Did the Americans have detailed advance information about the 26/11 plot which they did not share with India, only passing on a watered-down warning? And was there an American spy within the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba who kept Washington (or Langley) informed of terror acts planned against India — even if this information was never handed over to us?
It is certainly beginning to look that way.
When Headley was first arrested, the Americans declared that they had foiled a plot to kill a Danish cartoonist. Then, more details began to trickle out. The terror suspect, we were told, was a US citizen of Pakistani origin. He had some links with the LeT. He had visited India. He may have been part of an advance team for 26/11.
Indian investigators, intrigued by these reports, flew to Washington to meet Headley. They were denied any access to him. They tried to work out if Headley was in fact somebody they themselves had been looking for. They had asked the CIA if it had any information about an American who, their sources had told them, was part of the LeT. They received no real cooperation.
Then, even as the Indian media were obsessing about Headley’s friendship with Mahesh Bhatt’s son, investigative journalists in America tracked down court papers pertaining to Headley’s arrest on drug charges in 1998. These papers showed that Headley had been convicted and sent to jail. But after 9/11, he had been set free and sent to Pakistan to work as an undercover agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
According to US journalists, Headley had been given a new passport in the American name of David Headley (his American mother’s maiden name is Headley) rather than his original name of Daood Gilani. He flew around the world, entering and leaving the US at will, avoiding the sort of attention that a convicted drug criminal was certain to attract at US airports.
Further, suggested US journos, the DEA assignment may have been a cover. After 9/11 America was under pressure to infiltrate Pakistan’s terror groups and many undercover agents were sent into Pakistan for this purpose.
Upto this point, we had two stories. The first was the version of the US government that it had arrested a terrorist. The second was the version favoured by the US media that this ‘terrorist’ had actually been sent to Pakistan by the Americans as an undercover agent.
American journos, on the whole, refused to believe that he worked only for the DEA and thought that he was probably in the pay of the CIA. But, many said, Headley had clearly gone rogue, becoming a double agent and owing true loyalty to the LeT.
Indian investigators had many questions. We know now that the US tipped us off that attacks on the Taj Mahal Hotel were imminent and that the terrorists would use the sea route. (Of course, our local flatfoots ignored the warnings.) At that stage, it was believed that the intel came from a CIA mole within the terror network. Could Headley have been that mole?
Besides, if US investigators had been on Headley’s trail for a while — as the US officially claims — and they knew that he was regularly visiting India on behalf of the LeT, why was this information never passed on to New Delhi? If you accept the official version, that Headley was a terrorist they were tracking, then surely we had a right to be informed of his visits to India? If he was an agent who had gone rogue (the non-official US version), even then we should have been told. So why were we kept in the dark?
As far as I know, there has been no official answer to any of these questions.
So all we have is the theory of the Indian investigators. It goes like this:
In the aftermath of 9/11, the US was desperate for spies it could sent into Pakistan. Headley was sprung from jail and asked to infiltrate terror groups. Assisted by the US government (new passport etc.), he worked for the LeT using his American passport to gain access to places where he would normally have been treated with suspicion if he had revealed his Pakistan roots.
He came to Bombay not just to check out the Taj but do a recon of Nariman House. He posed as an American Jew and sent back detailed reports. Along the way, he revealed details of the 26/11 plot to his American handlers. The US was caught in a bind. If it told us everything, the LeT would know that Headley was the source and his cover would be blown. Yet, it could not sit by. So, it compromised by giving us some intel about the attack that could not be traced back to Headley. And Headley continued to operate as a US asset inside LeT.
A few months ago, Indian agencies began tracking a Bangladeshi with US links. That trail led to an American who was involved with LeT. They asked the US for help. Headley was arrested soon afterwards.
The arrest took India by surprise. The way these things work is that if the US knows about a terrorist, it allows him to fly to Pakistan or India (both frequent Headley destinations) and then tips off the local intelligence service. The terrorist is arrested and tortured to extract information. (Americans are now banned from using torture.) When the terrorist has been wrung dry, he is handed over to the US, along with his confession.
In this case, however, the Americans arrested Headley before he could fly out. He was formally charged, allowed to appoint a lawyer and is now entitled to all the protections of the US Constitution: he would be within his rights to tell Indian investigators to take a flying jump.
Why would the US treat a 26/11 suspect with such consideration?
The only explanation that fits is this: he was an American agent all along. The US arrested him only when it seemed that Indian investigators were on his trail. He will be sentenced to jail, will vanish into the US jail system for a while and will then be sprung again — as he was the last time.
So, could 26/11 have been avoided? If this theory is right, then yes, the Americans could have told us more. And we could have foiled the plot.
On the other hand, given that we ignored the warnings they did give us, who is to say that our inept national security structure would not have failed yet again, even if we did have full information?
Ultimately, intelligence is only useful if it is accessed by the intelligent.
The views expressed by the author are personal.