[Illustration by ALEX FINE]
EDITOR’S NOTE: I have it on good authority that Terry Gross will be reading a passage from my Philadelphia Weekly cover story on Khyber-Barkeep-Turned-Mumbai-Terror-Attack-Planner David Coleman Headley and crediting me by name, which, as a long time superfan of Fresh Air, and a longtime NPR FOR THE DEAF, ahem, aggregator, this is sort of like Christmas and my birthday and an orgasm-on-heroin all at once. For the record, I have never tried heroin but I am told it feels a lot like having Terry Gross read an excerpt from a PW cover story you wrote to millions of public radio listeners.
American David Coleman Headley was one of the leading planners of the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, which killed 166 people over three days at two five-star hotels, a train station and a small Jewish community center. Headley, the son of a Pakistani father and an American mother, had been chosen for the mission because he looked like a non-Muslim Westerner. He used those looks — and his U.S. passport — to plan logistics for several of the places attacked in Mumbai. Headley’s role in the Mumbai attacks is the subject of a new Frontline documentary by ProPublica reporter Sebastian Rotella. A Perfect Terrorist — which airs on PBS on Nov. 22 — chronicles Headley’s journey from the United States to Mumbai, and reveals what U.S. and Pakistani intelligence officials knew about him before and after his mission. Before Headley became a terrorist, he was what Rotella calls “a walking mix of cultures.” His mother was part of an elite family from Philadelphia; his father was a Pakistani. Soon after his birth in the United States, Headley and his parents moved to Pakistan. After his parents divorced, Headley’s mother moved back to the U.S. Headley stayed in Pakistan with his father, who sent him to elite military schools. But after getting into some trouble, Headley was sent to live with his mother above her bar, the Khyber Pass Pub in Philadelphia. Music and alcohol flowed at the Khyber. And Headley, who had been raised in a conservative Pakistani household, had trouble fitting in. “It’s kind of this collision with the West after this upbringing in Pakistan,” says Rotella. “As a young man, he slides into drug addiction and drug trafficking. Headley became a drug smuggler, then a Drug Enforcement Agency informant in exchange for a lighter sentence. The DEA used his fluency in English and Urdu to help raid Pakistani heroin rings along the East Coast. “They even send him, at one point, to do undercover work in Pakistan itself,” Rotella tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross. “That kind of launches him into this crescendo of activities in the late ’90s — where he’s working as a DEA informant but also radicalizing.” Headley, still on probation, hooked up with an Islamic militant group called the Lashkar-e-Taiba. He started taking unauthorized trips to Pakistan in 2000 and 2001. “He joins this classic military group and starts showing all of the signs of radicalization while working for the DEA,” says Rotella. “Then Sept. 11th happens, and that kind of propels him more rapidly into the world of terrorism.” MORE
PREVIOUSLY: On the afternoon of Nov. 26, 2008, death came ashore at the Indian coastal city of Mumbai in the form of 10 Pakistani assassins aboard a rubber dinghy. Young and cocky, the killers were dressed in bluejeans and cargo pants, pumped up on steroids and ripped from months of rigorous physical training. They brandished AK-47s and carried backpacks loaded with grenades and ammo. When fisherman asked them what was going on, the gunmen told them in fluent Marathi to, in effect, go fuck themselves. The fishermen reported the incident to police who, tragically, paid it no mind.
Over the course of the next 50 hours, the gunmen would kill 173 people—including six Americans—and injure hundreds in a vicious three-day wave of violence, according to the Department of Justice. They split up into small groups and fanned out across the city, navigating by GPS and keeping in constant cell phone contact with their minders back in Pakistan. They blew up taxis, tossed grenades into crowds, murdered police officers and indiscriminately mowed down bystanders at a crowded cafe, movie theater and a train station with a blizzard of hot lead. They stormed two five-star hotels, set them on fire, took hostages and slowly tortured, disfigured and then executed them one by one.
One team of gunmen entered a women and children’s hospital with the intent of killing as many patients as they could, only to be thwarted by hospital staff that had locked down certain wards. Once inside, the gunmen again asked the staff their religious affiliation. When one man answered ‘Hindu’, they shot him in the head. Another team took over a Jewish center called the Mumbai Chabad House, where they killed six hostages, including a rabbi and his pregnant wife. The gunmen injected cocaine, LSD and steroids to enable them to fight police for 50 hours straight without food or sleep. According to eyewitnesses, they smiled while they killed. MORE