A final chapter closed last week in Chicago. Fifty-two year old David Coleman Headley was sentenced to 35 years in prison for helping plan what many call India's 9/11. Over one hundred and sixty people died, including six Americans. Yes, one of our own designed a terrorist attack overseas.
It was November 26th, Thanksgiving weekend, when the Pakistan-based terrorist group Lashkar e-Tayyiba laid siege to the city of Mumbai for three days. Any doubt as to LeT's suicidal strategy was put to rest when Indian authorities released intercepted cell phone communications between the militants and their Pakistan-based handlers.
Even while intercepting the assailant's communications, Indian authorities were not prepared for a fight this vicious and well planned.
That was largely due to David Headley. He was born in the United States to an American mother and a Pakistani father. He changed his name from Gaood Gilani in 2006 so that he could map and videotape the Mumbai targets without raising suspicion.
Perhaps that is what is most frightening about David Headley. He did not simply participate - he played a critical role in making the attacks as lethal, bloody, and media-ripe as possible. His preparations turned what would have otherwise required a precision Special Forces assault into a commodity that any ragtag group could accomplish.
All The World's A Stage
In an unprecedented documentary, HBO films created a one hour special entitled Terror in Mumbai, hosted by CNN's Fareed Zakaria. Zakaria is a native of Mumbai and his mother still lives there. The entire documentary can be viewed online here. It could make a good master class into the changing nature of terrorism in the information age.
The film utilizes video and photographs, as well as excerpts from some of the 284 intercepted cell phone calls between the militants and their handlers. These are not actors - the voices are the actual LeT leaders directing the militants from their safe haven in Pakistan.
It is a window into how otherwise normal people can easily be turned into an assault force capable of crippling a major city. The young men were stunned by the opulence of the Taj Mahal hotel, yet deferential when their handler demanded to hear them murder a Jewish woman while he listened on the phone.
This dichotomy of sophisticated masterminds and mindless drones both coming out of Pakistan is disturbing and could potentially be just starting.
Along the Afghan-Pakistan border is a lawless, ungoverned area euphemistically called the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA. Unfortunately, there’s very little administration. Many, if not most, of the tribes don’t acknowledge a border even exists – they transit the area without concern or pause.
Yet Pakistan's major cities have every modern convenience, with internationally recognized thought leaders driving innovations in science, mathematics, medicine, and the arts. These two polar extremes can exist in a single nation because they are quite literally worlds apart. But this social separation may soon be ending.
FATA administrators have a difficult task. Tribes do not value nationality so much as they do ancestry. A degree of shared citizenship is not as important to them as a shared infrastructure of laws, courts, and basic services. The Political Agents in tribal lands must extol government accountability to those with little national identity to negate the militant's marginalization of the government, the foundation of their recruitment efforts.
Memories of Yesteryear
The Lashkar-e Tayiba attacks shifted Pakistan military attention to the Indian border. Despite acknowledging the attacks originated from within their own nation, Pakistani leaders insisted on beefing up border security against India – the victim of the attack. Moving military forces from the FATA gave militants exactly what they wanted – time. Time is the WMD for an insurgent group.
They don’t need to win decisive military battles, nor destroy territory they also live in. They only need to wait out the political leadership – patience over punch. With time to regroup, rearm, and redeploy, insurgents returned to fighting, even expanding the conflict to new areas, as militants did when they launched attacks from the SWAT Valley into Buner district in 2009.
The SWAT offensive prompted Pakistan to return significant military forces back from the Indian border, returning the cycle to its original point. Militants simply staged another attack to again spread Pakistan military forces too thin to be an effective fighting force. The result is a population and government leadership too exhausted to act.
More Dangerous Than Al Qaeda?
Analysts have variously characterized LeT's desire to be an AQ franchise, splinter group, or subsidiary. Yet LeT may have surpassed Al Qaeda in several ways.
AQ is increasingly unable to maintain effective leadership as U.S. assets continue to attack them, even inside Pakistan. Pakistani authorities, not viewing LeT as a threat to internal stability, have largely given them a free pass. But the Mumbai attack shows LeT's simplified structure can utilize even the most unskilled and inexperienced foot soldiers.
LeT's strategy is built on a modernized Al Qaeda model that is virtually guaranteed to produce results:
- Move small groups quickly: The Mumbai attackers split up to conduct simultaneous attacks in multiple locations, regrouping again later.
- Semi-autonomous execution: All of the militants knew their targets and assignments. Cell phone communication with leaders was nice, but largely unnecessary.
- Know the targets: David Headley made sure everything was mapped out, with coordinated route strategies and crowd control plans.
- Extensive media coverage: Pakistani handlers told the militants to wait until the media's cameras arrived before setting the Taj Mahal hotel ablaze.
As Churchill Said, The End of the Beginning
It took three days for police to defeat the Mumbai assault. They killed nine of the ten assailants, capturing Mohammad Ajmal Kasab alive. The intercepted cell phone conversations played at Kasab's trial made LeT's intentions clear - the assailants were all to die in the attacks. But at the last minute Kasab lost his nerve and allowed himself to be taken by authorities. He was hanged four years after the attacks, on Thanksgiving weekend 2012.
David Headley pled guilty to twelve charges, from conspiracy to commit murder to aiding and abetting, in exchange for a plea-bargain that guaranteed he would not be extradited to India, Pakistan, or Denmark.
Why Denmark, you ask?
Because he had also plotted to bomb a Danish newspaper for publishing cartoon depictions of the Prophet Mohammad. Like in Kasab's trial, a recorded phone conversation made it clear what he was plotting and against whom. There was no uncertainty as to his motives or means. So he likely knew he might follow Kasab to the gallows if prosecuted overseas, and chose to stay here.
Sometime soon, LeT will no longer consider its adversaries to be exclusively external. It may choose to confront a near evil rather than a far one. When Pakistan sees its adversary in the mirror, perhaps then it will feel an obligation to respond. In the meantime, Headley's incarceration and Kasab's execution might provide some closure to the people of Mumbai.
David Headley had opportunities Mohammad Kasab never had, opportunities that come with growing up in the United States. What makes a man who grew up in the 'home of the brave' do something so cowardly? Having seen 9/11's impact on America, how could he not only aspire to do something similar, but also adapt and modernize it?
Perhaps more importantly, how many more like him are plotting something similar?