LONDON (Reuters) - David Headley joined the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) militant group hoping to fight in Kashmir; the Pakistani-American ended up scouting out targets for the Mumbai attacks and helping al Qaeda plan a strike on Denmark.
Headley’s story, contained in confidential Indian government documents, casts fresh light on the November 2008 attack on Mumbai, where U.S. President Barack Obama paid tribute to the victims during a visit to the city this weekend.
It suggests that LeT cadres are increasingly being drawn into the orbit of al Qaeda and its affiliates and slipping out of the control of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, as the once cohesive group becomes more fractured and more receptive to al Qaeda’s global Islamist agenda.
The LeT has in the past been seen as one of Pakistan’s most reliable proxies, security analysts say, eschewing attacks on Pakistan itself and focusing on India and Kashmir.
“Tensions have existed within Lashkar for some time between those with a narrower focus on India and those with an international bent,” said Stephen Tankel, a U.S.-based analyst who is writing a book on the group.
“As the Kashmir jihad waned and al Qaeda’s global jihad accelerated, managing these tensions became more difficult. The decision to launch a terrorist spectacular in Mumbai was driven by these internal dynamics,” he added.
Headley, arrested in Chicago last year, provided his account to Indian investigators in 34 hours of interviews in June.
According to documents obtained by Reuters, he said plans for Mumbai began as a limited operation to attack an annual conference of software engineers in the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.
Within a matter of months it ballooned into a sea-borne assault by 10 gunman on many targets -- the kind that security officials have said could also be planned for European cities -- and ended up killing 166 people in a three-day siege.
The LeT had been straining at the seams for years, under pressure from the ISI to limit its activities in Kashmir which has been disputed by Pakistan and India since they won independence in 1947.
The group has been and losing members who went off to fight with, and become influenced by, other groups waging the more active jihad in Afghanistan.
“I understand this compelled the LeT to consider a spectacular terrorist strike in India,” the documents quote Headley, who has turned witness for the prosecution, as saying.
Headley, who scouted out targets in Mumbai on a number of trips, began working increasingly with Ilyas Kashmiri, the commander of a militant group based in Pakistan’s tribal areas who is closely linked to al Qaeda.
He visited Kashmiri twice in 2009, and discussed plans for an attack on Denmark, where the newspaper Jyllands-Posten had published cartoons deemed offensive to Islam. The men present “even discussed a general attack on Copenhagen,” Headley said.
Headley found himself scouting targets in Copenhagen for al Qaeda, and traveling to Sweden and the British town of Derby to seek help for the attack. It was thwarted when he was arrested in Chicago last year, according to some reports on a tip-off from British intelligence.
Much of Headley’s story has been leaking out steadily since his arrest. But what comes across in the testimony given to Indian prosecutors is a much more detailed picture of how the LeT has been transformed over the last decade.
While security officials worry that LeT’s supporters in the Pakistani diaspora could be used in an attack in the West, the group’s leaders still view Kashmir as the most important front.
In many discussions cited by Headley, they asserted its primacy with a zeal which frequently appears to go further than the ISI would like.
But it has been heavily influenced by the Afghan war, as LeT cadres have worked with groups fighting the Pakistan army on the border and returned committed to global jihad and less willing to toe the line of the group’s one-time ISI masters.
Pakistan has officially banned the group and curtailed its activities after it began a peace process with India in 2004.
Headley said that with Pakistan facing an identity crisis over the war in Afghanistan and in the tribal areas, “a debate had begun among the terrorist outfits as to whether to fight in Kashmir or in Afghanistan. The clash of ideology led to splits in many of our outfits.”
While LeT leaders approved the Mumbai plans, according to Headley, they were influenced by more radical members as targets grew to include places frequented by foreigners and Jews.
The targets chosen led even many Indian security analysts to rule out the involvement of the ISI leadership, which they said would never have taken the risk of triggering a U.S. backlash by allowing the LeT to attack Americans and Jews.
The plot then acquired an almost random momentum.
With the assault planned for September in Ramadan, a hope was expressed that too many Muslims would not be killed since they would be at home breaking their fast. That was forgotten when this attempt failed after the gunmen’s boat capsized.
Plans to use the main railway station as an escape route were ditched when commanders decided the gunmen must fight to the death -- turning the assault into a three-day siege, and the terminus into a target where a third of the victims died.
According to Headley, official ISI handlers were aware of the Mumbai plans. But in an organization which runs into the thousands, and where agents were given a great deal of autonomy, it is unclear how far this information was passed up the line.
The Indian documents quote Headley as saying that ISI chief Lieutenant General Ahmad Shuja Pasha visited an LeT commander in jail after the assault “to understand the Mumbai attack conspiracy.”
Asked about the report, a Pakistani official said no ISI officers were involved in the Mumbai attacks, and noted that Pakistan had long been asking India to share evidence it had gathered.
India has long argued that Pakistan must not only curb the activities of the LeT but also dismantle “the infrastructure of terrorism” in order to prevent further attacks like Mumbai.