WASHINGTON – FBI agents made an urgent trip to India and Pakistan last week in an effort to head off more Mumbai-style terrorist attacks after learning of the plots during an investigation into the activities of a Chicago man with links to groups affiliated with al-Qaida, according to current and former U.S., Indian and European counter-terrorism officials.
The man, David Coleman Headley, was recently charged with being a long-time clandestine operative for Lashkar-e-Taiba and another Pakistan-based military group. Headley had scouted targets for the groups in India, the officials said.
The new plots, believed to be in the works for months, were aimed mostly at locations frequented by Americans, Israelis and other Westerners, such as hotels or synagogues, according to the officials. But India’s National Defense College and other government sites were scouted as possible targets as well, according to the officials and FBI affidavits recently unsealed in Chicago.
The investigators say that Headley, who is now cooperating with the FBI, spent much of the past few years scouting targets not only for last year’s Mumbai siege in which 166 people died, including six Americans, but also for future attacks, including one in Denmark.
Authorities allege that he did so at the direction of two senior operatives of Pakistani militant groups who had also been members of Pakistan’s military. The Justice Department last week filed criminal terrorism charges against a third former Pakistani army officer, still in Pakistan, in the Denmark plot.
On Dec. 7 Headley pleaded not guilty to the charge that he worked with Lashkar-e-Taiba to plan the Mumbai attacks.
The accusations implicating former Pakistani military officers are almost certain to exacerbate tensions in the region. The United States and India contend that the Pakistan military maintains close ties to Lashkar and other militant groups and has used them for attacks on India. Pakistan has long denied those accusations and demanded proof.
Nadeem Kiani, a spokesman for the Pakistan Embassy in Washington, downplayed the significance of any role in Lashkar terror strikes by former military officers, saying, “A former army officer doesn’t represent the army.”
U.S. officials say they believe the FBI investigation now has documented such ties, citing phone intercepts, travel records, credit card purchases and other information in the Headley investigation. In the recently unsealed court documents, authorities say that Headley traveled widely through India with a video camera posing as an American Jew. After each surveillance mission, they allege, he took a circuitous route to Pakistan to brief his Lashkar handlers and turn over the tapes before heading back home to Chicago.
Various sources of information appear to have corroborated the FBI’s findings.
“There have been a number of intelligence reports indicating (Lashkar) activities that might suggest further attacks” in India, one South Asia-based Western official confirmed.