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Mumbai terror trial gets under way

A Chicago courtroom could become the unlikely venue for revealing alleged connections between the terrorist group blamed for the 2008 rampage that killed more than 160 people in Mumbai and Pakistan's main intelligence agency, which has come under increased scrutiny following Osama bin Laden's killing.

world Updated: May 17, 2011 10:15 IST

A Chicago courtroom could become the unlikely venue for revealing alleged connections between the terrorist group blamed for the 2008 rampage that killed more than 160 people in Mumbai and Pakistan's main intelligence agency, which has come under increased scrutiny following Osama bin Laden's killing.

Tahawwur Rana, 50, who is accused of helping a former schoolmate serve as a scout for Pakistani militants blamed in the three-day rampage on India's largest city, greeted the jury pool on Monday for the first time with just two words: "Good morning."

Jury selection is expected through Thursday for the trial that is being closely watched worldwide and comes at an especially fragile time for US-Pakistan relations. Testimony from David Coleman Headley, Rana's former friend who has pleaded guilty, could reveal alleged connections between the Pakistani militant group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, which has come under increasing scrutiny after Osama bin Laden was killed in a US raid on his compound in a Pakistani garrison town.

Attention to the case was evident on Monday at federal court. Extra armed guards were stationed in the building's lobby and a metal detector was installed outside the courtroom. About a half dozen reporters from Indian news outlets covered the proceedings.

Jurors were given forms with more than 70 questions about a range of topics from terrorism to Islamic doctrine, including "What is your view of the Muslim or Islamic faith?"

Rana's attorneys said they were pleased with a jury pool that appeared diverse ethnically, racially and by gender.

But one said his top concern was getting jurors who wouldn't discriminate against Muslims like his client and could rule free from the emotion of the tragic Mumbai attacks that killed more than 160 people and current events including bin Laden's death. The al Qaeda leader was killed by Navy SEALs during a May 2 raid, mounting suspicions that the Pakistani intelligence agency, known as the ISI, was aware of his location or may have helped hide him. That has deepened suspicions that Pakistani agents secretly work with terrorist organizations despite receiving billions in US aid every year.

"We need jurors who can put their biases aside and rule on the facts," Rana's attorney Charles Swift said. "We're fairly certain there's only one verdict the jury can reach, and that's 'not guilty.'"

To make their case, federal prosecutors, who did not comment Monday, may detail alleged connections between Lashkar and ISI. Their star witness could be Headley, a Pakistani-American who pleaded guilty last year to laying the groundwork for the Mumbai attack by Lashkar-e-Taiba and has told interrogators that the ISI provided training and funds for the attack.

Headley told authorities that Rana provided him with cover for a series of scouting missions he conducted in Mumbai. Headley also told interrogators that he was in contact with another militant, who has ties to al Qaeda, as part of a separate plot to bomb a Danish newspaper that printed cartoons in 2005 that angered many Muslims.

Some experts expect the trial will detail workings of Lashkar-e-Taiba, which experts say was created with ISI's help in the 1980s as a proxy fighting force to battle with India over the disputed territory of Kashmir. Counterterrorism officials say the group since then has gained strength partly because of the ISI, possibly with the help of retired officers. Pakistani officials have denied any ties with the group.

The trial "will increase our understanding of the group's operations and its internal dynamics," said Stephen Tankel, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "One of the things that analysts would be looking for as this goes along, is what this tells us about the internal dynamics of the organization and how the Mumbai attacks came to fruition."

US District Court Judge Harry Leinenweber said the trial is expected to last about a month.

Rana, a Canadian national who has lived in Chicago for years, owns Chicago-based First World Immigration Services. Prosecutors say Rana allowed Headley to open a First World office in Mumbai and travel as a supposed agency representative. He also allegedly helped Headley make travel arrangements as part of the plot, which ultimately never occurred, against the Danish newspaper that printed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

Rana, who was arrested in 2009, is charged with providing material support for terrorism in India and Denmark. In court documents, Rana's attorneys have said he believed Headley was working for Pakistani intelligence. Rana's attorneys have said part of their defense will be to show that Headley used his connections with the ISI to explain what he was doing.

Some experts doubt much new will come from the trial and have called Headley an unreliable witness. They say prosecutors will work hard to keep sensitive information secret. Headley reached a plea deal with prosecutors in the terrorism case in exchange for avoiding the death penalty and previously had been an informant for the US Drug Enforcement Administration after a drug conviction.

Details of Headley's potential testimony were revealed last year in an Indian government report detailing what he'd allegedly told Indian investigators during questioning in Chicago. In the report, Headley is cited describing how the ISI was deeply involved in planning the Mumbai attacks and how he reported to a man known only as "Major Iqbal," whom he called his Lashkar "handler." But some experts have suggested Iqbal could be a retired ISI officer, or that he may not even exist.

Rana, who was wearing a gray suit in court on Monday, is the seventh name on the indictment, and the only defendant in custody. Among the six others charged in absentia are Major Iqbal and Sajid Mir, allegedly another Lashkar-e-Taiba supervisor who also "handled" Headley. Also indicted is Ilyas Kashmiri, who also is believed by Western intelligence to be al Qaeda's operational chief in Pakistan.