When Federal agents detained him at Chicago’s O’ Hare airport on October 3, just as he was to board a flight for Philadelphia, David Coleman Headley, a Pakistan-born American national of mixed parentage, would have experienced a sense of shock. Not just at his detention, but at what he had thought was an elaborate cover, strewn with codes and dead ends, being blown moments before he was about to set out on his most important journey.
At the end of a flight that would eventually take him to Pakistan, he would have met up with Illyas Kashmiri, a highly-wanted jihadi with a $ 50 million-reward on his head. This was a rendezvous Headley had been looking forward to with barely-controlled anticipation. He would have also met a senior Lashkar-e-Toiba leader, widely thought to be Sajid Mir, who looks after the Lashkar’s overseas operations, and had previously dispatched a French jihadi of Caribbean descent, Willy Brigitte, to target a nuclear plant in Australia in 2003. Mir is understood to have even met Richard Reid, the man who concealed explosives in his shoes in an attempt to set off a mid-air plane explosion. He failed, but the plot changed the rules of air travel drastically after that, with fliers being asked to take off their footwear thereon.
What Headley did not realise was that his terror links were by then fairly well known to FBI sleuths who were tracking him for more than a year. For, even while ensuring an elaborate cover, he had attracted the FBI’s attention for more than one reason. In 2006, he suddenly dropped his original name Daood Ghilani – given by his Pakistani father – to embrace one derived from the side of his American mother. Obviously, this was done to dodge the profiling that Muslims have been subjected to in the US after 9/11.
The identity feint failed because Headley, quite uncharacteristically for someone drafted for a high-value mission by leaders of Lashkar, left holes in the cover for the FBI to develop an interest in him. He had no job except the one that he pretended to be doing for First World Immigration Service, a concern owned by fellow Lashkar jihadi Tahawwur Hussain Rana. His home, in fact, even his cell phone, was leased in the name of deceased persons. And, for more than a year, Headley had frequently left his Chicago home to make multiple trips to Pakistan, India, UAE and various other countries in Europe. His flights to Pakistan and from India invariably went through the UAE.
Their surveillance soon convinced the FBI that the job with First World was a poor alibi as Headley hardly did any work for Rana’s concern . He travelled twice to Denmark to stake out the office of Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten – which had enraged Muslims by publishing cartoons of Prophet Mohammad in 2005 – pretending to inquire how he was to place advertisements of a First World office planned in Copenhagen. A search of his luggage by the Customs and Border Patrol would reveal no documents needed to back up his claim of being on a genuine business trip.
Moreover, his multiple trips to Pakistan – a ‘radioactive’ entry on anyone’s passport in terror-wary Western capitals – would itself have deepened the FBI’s suspicions. These slip-ups and his contacts with Pakistan-based jihadis showed up in counter-terrorism intercepts that the FBI monitors so carefully, particularly telephone and email communication . Though Headley, Rana and their handlers used heavily-coded language, their allusions became apparent to operatives eavesdropping on the conversations. The references to “projects” (targets), “marriage” and “heart attack” (death of a militant), “investments” (targets), “business and action” (strikes), “doctor” (Rana or Kashmiri), and frequent use of the Islamic terms for reward (ajr), good deed (amal), oaths of allegiance (baaith) were dead giveaways.
Headley made optimum use of his English name and US passport, which helped dramatically lower his profile as a likely terrorist, while he was on the loose. His Caucasian appearance too helped a lot. On top of all this, his social skills allowed him to move into exclusive circles as his friendship with Rahul Bhatt would indicate. With all these advantages , plus his innate qualities as a meticulous planner, Headley became a key Lashkar operative for assaults on foreign targets. Before visiting the Jyllands Posten office, for instance, he had made a checklist of factors that would be vital for those launching an attack on the newspaper. The list he stored in his own email account mentioned “complete area coverage, counter surveillance (magic eye), lunch + coffee spots, security (armed?) zoom, foreman residence, entry and exist method in the house, uniform” .