Sunday, October 17, 2010

U.S. Had Warnings on Plotter of Mumbai Attack

This article is by Jane Perlez, Eric Schmitt and Ginger Thompson.

Less than a year before terrorists killed at least 163 people in Mumbai, India, a young Moroccan woman went to American authorities in Pakistan to warn them that she believed her husband, David Headley, was plotting just such an attack.

It was not the first time American law enforcement authorities were warned about Mr. Headley, a longtime informer in Pakistan for the United States Drug Enforcement Administration whose roots in Pakistan and the United States allowed him to move easily in both worlds.

Two years earlier, in 2005, an American woman who was also married to the 50-year-old Mr. Headley told federal investigators in New York that she believed that he was a member of the militant group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, created and sponsored by Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency.

Despite those warnings by two of his three wives Mr. Headley roamed far and wide on Lashkar’s behalf between 2002 and 2009, receiving small arms and countersurveillance training, scouting targets for attack, and building a network of connections that extended from Chicago to Pakistan’s lawless frontier.

Then in 2008, it was his handiwork as chief reconnaissance scout that set the stage for Lashkar’s strike against Mumbai, an assault intended to provoke a conflict between nuclear-armed adversaries, Pakistan and India.

It is unclear what United States officials did with the warnings they had gotten about Mr. Headley — who has pleaded guilty to the crimes and is cooperating with authorities — or whether they saw them as complaints from wives whose motives might be colored by their strained relations with their husband.

A senior administration official said Saturday, “We took the information, passed it around to the relevant agencies, and what came back was that the F.B.I. had a file on Headley, but it didn’t link him to terrorism.”

Mr. Headley’s ability to hide for years in plain sight has rekindled concerns that the Mumbai bombings are another instance of a communications breakdown among the agencies involved in combating terrorism, much like the enormous intelligence failures before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

It also raises the question of whether United States officials were reluctant to dig deeper into Mr. Headley’s movements because he had been an informant for the D.E.A. More significantly, it may provide another instance of American reluctance to pursue evidence that some officials in Pakistan, its major ally in the war against Al Qaeda, were involved in planning an attack that killed six Americans.

The Pakistani government has insisted that its spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, a close partner of the C.I.A., did not know of the attack. The United States says it has no evidence to counter this, though officials acknowledge that some current or retired ISI officers probably played some role.

State Department officials and the F.B.I. said that they investigated the warnings they received about Mr. Headley, but that they could not confirm any connections between him and Lashkar-e-Taiba. And D.E.A. officials said they ended their association with him at the end of 2001, at least two months before Mr. Headley reportedly attended his first terrorist training.

The investigative news organization ProPublica reported the 2005 warning from Mr. Headley’s American ex-wife on its Web site and in the Saturday issue of The Washington Post. By ProPublica’s account, she told authorities that Mr. Headley boasted about working as an American informant while he trained with Lashkar. According to that report, she gave authorities audio cassettes and ideological material, and described e-mails she believed he exchanged with extremists.

But she was not the only one to come forward. An examination of Mr. Headley’s movements shows that United States authorities also heard from his Moroccan wife that he was involved in a terrorist group that was actively plotting against targets in India. Beyond these warnings, interviews illustrate his longstanding connections to American law enforcement and the ISI.

Among the findings:

¶ An officer of the Pakistani spy agency handed Mr. Headley $25,000 in early 2006 to open an office and set up a house in Mumbai to be used as a front during his scouting trips, according to Mr. Headley’s testimony to Indian investigators in Chicago in June.

¶ The ISI officer who gave Mr. Headley the cash, known as Maj. Iqbal, served as the supervisor of Lashkar’s planning, helping to arrange a communications system for the attack, and overseeing a model of the Taj Mahal Hotel, so that gunmen could find their way around, according to Mr. Headley’s testimony to the Indians.

¶ While working for Lashkar, which has close ties to the ISI, Mr. Headley was also enlisted by the Pakistani spy agency to recruit Indian agents to monitor Indian troop levels and movements, an American official said.

Mr. Headley was well known both to Pakistani and American security officials long before his arrest as a terrorist. He went to an elite military high school in Pakistan, whose graduates went on to become high-ranking military officers and intelligence operatives. After arrests in 1988 and 1997 on drug-trafficking charges, Mr. Headley became such a valued D.E.A. informant that the drug agency sent him back and forth between Pakistan and the United States.

