CHICAGO — A Chicago man conducted extensive surveillance on potential targets in the Indian city of Mumbai before the terrorist attacks there in November 2008 that left 166 people dead, federal authorities charged Monday.
Prosecutors say David Coleman Headley, who already has been charged with planning an attack on a Danish newspaper after it ran cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, made five extended trips to Mumbai from September 2006 through July 2008, taking pictures of various targets.
He allegedly scouted hotels such as the Taj Mahal and the Oberoi, the Leopold Cafe, a Jewish center known as Nariman House and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus train station — each of which was attacked with guns, grenades and other explosives in the attacks.
Headley was charged in U.S. District Court on Monday with 12 counts, including six counts of conspiracy to bomb public places in India, to murder and maim individuals in India and Denmark and other offenses.
He could be sentenced to death if convicted on the charges involving the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. Headley's attorney, John T. Theis, said he would "continue to look at this and see what the evidence is," but declined to comment further.
The charges filed Monday said Headley, 48, had attended training camps in Pakistan earlier this decade that were run by the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which specializes in violence against India. They also said the U.S. citizen formerly named Daood Gilani conspired with members of that group to launch terrorist attacks in India. Prosecutors said Headley changed his name in 2006 so that he could pass in India for an American who was neither Muslim nor Pakistani.
Headley and Chicago businessman Tahawwur Rana, 48, a Canadian national, were charged in October with plotting to attack the Jyllands Posten newspaper in Denmark. The newspaper had published 12 cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in 2005 that set off protests in parts of the Islamic world.
Federal prosecutors said at the time of his arrest that Headley admitted his role in a plot against the newspaper and that he had received training from Lashkar-e-Taiba. Authorities in Washington said Headley has cooperated with investigators in both the Danish and Indian plots since his arrest.
Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesman Vishnu Prakash did not immediately respond to messages late Monday seeking comment.The U.S. attorney's office said Lashkar-e-Taiba tasked Headley in late 2005 with gathering surveillance on Mumbai targets. It said he traveled to Chicago in June 2006 and advised a person identified in the charges only as Individual A of the plan. He then allegedly got Individual A's approval of a plan to open an office of First World Immigration Services in Mumbai as cover for his work. Rana has operated First World Immigration Services, which has offices in Chicago, Toronto and New York.
Lashkar-e-Taiba — the Army of the Pure — has been outlawed in Pakistan and designated by the United States as a foreign terrorist organization. But experts say it has ties to individuals in Pakistan's military, which has been feuding with India for decades over the territory of Kashmir.
A retired major in the Pakistani military, Abdur Rehman Hashim Syed, was charged with conspiring to attack the Danish newspaper and its employees, according to U.S. court documents. Pakistan's army has confirmed it has a retired major in custody in connection with the U.S. terrorism investigation. Military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas did not say when the arrest was made or reveal the man's identity but has said the major was being questioned over alleged links to Headley and Rana.
A two-count complaint against Abdur Rehman was filed under seal Oct. 20. It says he coordinated surveillance of the Danish newspaper and participated in planning the attack there along with Lashkar-e-Taiba and Ilyas Kashmiri, who was described as a leader of the terrorist group Harakat-ul Jihad Islami. The State Department says Kashmiri has ties to al-Qaida.
Authorities say Headley visited Pakistan in January and at that time, Abdur Rehman took him to western areas of the country where a number of terrorist groups have allegedly found refuge. The aim was to solicit Kashmiri's help in launching the attack against the Danish paper, the charges say. A search of Headley's luggage at the time of his arrest turned up a list of phone numbers including one allegedly used to contact Abdur Rehman.
It isn't clear from court documents if there was any communication between al-Qaida and Lashkar-e-Taiba about the alleged plot. Rick Nelson, a counterterrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the purported involvement of operatives from al-Qaida and Lashkar-e-Taiba showed a disturbing trend of mixed loyalties.
"Al-Qaida's definitely tapping into these regional groups. That's a great concern," he said. "Al-Qaida is a global name. It has global support. It has a global agenda."
Al-Qaida's ability to coordinate and plot has eroded since the ouster of the Taliban in Afghanistan, said Mahmood Shah, retired Pakistani brigadier and former point man for the government on the Pakistani border regions.
While the training areas still exist, they are smaller and mobile, he said.
Al-Qaida has sleeper cells in several countries that they can resurrect to carry out localized assaults. Their ability to recruit disaffected Muslims in Europe and the United States — many with Pakistani or Indian origin — soared following the U.S.-led coalition's response to the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, he said.
The Pakistan based Lashkar-e-Taiba may have loose connections with al-Qaida, but it operates independent of Osama bin Laden's organization, said Shah.
"Lashkar-e-Taiba is a different entity," he said. "They may have some sort of affiliation with al-Qaida, but I don't think they work under al-Qaida."