The 26/11 Mumbai attacks have cast a long shadow on India-Pakistan ties. They also continue to shape the way the Indian security establishment thinks about the terrorist threat the country faces. To that end, the plea bargain offered by India to the Pakistani-American Lashkar-e-Taiba operative David Headley assumes significance.
A Tada court in Mumbai pardoned Headley for his role in the LeT’s operation in exchange for full disclosure on the planning and execution of the attacks. Headley is serving a 35-year prison sentence in the US and since extradition is ruled out for the purposes of justice, this arrangement is geared to serve State purpose. Headley has been a key resource for unravelling the conspiracy, along with the executed terrorist Ajmal Kasab. According to the terrorism expert Stephen Tankel, the LeT operative reconnoitred a range of targets for his handlers in the ISI and the LeT and also plotted the coordinates for the landing sites into the GPS which helped the Mumbai attackers. Headley confirmed Hafiz Saeed’s involvement in the operation that included motivating the attackers to pursue their mission. The Pakistani-American also told US investigators that every major operation of the LeT was done in coordination with the ISI.
The National Investigation Agency has interrogated Headley in the presence of his lawyers and US officials, but there is still a lot we do not know. Headley is a witness in the trial of Zabiuddin Ansari, the Indian national believed to be in the Karachi control room during the attacks. The Indian authorities hope to glean more about the LeT’s networks via this bargain with Headley. The extent of his candour will be awaited keenly. India will be interested in the detail on the ISI’s involvement in the operation and its nurture of jihadi networks in India more widely. Indian investigators will be eager to discern if Headley’s revelations, when under US custody, are regulated in order to not embarrass the Pakistani military establishment. And if more disturbing details emerge, that will have its impact on India-Pakistan ties even as both sides are beginning to re-engage.