CHICAGO – His words were the most highly anticipated in the trial: An admitted American terrorist who could offer up disturbing testimony alleging how Pakistani intelligence and an Islamic militant group orchestrated a deadly 2008 rampage on India's largest city.
Instead, the government's star witness, David Coleman Headley, spent five days recounting often mundane details about how he videotaped hotels in Mumbai and persuaded a longtime friend, Chicago businessman Tahawwur Rana, to help.
Though Headley provided few new details alleging deep involvement in the attacks by the Pakistani intelligence agency, known as the ISI, during his five days on the witness stand in Rana's trial, experts believe the testimony in a Chicago courtroom may still cause a ripple in the delicate U.S.-Pakistan relations mainly because it comes less than a month after Osama bin Laden was killed.
"Rana is on trial, but in many ways the Pakistani army and Pakistani intelligence is on trial," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst at the Brookings Institution. "It's an order of magnitude difference to have it reported in a courtroom with a jury, a press giving it global coverage with the DOJ (Justice Department) basically vouching for his story."
Headley, who has pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty, testified that he took orders from both the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, and an ISI major as he laid the groundwork in the attacks. Seven have been indicted in the case, including Rana, a militant believed to be an al-Qaida leader, an ISI officer known only as "Major Iqbal," and several Lashkar members. Rana is the only one on trial; the rest were charged in absentia.
Though much of what Headley told jurors was already detailed in a report by Indian authorities last year, experts say his testimony may give more fuel to U.S. lawmakers already suspicious that the Pakistani government may have known or helped hide bin Laden before he was killed May 2 by U.S. forces in a compound outside of Islamabad where he had been living for at least five years.
The White House and State Department have declined to talk about Headley's testimony, but it was mentioned at a Congressional subcommittee hearing last month and U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., has said it sent a message to Pakistan — which receives billions of dollars in U.S. aid — that it must do a better job at cutting ties with terrorists.
"It clearly has made an impact on some members of Congress who have openly questioned whether Pakistan is an ally or enemy," said Seth Jones, a RAND Corp. political scientist.
The testimony may also reinforce decades old mistrust between Pakistan and India, which has long suspected that the Pakistani government was behind the attacks that killed more than 160 people, including six Americans. The Pakistani government has denied the allegations and intelligence officials haven't commented on the trial.
"For those who were skeptics of Pakistan, this does provide additional ammunition," said Daniel Markey, a Pakistan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "But that was not in short supply before."
For the most part, Headley's testimony fleshed out previously reported details — that he took orders from Iqbal and his Lashkar handler, Sajid Mir. Headley said he met with both, at times together, and both directed his surveillance trips to Mumbai. The testimony did reveal that Iqbal wanted to attack the Chabad House, a Jewish community center where gunmen later killed three American rabbis and the wife of a rabbi.
Still, Headley said he didn't know if anyone high up in the ISI had any involvement in planning the attacks, other than possibly Iqbal's colonel, who Headley had never met. That testimony made front page news in Pakistan, where headlines suggested top officials of the ISI, which is a part of Pakistan's military and has a long history of funding jihadi groups like Lashkar, were cleared of involvement.
"In the end though, you can't prove that anybody higher than Major Iqbal? That's the only person you can give evidence on. You can't even identify or find him?" Rana defense attorney Charles Swift asked.
"Yes," Headley said.
Some experts say it's possible that Headley may not have had more information about Iqbal simply because of how most intelligence operations are run.
"Very little is known beyond what that person knows, so in the event that they get caught, they don't know anything else," said Christine Fair, a political scientist at Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies. "This is sort of standard operation."
Also, intelligence agents in the U.S. would be sure not to release anything in court deemed too sensitive. Headley's initial statement to FBI investigators lasted two weeks, and jurors were only shown a short clip where an agitated Headley demands to know who else has been arrested in the case.
Headley's testimony did reveal that Ilyas Kashmiri, leader of another Pakistani terrorist group called Harakat-ul-Jihad al-Islami who Headley had been working with, wanted to attack Lockheed Martin. Kashmiri, who is also believed by Western intelligence to be al-Qaida's operational chief in Pakistan, had been angry over U.S. drone attacks inside Pakistan and wanted to target the U.S. defense contractor, Headley testified.
Still, some experts say even if more details had come up, it's hard to believe Headley. He is an admitted drug user with two heroin convictions, has a psychiatric diagnosis of "mixed personality disorder," and admitted to lying to the FBI.
Defense attorneys were quick to pounce on Headley's character, saying their client was duped by his old friend. The men met as teenagers at one of Pakistan's most prestigious military boarding schools.
"How much credence do we give to a lying terrorist?" said Fair.
Rana has pleaded not guilty to giving Headley cover by allowing him to open a branch of his Chicago-based immigration services business while scouting sites in Mumbai and helping with travel arrangements while Headley plotted against the Danish newspaper. The last few witnesses were scheduled to testify on Monday and closing arguments were expected Tuesday in the trial.
What the testimony did provide for the first time was a chance to hear Headley describe his involvement in his own words. Dressed each day in what looked like a track suit, Headley detailed how he posed as a tourist while doing surveillance in Mumbai and Copenhagen. Headley has also pleaded guilty to planning an attack on a Danish newspaper that in 2005 published cartoons of Prophet Muhammad.
He also revealed that he wants to write a book about his experiences so he can make money and expressed some remorse for his actions. In the transcript of a telephone call with his wife, he suggested that the two could travel and do religious work after his release.
"I believe there are a lot of wrong impressions (of Islam) in the media," he told jurors, adding that he believed he would be the ideal candidate for such work "because of what I've done."
Sophia Tareen can be reached at http://twitter.com/sophiatareen
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