt Osama bin Laden.
When India discovered his role, it accused Washington of having sacrificed Mumbai for the prime target of the al-Qaeda leader.
David Headley, a former drug smuggler, was acting as a “highly prized counterterrorism asset” for America, according to former officers in the Joint Terrorism Task Force, who said his covert career had run for 11 years.
Headley had proposed the Mumbai attack in an effort to win the confidence of the leaders of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a banned Pakistani Islamist organisation with connections to al-Qaeda.
He conceived the operation, visited Mumbai seven times to reconnoitre the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and other targets, and provided supplies and GPS co-ordinates for the 10 Pakistani gunmen who took part.
India was traumatised by the three-day attack on its commercial capital in November 2008 when the gunmen rampaged through Mumbai’s streets and hotels, killing and wounding more than 300 people.
US-Indian relations fell to an all-time low after Indian intelligence uncovered Headley’s activities. Irate officials claimed that Headley’s American controllers had allowed the plot to go ahead in order to safeguard his key role in the hunt for the al-Qaeda leader.
The CIA responded that it had repeatedly warned India of the impending assault. In a furious exchange it accused its counterparts in Delhi of “incompetence”.
At Headley’s trial in Washington this year the judge considered the death penalty but the prosecution opposed it on the grounds that he had provided “unusual co-operation”. He was sentenced to 35 years.
The true extent of Headley’s co-operation has never been revealed. During the trial the impression was given that he had begun to reveal secrets about his jihadist life after his arrest in Chicago in 2009.
In reality Headley, now 53, had a long history of assisting American law enforcement agencies and his family background had enabled him to act as a mole, moving between America, Pakistan and India.
When Headley was born in Washington in 1960 he was named Daood Saleem Gilani. His mother was Serrill Headley, a socialite, and his father was Syed Gilani, a diplomat from Lahore. Within a year the family relocated to Pakistan, where Gilani was brought up as a strict Muslim. After his parents divorced, Serrill returned to open a bar in Philadelphia.
Later Gilani moved to New York, where he opened a video rental shop. In 1984 he smuggled half a kilo of heroin from Pakistan to New York, selling it through his video store. When German customs officers caught him four years later at Frankfurt airport with two kilos of heroin, Gilani informed on his accomplices to the authorities.
While his fellow conspirators were jailed for between eight and 10 years, he became a paid informer, infiltrating Pakistan’s drug syndicates. In 1997 he was arrested again for trafficking. He offered another deal: to infiltrate the Islamist groups that had started to worry the CIA and FBI.
Sentenced to 15 months in the low-security Fort Dix prison, New Jersey, he was freed after nine months.
In August 1999 he returned to Pakistan, his ticket paid by the US government. By 2006 Gilani had won access to the inner circle of LeT. Coming up with the plan to attack Mumbai, he changed his name to David Headley and applied for a new American passport. He used it to travel to India on seven surveillance trips.
While inside the LeT Headley had successfully inched towards al-Qaeda, making him the only US citizen in the field who might be able to reach bin Laden.
Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark Published: 3 November 2013
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© Times Newspapers Ltd 2012