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12.08.09

A Terrorist Immigration Service?

David Headley, named today as the American suspected of helping plan last year’s Mumbai attacks, has ties to visa companies that may have helped usher extremists into the U.S. Philip Shenon reports. Plus: Read Gerald Posner’s report on Headley’s connections as a drug informant.

Federal investigators are trying to track down scores of immigrants who entered the United States with the help of visa companies linked to a Pakistani-American who is accused of helping plot the 2008 terrorist bombings in India, officials tell The Daily Beast.

Immigration and diplomatic officials said they fear that the visa companies, which operated in the United States and India, may have helped Islamic extremists, and possibly terrorists, obtain the paperwork needed to cross American borders.

Randall Samborn, a spokesman for the United States Attorney’s Office in Chicago, which is overseeing the case, confirmed to The Daily Beast that the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security were “following up on information developed from the investigation to determine the immigration status of those individuals who may have been assisted” to enter the United States through one of the visa firms. He said he did not know how many immigrants may have used the services of the companies.

Headley’s affiliation with the visa companies raises an even more troubling concern for American law-enforcement officials, because there is the fear the firms may also have been used to obtain visas for extremists to enter the United States and Canada.

The Justice Department disclosed on Monday that the terrorist suspect, David C. Headley of Chicago, traveled to India to help find targets for the Pakistan terrorists who carried out the rampage in Mumbai in November 2008 that left 163 people dead. (Headley has a court appearance scheduled for Wednesday in Chicago, at which his lawyers are expected to address the charges.)

Gerald Posner: Making of a Terrorist But the department has not publicly revealed much else that it knows about Headley, including the extent of his work earlier in the decade as one of its informants in drug-smuggling cases being pursued against heroin traffickers in Pakistan and the U.S.

Headley, 49, who was born Daood Gilani, the son of a Pakistani father and an American socialite mother, agreed to become an informer for the Drug Enforcement Administration as part of a plea deal after his conviction in 1998 on heroin-smuggling charges.

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A copy of David Headley's passport. CLICK TO ENLARGE (India Today Group/Getty Images)

Law-enforcement and diplomatic officials say they are barred from speaking publicly beyond the court record in the terrorism case against Mr. Headley, who is alleged by American officials to have adopted his Western name in 2005 to make it easier to travel on terrorist missions.

But they acknowledge privately there is the possibility that Headley traveled to Pakistan on behalf of the DEA, which is part of the Justice Department, and used the trips instead as an opportunity to meet with leaders of the Pakistan terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba and plot attacks on Indian and Western targets.

The Justice Department has also not disclosed much of what it knows about the two immigration companies linked to Headley and a Pakistani-born Canadian, Tahawwur Rana, who is also under arrest in the United States and charged with terrorism.

News reports in the U.S. and India have identified the two men as owners or managers of First World Immigration, which had offices in Chicago, and the Immigrant Law Center, a much smaller company based out of a large air-conditioned market in south Mumbai. Both firms advertised their ability to help skilled and unskilled Indian immigrants obtain visas to enter the U.S.

Federal authorities say they believe that Headley used his connections to the companies as a cover for terrorist surveillance ahead of last year’s attacks in Mumbai, as well as surveillance of the offices of a newspaper in Copenhagen, Denmark, that was condemned by Muslim groups around the world after it published cartoons that depicted the Prophet Muhammed.

Headley’s affiliation with the visa companies raises an even more troubling concern for American law-enforcement officials, because there is the fear the firms may also have been used to obtain visas for extremists to enter the United States and Canada.

News reports in India this month said that at least one of the companies’ former Indian clients has already been deported from the United States after immigration officials here determined that he had false documents.

The reports said the man, a resident of the western Indian state of Gujarat, arrived home last week and denied any connection to terrorist groups and said he had paid a “huge sum of money” to the firm.

The immigration companies put advertisements in Indian newspapers last November, only days before the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, promoting the firms’ ability to help ex-military officers obtain jobs in the United States and Canada.

An Indian newspaper, The Mumbai Mirror, quoted Headley’s former secretary at the Mumbai offices of the Immigrant Law Center as saying that she worked for him from November 2006 until November 2008 and that he appeared in the office for part of each day to interview applicants seeking American visas.

After his arrest in Chicago in October was reported back in India, “I was shocked when I saw his face on the news channel,” she said. “I couldn’t believe that it was him.”

Philip Shenon, a former investigative reporter at The New York Times, is the author of The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation.