The shadow of a friend
With exclusive accounts from people who knew him, HT pieces together David Coleman Headley. Neelesh Misra brings you the inside story of the man who is currently India’s most wanted.delhi Updated: Nov 21, 2009 22:13 IST
It began with a mistake at the gym. The muscular, 6 ft-2 inch white man had been coming to the Mumbai gym called Moksha (salvation) for about three months in 2006, thrice a week, every evening around 9 p.m., keeping to himself. Once in a while, he greeted some people from the US Consulate across the road, who came there as well.
His name was David Coleman Headley. He would tell his friends he was born in Philadelphia, had Irish ancestry, and had served with the US Army. He spoke English with an American accent, knew some words of Hindi, was a teetotaller, wore Ray-Ban glasses, had his hair tied in a ponytail, and his face was tanned — “red like a tomato”, a friend of his would say later. He had a chiselled face and green eyes, with one eyeball a slightly different shade from the other.
Vilas Pandurang Varak, 31, one of the gym instructors, had never spoken to the man but had certainly noticed him earlier — he was an instructor’s delight, extremely fit, extremely dedicated. He usually used only the tough-to-do cross-trainer, for up to an hour. Varak, who lived in a central Mumbai chawl (residential cluster) and is to get married on December 9, knew the drill: don’t bother the expats until they need something. But the man was doing it all wrong today on the squatting rack; he could hurt himself. Varak told him so.
“Will you train me?” Headley asked later.
“I work here, I will help you out whenever you want,” Varak said.
Soon, they would become friends, hanging out once in a while with Vilas’s friend and fitness guru, 27-year-old Rahul Bhatt. Headley was never star-struck — although his friend belonged to one of the most famous film families in Bollywood: his father is famous filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt, his uncle the leading producer Mukesh Bhatt, his sister the actor-director Pooja Bhatt.
Headley said he was an immigration consultant whose boss was one “Mr. Sanders” in New York. He said he was helping poor Pakistani youth emigrate from their embattled nation. He never let his young friends pay for the expensive dinners — and happily went to have the famous vegetarian lunch at the city’s Hare Krishna temple, where he lectured his Indian friends on Lord Krishna. He had copies of the Bible, the Quran and the Gita.
Headley loved having spicy chaat (streetside snacks). He lived in a house with a large hall partitioned hostel-style for other inmates — several other white men. He watched movies with Bhatt and Vilas Varak, and even went to see a Bollywood film. He seemed to know everything about everything — including how Belgian Shepherd dogs were better than German Shepherds. So Bhatt jokingly called him an American spy, a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agent whom he addressed as “Agent Headley” in jest.
They spoke about special military units and secret squads the world over. They discussed Bhatt’s planned film Suicide Bomber. Headley brought books for Bhatt from the United States that the aspiring actor needed as reference material. Headley told him he should go and work in Hollywood; with his big muscular body and long legs he was “too big for Bollywood”. They talked about nutritional supplements. He found a co-worker’s daughter attractive. He was fond of children.
This autumn, he became quite something else for them.
Their white friend who loved his Philadelphia steak sandwich and apple pie with vanilla ice-cream was, investigators said, actually a globe-trotting terrorist.
Chicago’s O’Hare airport buzzed with passengers. It was October 3, 2009; the flight to Philadelphia would soon take off.
As one of the passengers prepared to board, Federal Bureau of Investiga-tions (FBI) agents moved in, led by Special Agent Lorenzo Benedict.
The passenger was arrested, his bags searched. There was a photocopy of an August 1, 2009 issue of the Jyllands-Posten newspaper, a Copenhagen street guide, a list of phone numbers, including that of a Pakistani man he had been in constant touch with; a book titled How to Pray like a Jew, and a memory stick containing 10 short videos, showing the exterior and nearby surroundings of the newspaper office.
The man was David Coleman Headley — a Pakistan-born American also known as Daood Gilani. The same man who had watched a Bollywood movie at the Metro theatre in Mumbai with his friend Vilas Varak.