Besides Mr. Headley’s guilty plea in a United States court, seven Pakistani suspects have been charged there. American investigators say a critical player who has not been charged is Sajid Mir, a Lashkar operative who became close to Mr. Headley as the plans for the Mumbai operation unfolded. The investigators fear he is still working on other plots.

Mr. Headley was known both to Pakistani and American security officials long before his arrest as a terrorist. He went to an elite military high school in Pakistan, whose graduates went on to become high-ranking military officers and intelligence operatives. After arrests in 1988 and 1997 on drug-trafficking charges, Mr. Headley became such a valued D.E.A. informant that the drug agency sent him back and forth between Pakistan and the United States. In several interviews in her home, Mr. Headley’s Moroccan wife, Faiza Outalha, described the warnings she gave to American officials less than a year before gunmen attacked several popular tourist attractions in Mumbai. She claims she even showed the embassy officials a photo of Mr. Headley and herself in the Taj Mahal Hotel where they stayed twice in April and May 2007. Hotel records confirm their stay.

Ms. Outalha, 27, said that in two meetings with American officials at the United States Embassy in Islamabad, she told the authorities that her husband had many friends who were known members of Lashkar-e-Taiba. She said she told them that he was passionately anti-Indian, but that he traveled to India all the time for business deals that never seemed to amount to much.

And she said she told them Mr. Headley assumed different identities: as a devout Muslim who went by the name Daood when he was in Pakistan, and as an American playboy named David, when he was in India.

“I told them, he’s either a terrorist, or he’s working for you,” she recalled saying to American officials at the United States Embassy in Islamabad. “Indirectly, they told me, to get lost.”

Though there are lots of gaping holes left in Mr. Headley’s public profile, the one thing that is clear is he assumed multiple personas.

He was born in the United States, the son of a Pakistani diplomat and a socialite from Philadelphia’s Main Line. When he was about a year old, his parents took him to Pakistan, where he attended the Hasan Abdal Cadet College, the country’s oldest military boarding school, just outside of Islamabad.

Mr. Headley’s parents divorced. And before he finished high school, he moved to Philadelphia to help his American mother run a bar, called the Khyber Pass. Later he opened a couple of video rental stores.

But at the same time he was involved in a life of crime. Each time he was arrested on drug trafficking charges, he used his roots in the United States and Pakistan to make himself as valuable an asset to law enforcement as he was to the traffickers; one with the looks and passports to move easily across borders, and the charisma to penetrate secretive organizations.

He was married at least three times. For one period he was married to all three wives — Ms. Outalha, who is a medical student half his age, a New York makeup artist, and a conservative Pakistani Muslim — at the same time.

Those relationships, however, caused him trouble. In 2005, his American wife filed domestic abuse charges against Mr. Headley, according to federal investigators in New York, and reported his ties to Lashkar-e-Taiba. The investigators said the tip was passed on to the F.B.I.’s Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Then in December 2007, Ms. Outalha talked her way into the heavily guarded American Embassy in Islamabad. She went back a month later with more information. A senior administration official acknowledged that Ms. Outalha met twice with an assistant regional security officer and an Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer at the embassy. However, the administration official said Ms. Outalha offered almost no details to give credibility to her warnings.

“The texture of the meeting was that her husband involved with bad people, and they were planning jihad,” the official said. “But she gave no details about who was involved, or what they planned to target.”

Given that she had been jilted, Ms. Outalha acknowledged she may not have been composed. “I wanted him in Guant├ínamo,” she said.

More than that, however, Ms. Outalha says, she went to American authorities looking for answers to questions about Mr. Headley’s real identity. In public he criticized the United States for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. But at night he loved watching “Seinfeld” and Jay Leno.

Sipping tea in a cafe overlooking a plaza in Moroccoo, Ms. Outalha said that in hindsight, she is convinced that he is both men. She claims to be puzzled that American officials did not heed her warning.

“I told them anything I could to get their attention,” she said of the American authorities at the embassy in Islamabad. “It was as if I was shouting, ‘This guy was a terrorist! You have to do something.’ ”