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Pakistani intelligence helped terror group: star witness in Mumbai trial

David Coleman Headley | ABC7

David Coleman Headley | ABC7

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Updated: May 23, 2011 1:38PM

A star prosecution witness in the Mumbai terror case said Monday in federal court in Chicago that the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, provided support to terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which has been blamed in the 2008 attack.

“They coordinated with each other,” witness David Coleman Headley said. “ISI provided assistance to Lashkar” through military and financial assistance and moral support.

Headley, who pleaded guilty to taking part in planning the rampage that killed 160 people, including six Americans, said the ISI provided military help to Lashkar-e-Taiba, which the government has charged is behind the deadly Nov. 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India.

The revelation is significant given outstanding questions of the ISI’s possible role in helping protect Osama bin Laden as he hid in Pakistan before he was killed by U.S. forces on May 2.

Headley’s testimony comes in the trial of Tahawwur Rana, a Chicago businessman accused of helping Headley in the attack.

The trial of Rana is being closely watched worldwide for what courtroom testimony will reveal about suspected links between the Lashkar-e-Taiba and ISI.

After their opening statement, federal prosecutors presented Headley, a star witness who has pleaded guilty to taking photos and videos of targets in Mumbai before the rampage.

After the attacks, Rana, according to the government, made a comment to Headley.

“The defendant told Headley that Indians deserved it,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Streicker said in her opening statements.

She repeatedly referred to Rana and Headley as close friends, charging that Rana allowed Headley to pretend he was an agent of Rana’s immigration business as cover for traveling on scouting missions to India. Rana had a role in the Mumbai plot, prosecutors said, even as he sat in Chicago during the plotting.

“The defendant is not charged with killing anyone. He’s not charged with picking up a gun or throwing a grenade,” she said, and later referred to the sophistication of the Mumbai plot: “Not every player carries a weapon,” said Streicker.

Rana, 50, has pleaded not guilty and his attorneys have said their client was simply duped by his longtime friend and didn’t know what was in store. Headley and Rana, a Pakistani-born Canadian who has lived in Chicago for years, met at one of Pakistan’s most prestigious military boarding schools and stayed in touch as adults.

Rana’s lawyer, Charles Swift, told jurors that Headley made a fool out of Rana.

Headley, he said, “had been manipulating people for years.”

Headley, a convicted heroin dealer, warned Rana not to go to India around the time of the 2008 attacks — but that doesn’t mean Rana was privy to the deadly plan, Swift said.

Headley had been talking about his allegiance to the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba for years but nobody, including the authorities, took him seriously, Swift said.

When Headley was caught in 2009, he knew he needed a “homerun or touchdown” so he falsely told authorities of Rana’s involvement, Swift said.

Though Streicker did not give any indication that the trial would give any clues about the global fight against terrorism, Headley’s testimony is of particular interest because he may discuss allegations that Pakistan’s government knew — or possibly helped plan — the attack blamed on the Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Streicker said Rana knew and supported a separate plot that never happened against a Danish newspaper that had printed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad and that Rana and Headley had talked about at least four other plots. She gave no further details.

“The defendant knew all too well that when Headley travels to a foreign country, people may die,” Streicker said.

Streicker said the government will show jurors evidence including emails between Headley and Rana that were written in code. She said Headley considered Rana “his best friend in the world.”

“The defendant didn’t carry a gun or throw a grenade. In a complicated and sophisticated plot, not every player carries a weapon. People like the defendant who provides support are just as critical to the success,” Streicker said.

Attention to Rana’s trial has increased in recent weeks, especially amid questions about whether Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, known as the ISI, had knowledge of bin Laden’s whereabouts. Security has been tightened, with more armed guards and a metal detector outside the courtroom in downtown Chicago, and many reporters from Denmark and India are covering the proceedings.

“The trial has the potential to be an irritant and already has been in what’s happening in the U.S.-Pakistani relationship,” said Daniel Markey, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Given the Indian media attention, it’ll stoke Indian concern about what Pakistan has been up to.”

Some experts are doubtful the trial will reveal much new. For one, federal prosecutors may work hard to keep any sensitive information from surfacing in the courtroom, and Headley’s credibility has been under question.

Headley, born Daood Gilani, reached a plea deal with prosecutors in the terrorism case in exchange for avoiding the death penalty and avoiding extradition. He’s also been an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration after a drug conviction.

Former Assistant U.S. Attorney John Kocoras, who has worked on terrorism cases, said he was skeptical the trial would offer much more.

“I don’t anticipate that the prosecutors will delve into deeper geopolitical issues,” he said. “The prosecution generally approaches that in a formulaic way without overly appealing to emotion.”

During last week’s jury selection, Rana’s attorneys had said they wanted a jury that wouldn’t be biased against their client, who is Muslim. Questioning of potential jurors focused on their views on Islam, terrorism, and U.S. citizenship.

About half a dozen were dismissed after admitting to having biases against Muslims or saying they were afraid to be involved in a terrorism case. According to the judge, one juror had written on his questionnaire, “Terrorists are mainly Muslims, or am I wrong?”

The jury of 12 people is mostly minorities and women. Six alternates were also chosen for the trial that U.S. District Judge Harry D. Leinenweber said would last about a month.

Rana is the seventh name on the indictment, and the only defendant in custody. Among the six others charged in absentia is “Major Iqbal” and Sajid Mir, allegedly another Lashkar-e-Taiba supervisor who also “handled” Headley.

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