Here is a hypothetical situation. Imagine that the Indian police arrest a man who had advance knowledge of the 9/11 plot. Not only did he work with the conspirators but he had also been sent to New York several times to conduct reconnaissance so that the terrorists would be able to successfully execute their assault.
Naturally, the US would want to extradite this person so that he could be tried in a US court for his involvement in one of the worst acts of terrorism in recent times. Assume now that India not only refused to discuss the extradition but also denied the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) any access to the suspect. “We will tell you what he is saying,” the Central Bureau of Investigation would insist. “There is no way you can interrogate him face to face.”
Take our scenario further. Imagine now that even as the US seethes at being denied access to this important link in the 9/11 case, India announces that it has done a deal with the man. He will plead guilty to all charges. So, there is no question of the death penalty under our law. Nor is there any prospect of his being prosecuted under American law. Part of the deal is that we have assured the suspect that we will never extradite him. As for the sentence, that is still to be worked out but it will be decided on the basis of the deal that we have made with the terrorist.
How do you suppose America will react?
The answers are obvious. There would be a diplomatic incident. The secretary of state would call our home minister (or perhaps our prime minister) to insist that the terrorist is handed over to the FBI. India would be accused of betraying the war on terror. How can we prosecute the man in our country, we would be asked, when the crime he was involved in occurred in America? There would be threats galore. We would be warned of a suspension of aid. Summits would be cancelled and so on.
I have spent some time outlining this scenario because it closely parallels something that has actually happened: except that in this case, the terrorist was involved in 26/11, not 9/11. And it is not India that is refusing to extradite him but America that has told us to go take a flying jump.
It is not difficult to see why the case of David Headley evokes such strong emotions among Indians. For us, 26/11 is as important as 9/11 is to Americans. The difference is that while the US knows pretty much everything it needs to about 9/11 — especially as al-Qaeda has openly taken credit for the attack — India is still trying to piece together the details of the conspiracy. It is the US that has told us that Headley made several reconnaissance trips for 26/11. Naturally, we believe that such a man not only deserves to be punished by an Indian court but that his information may hold the key to unravelling the 26/11 plot. What’s more, we suspect that Headley also suggested Poona as a potential terror target. How many other such targets did he pinpoint? Until we interrogate him, we will never know.
So, why is the US behaving in this manner? Say what you will about the Americans but the truth is that till now, they have genuinely tried to fight a global war against terror and have regularly involved the world’s intelligence agencies in this effort.
Why abandon the cooperation now? Why alienate India so completely for the sake of a terrorist? Why allow more people to be killed — in such attacks as the Poona bombing — by refusing to let Indian investigators question David Headley?
I believe that only one explanation fits these facts and that there is only one answer to these questions.
David Headley was an American agent.
When I first suggested this hypothesis on these pages, it seemed slightly outlandish but now, I am sad to see, it has become received wisdom on the subject. And each day brings us new evidence to support this thesis.
We know that Headley (who called himself Daoud Gilani in that era) was convicted on drug charges and sent to jail in the US. We know also that he was subsequently released from jail early and handed over to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which said that it wanted to send him to Pakistan as an undercover agent. All this is a matter of public record.
What happened between the time the US sent Headley into Pakistan and his arrest at Chicago airport a few months ago? How did an American agent turn into a terrorist? The US will not say.
There are broadly only three possibilities. Possibility one is that he remained a DEA agent but also got involved with jihadi groups while remaining on the drug agency’s rolls. Possibility two is that he was never really a mere DEA agent. In the aftermath of 9/11, when it was discovered that America had few agents within the jihadi networks, all American agencies came together to pool assets so that the US could penetrate the terror groups. It is significant that Headley was sprung from jail after 9/11 though of course the court would have to be told that it was the DEA that wanted him (rather than the CIA) because he had been arrested on drug charges.
If you stick with possibility two, then Headley was a double agent. Sent to infiltrate jihadi groups, he became a convert to the terrorist cause and betrayed his American handlers.
Both possibilities would explain why the Americans are reluctant to let us speak to Headley. They do not want him discussing his role as an American agent (whether for the CIA or the DEA) with Indian intelligence.
But there is a third possibility. One theory — advanced by The Daily Beast website and the American media themselves — is that Headley remained a US agent till the end. He was the source who told the Americans about 26/11, causing them to send us a vague warning about the attack before it happened. (Because this warning was not specific enough, our sloppy intelligence apparatus ignored it.)
If you follow this theory through, then you would have to argue, as some Indian intelligence officials do, that the Americans pulled Headley out because they suspected that Indian agents were getting wise to his identity. Far better to place him in secure American custody and to deny everybody else access than to risk having him exposed by a foreign intelligence service.
We do not have enough information to conclude with any certainty which of these three possibilities comes closest to what really happened. But of one thing, there can no longer be any doubt.
America is behaving very strangely in the David Headley case. It has something to hide. And it is scared of what Headley could reveal.
(The views expressed by the author are personal )