Monday, May 30, 2011

Rare glimpse into life of a terrorist

NEW YORK: When the authorities arrested the Pakistani-American who plotted the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, they confiscated two items essential for his next plot: a book titled How To Pray Like A Jew and a lemon-yellow notepad.

David Coleman Headley said he got the book because the target of his surveillance - the editor of a Danish newspaper that had published cartoons of Prophet Muhammad - was Jewish. So to get close to the target, Headley was preparing to visit a synagogue.

And he kept a notepad for reasons familiar to anyone who travels a lot, including to-do lists with reminders to buy maps and to check where to go for decent lodging and food.

Naturally, a terrorist's to-do list reads differently from a tourist's.

Headley, for example, included coded items like 'magic eye', so he would not forget to check whether a target area was covered by security cameras, and 'mixed fruit dish', which was his way of contemplating whether a particular attack would involve a car bomb or gunfire, or both.

'Terrorists and spies have to have to-do lists just like housewives - otherwise they'd forget something,' said Mr Bruce Riedel, an expert on Islamic militant groups at the Brookings Institution and a former Central Intelligence Agency officer.

'But generally, you're supposed to destroy them,' he added.

In other words, the lists are not supposed to end up, as Headley's have, in court.

Mr Riedel said the public has had almost no opportunity to hear an actual terrorist talk at length and in perfect English about terrorism since the Sept 11, 2001 attacks shook the world.

Headley's revelations, made during hours of testimony last week, therefore provide a rare glimpse into the clandestine world of Islamic extremists.

The son of a Pakistani diplomat and a Philadelphia socialite, Headley spoke almost non-stop for four days in a federal court in the trial of Chicago businessman Tahawwur Hussain Rana, who is accused of supporting the Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people.

Journalists from around the world have pored over Headley's every word for evidence of geopolitical significance.

And there has been plenty of that, including comments about Headley's work as an informant for the United States Drug Enforcement Administration and as a spy for Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate while he was training with terrorists.

There have also been chilling moments involving everyday details, like Headley's description of a simple text message he received on Nov 26, 2008: 'Turn on your television.'

He spent the next three days glued to it, watching the siege in Mumbai that he had helped to plan.

When a prosecutor, Mr Daniel Collins, asked Headley how the scenes made him feel, he said dryly: 'I was pleased.'

In his low monotone, Headley also described the day-to-day life of a terrorist.

There were months of guerilla training and lots of secret meetings in remote corners of Pakistan's tribal areas. But more of it seems to have involved mundane tasks like monitoring several e-mail accounts.

He also talked of establishing a believable cover complete with offices and business cards, obtaining the proper travel documents and getting to know every nook and cranny of a location to be attacked, largely by filming hours of video so the terrorists back home could be familiar with those places as well.

According to his testimony, terrorists' code words included 'making investments', which means planning an attack, and taking a 'stronghold position', which refers to fighting to the death.

And someone who has 'gotten married' has been killed. It is a term that Headley may have come up with himself, since he has been married three times, and his plotting was nearly discovered when two of his wives separately reported him to the authorities.

At the top of one of Headley's lists was a note reminding him to call a good friend who was planning to visit Mumbai in November 2008, when the attacks took place. The note was straightforward. It listed the friend's name and the words: 'Don't come.'