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Headley travelled unimpeded

An American charged with helping plan the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, moved effortlessly between the United States, Pakistan and India for nearly seven years, training at a militant camp in Pakistan on five occasions, according to a plea agreement released by the Justice Department last week.

world Updated: Mar 26, 2010 22:34 IST

An American charged with helping plan the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, moved effortlessly between the United States, Pakistan and India for nearly seven years, training at a militant camp in Pakistan on five occasions, according to a plea agreement released by the Justice Department last week.

The odyssey of David C. Headley, 49, included scouting targets in several cities in India and meeting with a senior operative of Al Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

These and other new details of Headley’s activities, contained in the plea agreement, raise troubling questions about how an American citizen could commute for so long undetected from his home base in Chicago to well established terrorist training camps in Pakistan.

The document shows that Headley made two trips to North Waziristan, the heart of Al Qaeda operations. His handlers, the document reveals, included a former Pakistani military commander with ties to a Pakistani extremist group and even Al Qaeda.

From there, Headley helped plan the Mumbai attack, it says, and put in contact with a Qaeda cell in Europe. The document shows the cell was well supplied with weapons and money and primed for an attack until Headley was arrested by the FBI at O’Hare airport last October.

Headley divulged details of his life as a spy and militant as part of a plea agreement that will spare him the death penalty, his lawyer, John T. Theis, said this week. Headley’s maximum sentence would be life imprisonment, he said.

Headley has volunteered to talk to the authorities in India, Pakistan and Denmark, where he was plotting with a Qaeda cell to attack the Copenhagen offices of the newspaper that had printed derisive cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

Bruce Riedel, a member of the National Security Council in the Clinton administration and now at the Brookings Institution, said the revelations showed that “Al Qaeda still has a significant operational infrastructure somewhere in Europe,” he said. Headley’s saga also showed in clear contours the close relationship between Al Qaeda and the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, he said.

Headley was able to use his Pakistani and American heritage to great advantage, playing up his American descent on his mother’s side in India, and then behaving as a Pakistani in Pakistan, where his father was born. As he became more involved in the web of militant activities in Pakistan — sometimes training for months at a time — and then making five trips to Mumbai from 2006 to 2008 to scout locations, Headley kept his base in Chicago, the document says.