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FBI Failed To Warn India Despite Prior Knowledge on Mumbai

Fire engulfs the top floor of the Taj Mahal hotel, site of one of the shootouts with terrorists in Mumbai on Nov. 26, 2008. (Pal Pillai/AFP/Getty Images) Source:

President Obama’s visit to India next month is already perceived as a trip to help soothe tensions that have cropped up between the two countries over the course of his presidency. With this weekend’s revelations, it seems his task has just gotten a little harder.

In two separate articles, the Washington Post and the New York Times revealed that despite having prior knowledge of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, the FBI failed to inform their Indian counterparts of the threats looming ahead.

On Saturday, the Washington Post article, investigated by ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit organization, reported that even after receiving a crucial tip in 2005 from one of the wives of David Coleman Headley, the Pakistani-American mastermind behind the Mumbai attacks, the FBI did not warn India about the possibility of an attack.

The same day, the New York Times reported that a subsequent tip in 2007 to the American Embassy in Pakistan by another one of Headley’s wives also did not trigger any alarm bells. In their individual testimonies, both women had presented credible evidence on Headley’s involvement with Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the militant terrorist organization operating in Pakistan, and his role in scouting targets for a terrorist strike in India.

David Coleman Headley, formerly known as Daood Gilani, was arrested last year after British intelligence revealed that he was working with al Qaeda operatives in Europe. His role in the Mumbai attacks came to light soon thereafter. He has since pleaded guilty to all charges and has been a treasure trove of information to both American and Indian investigators on LeT as well as the Pakistani military’s role in the terrorist organization.

A Double Life Revealed

In its investigation, ProPublica reported that Headley had long worked as an informant for the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), during which time “he helped the DEA infiltrate the very close-knit Pakistani narcotics dealing community in New York.” Federal officials confirmed his role as an informant, though there was much confusion on how long it lasted or whether he was still an informant for the U.S. when he was training with Lakshar in Pakistan. According to the Washington Post:

“Gilani did five stints in the Lashkar camps over three years, learning about ideology, firearms, combat, counter surveillance and survival skills, court documents show. He underwent more advanced training than many Western recruits, with one course lasting three months.”

In 2006, Gilani, the son of a Pakistani diplomat and a Philadelphia socialite, changed his name to David Coleman Headley, in order to conceal his Pakistani Muslim background. He made eight trips to India from 2006 to 2008 in order perform reconnaissance work for LeT, even staying at the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai and surveying the Mumbai coast using a fisherman’s boat during one such trip.

An Obvious Failure in Intelligence

U.S. officials have said that the testimony of Headley’s wives in 2005 and 2007 did not trigger notifications to India for a variety of reasons, including that they were “general in nature” and “did not link the information to a specific threat, plot or terrorist group.” This seems like a curious response given the detailed nature of the testimonies of both women. For instance, the Washington Post reports:

“Headley’s U.S. (American) wife described her husband’s frequent trips to Pakistan, his training stints at a Lashkar camp near Muzaffarabad, and his recruiting and fundraising for Lashkar…. In addition to a detailed account of his activity with Lashkar, she showed them audio cassettes and ideological material and described his e-mails and calls from Pakistan and to individuals whom she thought to be extremists, according to the person close to the case.

Although the claims of an angry spouse might be suspect, the wife’s in-depth knowledge of Lashkar would have reinforced her credibility, because the Pakistani extremist group is not well known to the average American.”

Similarly, in an interview with the New York Times, Headley’s Moroccan wife said that less than a year before the Mumbai attacks, she had warned American Embassy officials in Pakistan of his activities in India. She said she told them he was passionately anti-Indian and had assumed two different identities so he could move across countries easily.

“I told them, he’s either a terrorist, or he’s working for you,” she recalled saying to American officials at the United States Embassy in Islamabad. “Indirectly, they told me to get lost.”

While the U.S. did eventually warn India on two occasions right before the attacks, earlier warnings could have helped India deny Headley entry into the country for his scouting missions. What is more surprising is that post-attack, despite the presence of such obvious intelligence, the U.S. made no move to arrest Headley until 11 months later, that too on the basis of new British intelligence. Post-Mumbai, Headley had been busy planning an attack on the Danish newspaper that published cartoons of Prophet Muhammad. Officials say the plan was to “to decapitate hostages at the newspaper and throw their heads out of windows.”

No one is arguing that intelligence work is easy or that terrorist acts can always be prevented. However, given the preponderance of evidence in Headley’s case, one has to wonder how U.S. intelligence agencies could have failed to connect the dots in such a spectacular fashion.

A Lack of Trust

Indian officials have been restrained in their response to the reports, with New Delhi only saying that they were aware of the revelations and would be “studying” them.

The U.S. meanwhile has scrambled to contain the damage from the reports. Timothy Romer, U.S. Ambassador to India, issued a weekend statement promising to look into the reports, and a spokesman for the National Security Council said that “Had we known about the timing and other specifics related to the Mumbai attacks, we would have immediately shared those details with the government of India.”

While the revelations in themselves may not have a major impact on Indo-U.S. relations, experts say that they do add to the current trust deficit between the two countries. Furthermore, the reports have added to a disturbing pattern where the U.S. finds itself fighting the very monsters that it creates. The Mumbai attacks ended with 166 dead, scores injured and a devastated city and country. Certainly, failures in Indian intelligence led to the attacks, but that should not prevent the U.S. from accepting responsibility for a colossal intelligence failure that led them to ignore warnings about Headley’s indoctrination into radical Islam.



Aarti Ramachandran

Aarti Ramachandran is currently pursuing a Masters Degree in International Affairs at Columbia University, New York, where she is specializing in energy policy with an emphasis on South Asia. She previously worked as public and government affairs advisor in the energy industry for five years. She holds a Masters degree in environmental engineering from Northwestern University and a Masters degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, Columbia.