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India is waging a lone battle against terror

The David Headley case gets curiouser and curiouser. As each new twist is revealed, I sometimes feel as though we are watching one of those American TV shows where every episode brings with it some increasingly far-fetched plot complication, writes Vir Sanghvi.

columns Updated: Nov 01, 2010 13:01 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

The David Headley case gets curiouser and curiouser. As each new twist is revealed, I sometimes feel as though we are watching one of those American TV shows where every episode brings with it some increasingly far-fetched plot complication. This is not quite 24, but it certainly is 26/11.

When the story first broke (I almost feel like intoning, “Previously on 26/11” as they do in the TV shows) we were told that the Americans had arrested a US citizen of Pakistani origin with links to terrorist groups. Subsequently, it was revealed that this man, identified as David Headley, had visited India and may have been part of the advance team for the 26/11 attackers. Naturally, our investigative agencies wanted to interrogate him. But for several months, the Americans refused us any access to Headley.

Then, the US media got in on the act. Their digging revealed that Headley had been arrested in America on drug charges but had been released from jail following the 9/11 attacks and had been allowed to travel freely between the US and Pakistan on a fresh US passport. American journalists concluded — on the basis of court documents — that Headley had been sent back to Pakistan as an undercover agent or at the very least, an informant, by US authorities. In return for agreeing to serve as an agent, his jail sentence had been remitted.

This gave rise to many suspicions. Off the record, American officials were willing to concede that Headley might have been an agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) but insisted that he had no links with the CIA or any other agency that was battling terrorism.

These denials did not convince Indian intelligence or sections of the US media. It was widely believed that in the scramble to find informants in the post 9/11 phase all agencies shared their assets. It was likely that the DEA had handed Headley over to anti-terrorist agencies or the CIA.

Once you accepted this, then much of the Headley story made sense. Why was he allowed to travel freely between America, Pakistan and India? Surely, immigration officials at US airports — always ready to closely question anyone of Pakistani origin — would have wondered why a convicted drug smuggler was travelling so frequently to the drug haven of Pakistan.

Indian intelligence suspected that Headley was an American agent who had infiltrated terrorist networks at the behest of the CIA or one of its sister organisations. They pointed out that the Americans had passed on general information about the possibility of a terrorist attack on Bombay. Some of this information probably came from Headley. It seemed likely that the US was caught in the traditional intelligence dilemma. Did it pass on everything it knew about the plot to India and thereby blow its agent’s cover? Or did it keep quiet to protect Headley?

In the end, it appears to have taken a middle path. It passed on enough information to say that it had provided a warning but avoided handing over anything specific enough to finger Headley as the source.

What happened next is the subject of some dispute. The semi-official Indian intelligence view is that Headley probably went rogue, began sympathising with the terrorists he had infiltrated and was then busted by the Americans. A minority view within the intelligence community is that he remained an American agent all through and that the US only pulled him in when it seemed likely that he would be exposed. And then, of course, there is the US view that he was a possible drug informant who joined terrorists of his own volition and was then trapped by American investigators.

For several months, while such speculation raged, unchecked, the US refused to allow India any access to Headley. Indian intelligence believed that there were many reasons for this delay. The Americans were tutoring Headley in what to reveal and what to hide. They were rolling up other intelligence assets that could be compromised by an interrogation of Headley and so on.

In recent weeks, two new episodes have offered interesting twists in the saga. The report of Headley’s Indian interrogators (who were finally granted access by the Americans) was leaked to Britain’s The Guardian. That report suggests that 26/11 was an ISI operation almost from start to finish.

If Headley is telling the truth, then this raises important questions. How serious is Pakistan about peace with India if its own intelligence agency plans terrorist attacks in our country?

If the Americans are aware — because of Headley — of the extent of ISI’s involvement in terrorism, then how can they continue cooperating with this agency as part of their so-called war against terror? How can Hillary Clinton call Pakistan a strong ally in the fight against terrorism as she did on Friday? And if they do know of Pakistan’s role in officially-sponsored terrorism in India, how can they urge us to push for peace? Do we ask them to kiss and make up with Osama bin Laden?

Another equally gripping episode has featured two of Headley’s ex-wives. Both of them, it now turns out, approached American authorities and warned them about Headley’s links with terrorist organisations. Given America’s paranoia on the subject, given that there were witnesses and given that immigration computers would have revealed Headley’s frequent travels to Pakistan, you would have expected the US to pick Headley up for questioning — at the very least.

Instead, US authorities did nothing. One of the ex-wives says they told her to get lost.

Such indifference to serious allegations of terrorism can only mean one thing: they already knew.

They knew that Headley was an American agent who was consorting with terrorists at the behest of Washington or Langley. It was his job to infiltrate terrorist organisations.

Given all this evidence, I don’t think anyone can seriously dispute any longer that Headley was an American agent though we can argue about whether he went rogue or whether he continued to work for the US.

This, by itself, is no big deal. Of course the Americans have placed agents within terrorist organisations. But here’s what’s important: the US probably knew much more about 26/11 than it was willing to let on. Even today, it knows how deeply the ISI is involved in sponsoring terrorism. But as long as the terrorism is directed towards India and not the West, it does not mind so much. The CIA continues to work closely with ISI and two days ago Washington gave Pakistan another $2 billion to buy weapons.

So, finally, let’s never forget the biggest lesson from this saga. When it comes to the battle against terrorism, India has no allies. We are on our own.

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Oct 23, 2010 23:24 IST