India’s baffling conditional pardon
Any intelligence that David Coleman Headley might supply India will necessarily be dated. Therefore, it is hard to make sense of a Mumbai special court’s decision to grant a conditional pardon to the key Mumbai terror plotter, while making him a witness for the prosecution.
For Headley’s part, though he has once again pulled off a crafty deal to save himself more trouble by agreeing to turn approver for India reportedly in return for disclosing the role played by his handlers from the Pakistani military and intelligence services. However, on the face of it, one cannot say what specifically India stands to gain by granting him such extraordinary accommodation.
The only plausible explanation behind the Mumbai court’s decision is that the Indian prosecutors are trying to make the best of a bad situation. Given his history with the US authorities as an informant and rather complicated entanglement with the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba as well as elements of Pakistani intelligence, there has been some reluctance on Washington’s part to expose him to Indian investigators.
While his plea deal with the US prosecutors requires him to cooperate with India and other foreign agencies to the maximum possible extent, it is a matter of speculation how much he is really permitted to reveal. Anything that he might have to say about his relationship with Pakistani intelligence or any other official agency is now a good seven to nine years old. He was arrested in October 2009 from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport just as he was about to leave the country. Effectively, he has been out of any direct touch with any of his Pakistani contacts since his arrest.
He is known to have shared all the intelligence and information that he possessed about November 26, 2008, Mumbai attacks with the US investigators. He was also extensively interrogated by Indian investigators in June 2010 during which the US Department of Justice had maintained that “There were no restrictions on the questions posed by Indian investigators”. That being the case, coupled with the datedness of his information, the Indian conditional pardon is intriguing.
His 2010 plea deal was incumbent upon the quality of information that he would provide to the US authorities. At the time, the prosecutors here had said that Headley “has provided substantial assistance to the criminal investigation, and also has provided information of significant intelligence value”.
Subsequently, even at the time of his sentence in January 2013, both the prosecution and defense repeatedly and greatly emphasised the extent and quality of his cooperation. His attorney John Theis, in requesting for a lighter sentence, had said the information that Headley provided was “so profound that it calls for extraordinary downward departure.”
He also said because of the information provided by Headley, barely 30 minutes after his arrest, lives were saved not just in India and the United States but elsewhere in the world.
For its part, even the defense described Headley’s case as “uniquely aggravating” and “uniquely mitigating” and frequently pointed out his unprecedented cooperation. It was perhaps for the first time in a major case of global terrorism that one of the key players chose to cooperate without any coercion and so immediately after his arrest.
Against this backdrop, Headley, who is already serving a 35-year-long sentence, has nothing to lose by turning approver on India’s behalf. The quality of what he has to offer is already fairly diminished because of his past cooperation. Unless there has been some behind-the-scenes deal-making between the Indian and American investigators over some still crucial bits of information that Headley will reveal, there does not seem to be anything significant to be gained by extending him such remarkable accommodation yet again.
One instance of Headley’s usefulness was illustrated with him pointing the authorities to the whereabouts of Ilyas Kashmiri, the Al Qaeda/Harkat ul Jihad al Islami leader, who was killed on June 3, 2011, during a drone strike on an orchard in South Waziristan. Then regarded as one of the fiercest commanders, Kashmiri was one of the seven people to have been charged with involvement in both the Mumbai case as well as the abortive attack on the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten which published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed offensive to Muslims in September 2005.
Headley had even proposed to the investigators that they should send him back to Pakistan with an ornate sword embedded with a locator chip which he could gift Kashmiri. The US then could use the signal from the chip to locate and target him.
The government’s position paper on his sentence, while referring to his extraordinary cooperation, said, “Headley similarly provided extensive detail about Ilyas Kashmiri and his network.” When asked to elaborate on the kind of information that Headley provided about Kashmiri, the prosecutors had said it was classified and they could not share it.
It had baffled many then how a man once so deeply immersed in an extreme version of Islam known as Salafism could change so radically as to seriously undermine its other adherents by exposing them. One plausible explanation could be what even Judge Harry Leinenweber zeroed in on. He had pointed out how Headley had a history of being arrested and then finding his way out of it by cooperating with the authorities. He was referring to Headley’s two arrests in the past in connection with narcotics smuggling and how he managed to come out of prison on fairly positive terms in exchange for cooperation.
His plea deal to escape the death penalty and extradition to India was yet another deal that he struck. Now with the Indian deal, Headley has yet again excelled at finding a way out of a potentially terrible situation.
(Mayank Chhaya is a senior journalist based in Chicago. The views expressed are strictly personal)