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12.15.09

Al Qaeda's American Mole

New court documents on the Chicagoan suspected of helping plan the Mumbai attacks show who he was working with—and suggest an alliance of some of the world’s deadliest terror groups.

The arrest in Chicago of a Pakistani American, David Headley (originally Daoud Gilani), has rightly gotten much attention because of his alleged role in helping the terror group Lashkar-e-taiba to reconnoiter their targets for the terrorist attack in Mumbai, India, a year ago. That attack killed dozens of innocent Indian, American, and Israeli citizens in the most spectacular act of international terror since the 9/11 attacks. The court documents served in Chicago, however, also show something else. Headley’s most important connection was to an individual, Ilyas Kashmiri, who is a prominent member of al Qaeda. In short, al Qaeda apparently had an American mole operating inside the United States for at least the last year and maybe longer.

This promises to be a fascinating and important trial. If it is established that Headley was working for Kashmiri all along, it will strongly indicate that Mumbai was a joint Lashkar-e-taiba and al Qaeda operation.

The Chicago records are very clear that Headley was closer to Kashmiri than anyone else including his other contacts in Lashkar-e-taiba. When he heard that Kashmiri might have been killed in a drone attack in northern Pakistan this September, according to the court documents, he was distraught and immediately began searching the Web for any news about his handler. Headley was greatly relieved when his contacts told him Kashmiri was still alive and looking forward to seeing him on his next trip to Pakistan. He was arrested when he tried to board the flight. He was actively involved in plots for new attacks in India focusing on Israeli targets, which he had already reconnoitered, and a plot to attack the Danish newspaper that published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that had attracted the anger of al Qaeda.

Gerald Posner: The Making of a Terrorist Who is Ilyas Kashmiri? He is a famous but shadowy figure in the insurgency fighting India’s control of Kashmir. He was trained by the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence agency in the skills of insurgency in the 1980s, even given special training by Pakistan’s elite Special Services Group, its top commandos. He began his career in Afghanistan fighting with the ISI-backed mujahideen against the Soviets. After the Soviet defeat, he was sent to his native Kashmir to fight the Indians and became a hero for his daring attacks on the Indian army and for taking foreign hostages. He was photographed holding the severed head of an Indian general he had killed. For a time he was the toast of Pakistan’s security establishment.

Sometime after 9/11, he became disillusioned with his Pakistani handlers and joined forces with al Qaeda. They sent him to Afghanistan again, this time to train the Taliban against the Americans and NATO. He also became active in the jihad in Pakistan and has been linked to many of the most violent attacks on the Pakistani army in recent years—including the murder of a former SSG commander and an attempt on former President Pervez Musharraf. He has been accused of plotting to kill Pakistan’s army commander, General Ashfaq Kayani. When he was allegedly killed last September, he was identified in some accounts as al Qaeda’s chief of operations in Pakistan.

Shortly after his reported demise, Kashmiri or someone claiming to be him gave an interview denying his death and promising that the Mumbai attack would be followed by much worse—saying “that was nothing compared to what has already been planned for the future” by al Qaeda. In the murky world of South Asia terrorism, some have suggested the interview was a fake, but Headley’s reported joy at hearing his boss was still alive suggests perhaps it was not.

The court case against Headley is only beginning and there is much we don’t know about him and his accomplices. We know Headley began casing targets in India more than two years before the Mumbai attack, but we don’t know when he began working with Kashmiri directly. This promises to be a fascinating and important trial. If it is established that Headley was working for Kashmiri all along, it will strongly indicate that Mumbai was a joint Lashkar-e-taiba and al Qaeda operation. Some experts have suggested that from the very beginning, given the choice of targets and the long historic ties between the two groups. That’s bad news for American counterterrorism officials because Lashkar has a global network of supporters in Pakistani diaspora communities in the Middle East, the United Kingdom, and here in North America as well.

Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow at the Saban Center in the Brookings Institution. He chaired President Obama’s strategic review of Afghanistan and Pakistan last winter and is author of The Search for Al Qaeda.