The American Behind India’s 9/11—And How U.S. Botched Chances to Stop Him
“It is surprising that after Mumbai the FBI didn’t pick up on him,” a senior U.S. counterterror official said. “You would have thought they would have scrubbed records for anyone in the U.S. with Lashkar connections and tried to work him as a source or investigative lead.”
Headley went to Copenhagen, Denmark, in mid-January of 2009. There was no high life this time. He stayed at the Hotel Nebo, a discreet establishment behind the central train station on a strip frequented by prostitutes and drug addicts.
But his approach was the same. He did video surveillance, assessed target areas and took notes. He looked into renting an apartment as a safe house for an attack team. Using Rana’s firm as a cover again, he talked to a young Danish woman about a possible job as a secretary, according to European counter-terror officials and interviews in Denmark.
On Jan. 20, he went to the newspaper offices in historic King’s Square.
“I looked up, and a gentleman, a businessman, walked through the door,” recalled Gitte Johansen, who was the receptionist in the street-level lobby. “He looked as if he was, you know, he had a certain goal … as if he had a meeting, for instance. So I let him through the second door. … He was tall, light-tanned, business suit and tie, very friendly and very serious but in a friendly way, explaining to me that he was in Denmark because of his business. He had moved from U.S. to Denmark, and he wanted to buy space in our newspaper for advertisement.”
Headley met with an advertising representative in the lobby for about 15 minutes. He drove to the city of Aarhus, cased the newspaper building there and met with another advertising representative, according to investigators and newspaper employees.
Headley returned to Pakistan and met with his handlers. In March, they decided to put the plot on hold. Responding to foreign pressure, Pakistani authorities had arrested Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi — Lashkar’s military leader — and a few other suspects.
Headley had grown disenchanted with Lashkar. He shifted to al Qaeda with the help of a friend named Abderrehman Syed, a former Army major who had left Lashkar.
“He said they were conducting the ISI’s jihad and we should conduct God’s jihad,” Headley testified.
Despite his declarations, Syed retained contact with an ISI colonel who had been his handler, according to investigative documents. Syed, in turn, became Headley’s latest handler. He introduced him to Ilyas Kashmiri, a notorious Pakistani terror chief, who took over sponsorship of the Denmark plot, according to Headley’s testimony and other evidence.
Kashmiri was enthusiastic. He gave Headley the names of militants in Britain and Sweden who could help with funds and weapons and possibly take part in an attack. Kashmiri said the gunmen should storm the newspaper, Mumbai-style, then put on a media spectacle.
He wanted them to behead hostages and throw the heads out of windows into King’s Square.
Chapter 8: The Downfall
Back in Chicago that summer, Headley prepared for his second reconnaissance trip to Denmark.
He communicated with two al Qaeda operatives in Britain referred to him by Kashmiri. Once again, Headley strayed into a law enforcement net. This time, though, he didn’t slip out.
In July, British intelligence learned about his impending visit and notified the FBI. On July 23, the FBI passed a lead to U.S. Customs and Border Protection for assistance: A man named David, possibly an American, a suspected associate of Lashkar and al Qaeda, would soon fly to Manchester via Chicago and Frankfurt, according to U.S. officials.
Border agency analysts began sifting through hundreds of possible candidates on passenger lists. The next day, another detail surfaced: The suspect would fly Lufthansa. An analyst quickly zeroed in and identified Headley because of his past travel and stops at secondary inspection. The FBI’s Chicago field office took charge of the investigation and coordinated with European counterparts.
Headley’s meeting in the English town of Derby on July 26 did not go well. The militants, known as Simon and Bash, didn’t want to participate in the attack and couldn’t supply weapons. They gave him about $15,000 to finance the plot, according to his testimony and other evidence.
Headley continued to Stockholm to see a veteran militant named Farid. The reception was worse. An agitated Farid told Headley to leave him alone because Swedish police had him under tight surveillance, according to European counterterror officials. The officials say Farid declared: “Sorry, brother, I can’t help you.”
A discouraged Headley took a train to Copenhagen on July 31. Danish intelligence was waiting for him. Danish agents shadowed his every step. They monitored his calls and his visits to seedy neighborhoods to talk to drug dealers about acquiring guns. When he rented a bicycle, they followed on bikes, according to a senior European counterterror official.
“He rode up and down the street past an army barracks, filming with a video camera,” the European official said. “That raised eyebrows.”