12.21.09

The U.S. Terror Connection

Did a Chicago visa company help slip terrorists into the country to attack Americans? Phil Shenon reports on the latest probe of the enemy within.

Federal investigators are trying to unravel the far-flung business operations of a Pakistani-born Chicago man who is accused of providing logistical support to a key plotter in last year’s terrorist rampage in the Indian city of Mumbai that left 170 people dead, including six Americans.

Law-enforcement officials tell The Daily Beast that the case against the Chicago businessman, Tahawwur Hussain Rana, is especially troubling because it is a rare example of how a seemingly legitimate American business—in this case, Mr. Rana’s visa-processing firm, First World Immigration—may have been used as a front for an overseas terrorist network that targets Americans.

A senior American law-enforcement said there was value in allowing First World Immigration to continue doing business as normal since it made it easier for the F.B.I. to monitor its clients for possible terrorist ties. “If you shut it down, those people are lost to the wind,” he said.

Another suspect in the case, David Coleman Headley, a 49-year-old Pakistani-American who has known Rana since they attended the same elite military academy in Pakistan, has been charged with using Rana’s business as a cover while traveling through India and Europe to scout for targets for the Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Prosecutors say Headley, whose lawyers will be back in court on the case next month, conducted surveillance of the Mumbai luxury hotels that were attacked by the terrorist group in November of last year.

Both Headley, who changed his name from Daood Gilani in 2006, and Rana have pleaded not guilty to terrorism conspiracy charges. Both men remain in custody in the Chicago area. Through his lawyers, Rana has suggested that he may have been duped by Headley.

Gerald Posner: The Making of a TerroristWhile the Justice Department has alleged that First World Immigration was effectively a front for Headley’s terrorist activities, it has—perhaps surprisingly—not yet moved to close down or restrict the business operations of the firm.

Its three offices—in Chicago’s “Little India’” neighborhood, in an office tower on Fifth Avenue in New York, and on Yonge Street in central Toronto—were open for business as of Friday afternoon, answering the phone and accepting new clients among immigrants seeking permission to enter or stay in the United States and Canada.

Justice Department spokesmen and their Canadian government counterparts have declined to say why they have not moved legally against the company, citing the need for secrecy in the investigation.

A senior American law-enforcement said there was value in allowing First World Immigration to continue doing business as normal since it made it easier for the F.B.I. to monitor its clients for possible terrorist ties. “If you shut it down, those people are lost to the wind,” he said.

Business records in Illinois show that the company has been open for more than three years and conducts hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in business, mostly on behalf of foreigners seeking help in navigating the government’s immigration bureaucracy.

The Justice Department said earlier this month that it was trying to track down scores of First World Immigration clients who were already in the United States to be certain that they had entered the country legally and did not pose a threat.

While the department would not discuss the results of that review, Indian newspapers have reported that at least one First World client was recently deported back to India after the man was found to have filed false immigration papers.

Rana, 48 years old, was born in Pakistan, is a citizen of Canada and has permanent residence in the United States. He had medical training in Pakistan—friends, including Headley, know him as “Doctor” or “Doc”—although he is not a licensed doctor. He runs several businesses, including First World Immigration and a halal meat-processing plant in Illinois that caters to devout Muslims.

American law-enforcement officials are trying to understand how the alumni network of the military academy where Rana and Headley attended high school—the Hasan Abdal Cadet College in Pakistan’s Punjab province—may have figured in the terrorist network. The school’s graduates include senior Pakistani military and intelligence officials, business leaders, lawyers and doctors.

Several of the school’s prominent graduates have emigrated to the United States or work here, including the Pakistani consul general in Chicago, Aman Rashid.

Mr. Rashid figures in the investigation of the terrorist network because he is reported by the Justice Department in court papers to have provided Headley last fall—at Rana’s urging—with a five-year multiple-entry visa to enter Pakistan, where he is alleged to have met with his terrorist handlers.

The department appears sensitive to the potential for the investigation to create diplomatic strains between the United States and Pakistan, which is being pressed by the Obama administration for greater cooperation to find Al Qaeda terrorists who live along Pakistan’s mostly lawless borders with Afghanistan.

So American prosecutors have gone out of their way in court filings to insist that Rashid and Pakistan’s Chicago consulate did not know that the visa was intended for Headley, and that the Pakistani diplomat was misled by Rana into believing the visa was for someone else.

According to the court filings, Rashid did not know Headley by his westernized name. Rana, the court papers said, lied to the Pakistan diplomat in claiming that Headley was a “white American” who had no Pakistani background.

A spokesman for the Pakistan Embassy in Washington said last week that Rashid had done nothing wrong and remained at work at his offices in Chicago.

Although the offices of First World Immigration remain open, the company’s managers did not return repeated calls from The Daily Beast for comment last week.

An American immigration lawyer working out of the firm’s Chicago headquarters, Raymond Sanders, said in a brief telephone interview that he stood by earlier comments to news organizations in which he praised Rana as a reputable businessman. Sanders said he would not go beyond those comments.

The criminal charges against Headley accuse him of using First World Immigration as a front to conduct surveillance of potential terrorist targets both in India and in Denmark, where Headley inspected the offices of a newspaper in Copenhagen, the Danish capital, that was widely condemned by Muslim groups after it published cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed.

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.