Benedict, who had joined the FBI in September 2004, had been handling counter-terrorism investigations since March 2005. He had been preparing for this moment for months, intercepting Headley’s phone calls and e-mails, keeping track of his plans to travel to Pakistan some days later.
Eight days after the arrest, on October 11, he brought charges against Headley. Benedict accused Headley of working for the outlawed Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, and planning a daring attack in the office of the Danish newspaper that had published cartoons offensive to Muslims, and another terrorist attack in India, in or around Mumbai.
Headley would soon become India’s most famous terror suspect.
Half-way around the world in Mumbai, Rahul Bhatt had just entered his apartment and was walking to his room when he froze. His mother was watching the TV in the living room on the November day, and he had just heard something familiar.
“Flip back! Flip back!” Bhatt, a fitness consultant, told his mother Kiran.
David Headley had walked back into Bhatt’s life — this time with a tag of a terrorist. And Benedict, the FBI agent, had alleged in court papers that Headley had frequently mentioned an actor called “Rahul”, also used interchangeably as a code for the city, in his mails to a Pakistan-based handler.
Forty-eight hours later, Bhatt and Varak sat alongside Mahesh Bhatt, before Rakesh Maria, Mumbai’s Crime Branch chief. They told him all they knew of Headley. These were crucial leads for security officials, who had been stunned by the FBI arrest.
Headley, a man who was staying in Mumbai, allegedly planning a terrorist attack and had access to influential opinion-leaders in the run-up to, and after, the 26/11 terrorist attacks, had completely foxed the police and intelligence agencies.
Two Mumbai boys would now lead the way with crucial leads.
“That’s not the David I knew,” Bhatt says as he sits in his living room, the sounds of a news bulletin merging with the din of street traffic filtering in.
Bhatt and Headley first met in early 2007, at a ‘Mr. Mumbai’ bodybuilding competition at Mumbai’s Maratha Mandir auditorium. Vilas had told Headley they would go meet “my fitness guru”.
“The hall was packed, there were no seats, so I offered him mine, and went and sat elsewere,” Bhatt says.
Then Headley started coming for fitness counselling. They became friends. They met sometimes at the Barista on Chapel Road in Mumbai’s Bandra neighbourhood, mostly on Sundays. He usually came sitting with Varak on his motorbike. Bhatt e-mailed him occasionally, and sent him mobile text messages — all of which were being read by investigators along with Headley’s other communication.
“We watched movies at PVR or INOX. We went once to the Sea Lounge at the Taj (Mahal hotel), we sometimes ate at Indigo resturant,” Bhatt says.
They were sitting at Indigo once, Headley wearing a cap of the Philadelphia Phillies, the city’s baseball team, having a Philadelphia steak sandwich. “It’s even better than what you get in Philly (the short form of the city’s name),” he said. A white woman walked up, saw his cap and said: “Are you from Philadelphia? Me too!”
“He knew I am a recluse. I don’t go to parties or pubs; he never once asked me to. He said he would be very proud to see me successful as an actor,” Bhatt says. Bhatt was about to make his debut as an actor in the film Suicide Bomber, loosely based on the London terrorist bombings. Headley brought him books he needed for reference. The film never took off.
Headley offered to help him migrate to the United States, to seek work in the movies.
“And he said he would take me to Pakistan and change my name to Akbar,” the tall, muscular Varak says, sitting nervously on the edge of the sofa at the Bhatt home. “I used to get so scared.”
Headley carried a mobile phone but it never rang in his friends’ presence – though they would be together for up to seven hours on a Sunday.
Varak sometimes found him reading a book in a foreign script.
“I don’t know what it was, whether Urdu or something else,” he says.
Bhatt was certain he was a CIA agent. “What on earth was he doing in Mumbai?” Bhatt says. “Then I thought I was being just a kid, that it was because of my overdose of spy movies.”
Even as he deals with the media playing up Headley’s friendship with the two men, despite their help with the probe, Bhatt has not lost his dark humour and sense of irony.
“This might finally help my movie career,” he says.