From how to pray without leaving the forehead indurated to the language of the train announcements at the Victoria Terminus station, the Pakistani planners of the Mumbai terror attacks paid meticulous attention to every detail, key plotter David Coleman Headley testified here.
The 50-year-old Pakistani American, who has pleaded guilty to all 12 charges of his involvement in planning the attacks, Monday offered a rare and extraordinary look inside the behind-the-scenes planning of an operation that left the Indian state practically paralysed for three days starting Nov 26, 2008.
Under a plea bargain deal that requires him to cooperate fully with the federal prosecutors, Headley was expected to disclose all that he knows about the planning of the attack and he lived up to that obligation as Assistant US Attorney Daniel Collins carefully walked him through all major and minor details of the plot.
Headley’s attorney John Theis sat in the front row as his client answered questions in somewhat muffled tones even while disclosing remarkable details.
At one point as he discussed the kind of conversations he had had with his Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) handler Sajid Mir, Headley said he was even told how to pray in order to avoid “mihrab”, the dark spot that devout Muslim men have on their foreheads because of the regular friction with the floor while praying.
The significance of this particular detail being that since Headley was to travel to Mumbai as a white American on a US passport, a mark like that on his forehead may arouse suspicion. As a result, he was advised to pray without touching his forehead to the ground.
Another seemingly minor but crucial detail that came to light during his four-hour-long testimony concerned the train arrival and departure announcements at Mumbai’s Victoria Terminus or Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus.
Headley told the court that he pointed out to both Sajid Mir and Major Iqbal, a shadowy figure reportedly belonging to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), that the announcements were made in English and Marathi. If the attackers did not know English, they could run into difficulty trying to find out when trains were arriving.
The overriding theme of prosecutor Collins’ questioning was to establish how closely the LeT, as represented by Sajid Mir, and the ISI, as represented by Major Iqbal were involved every step of the way, directing Headley what to do, when, where and how.
So much so that Mir and Headley even discussed which Islamic denomination the latter’s fellow accused Tahawwur Hussain Rana belonged to as well as the need to win him over to the Salafi side of Islam.
Salafi adherents treat the companions of the Prophet Mohammed and the two immediate generations of Muslims that followed as their role model. Headley said LeT believes being a Salafi “is a prerequisite to jihad”. He said he was told by Mir that only when Rana, a Pakistani military physician turned businessman at whose trial Headley testified, was made a Salafi can the real agenda be pushed.
Headley and Rana even debated who should declare jihad, whether a head of an Islamic state, as Rana believed, or someone else. Headley explained to Rana that a head of state was necessary only if it was to be “offensive” jihad but for “defensive” jihad of the kind currently underway it was not necessary.
Another striking disclosure that Headley made relates to the 2002 Muslim massacre in Gujarat in the aftermath of the killings of 50 Hindu pilgrims at Godhra. In fact, he cited that massacre as one of the triggers for him personally to get involved in the Mumbai attacks.
He said between 2002 and 2007 the LeT had received hundreds of letters from Muslims in Gujarat to help them. He even referred to an undercover video recording of a Hindu activist called Babu Bajrangi who had bragged about personally killing many Muslims.
The broad focus of his testimony was also on the number of times he met Major Iqbal and Sajid Mir to finetune plans for the Mumbai attacks as well as watch many video surveillance tapes of the city that Headley personally shot during his visits prior to the attack.
From discussing landing sites to the schedule of a major conference of defence industry which was to be organised at the Taj Mahal Hotel and from how to transfer attackers from a Pakistani boat to an Indian vessel to determining the nearest taxi stand, the three men discussed everything in great detail.