Suspicions Over Attacks Keep India Sensitive
MUMBAI — Almost a year and a half after this city was held siege by a group of gun-wielding militants, Mumbai is in many respects a changed place. Life goes on, of course; the much-vaunted fortitude is on full display. But outside hotels, where guests run a gamut of airport-style security; in luxury restaurants and shops, where bags are screened; and at waterfronts across the city, where police officers with semi-automatic rifles patrol the coastline, the memory of the attacks that Indians refer to as 26/11 lingers.
Ask Mumbaikers about those fateful days in November 2008 and they’ll shrug their shoulders. Then they’ll tell you where they were when they first heard the news.
The wounds may be closed, but the scars remain sensitive. The city’s recovery is real, but it is fragile.
I saw the sensitivity here last week, when news broke that David Coleman Headley, one of the main plotters of the attacks, had struck a plea bargain with the U.S. authorities. In his plea deal, Mr. Headley, 49, admits to attending terrorist camps in Pakistan, conducting video surveillance in Mumbai and riding a boat around the city’s harbor with a GPS device, noting the coordinates of potential targets.
As part of the deal, Mr. Headley will be spared the death penalty, and extradition to India. He could also serve a prison term of less than life for cooperating with the authorities.
The Indian media — and especially the Mumbai media — responded to the news with dismay. DNA, a newspaper, ran a front-page article that referred to Mr. Headley’s deal as “a kick in the gut for Mumbai.” NDTV, a TV station, ran this headline on its Web site: “Headley cuts deal with U.S., India helpless.”
For many Indians, Mr. Headley’s deal is the latest in a series of humiliating developments in the case — developments that question America’s commitment to the battle against Islamic terrorism, and more generally to the relationship between the two countries. Shortly after Mr. Headley’s arrest, for example, a team of Indian investigators who had traveled to the United States to interrogate him was turned away. Indians contrasted the rebuff with the nine hours of direct access granted the F.B.I. to interrogate Ajmal Kasab, the lone surviving perpetrator of the Mumbai attacks.
Almost six months later, the Indian authorities have yet to interrogate Mr. Headley. Washington’s continued refusal to grant them access has led to feverish speculation in this country. Many Indians are convinced that Mr. Headley is a C.I.A. agent, perhaps gone rogue, and that the U.S. intransigence represents an attempt to shield him and his past activities from scrutiny.
The C.I.A. denies that Mr. Headley ever worked for the organization. But the official statements have failed to quell a sense of disquiet in India — a sense that the United States is hiding something, and that there is more to this story than meets the eye.
Part of the apparent mystery stems undeniably from the details of Mr. Headley’s life that have trickled out since his arrest — details that read like a 21st-century version of a Cold War thriller. The son of an American mother and Pakistani father, Mr. Headley had a previous brush with the law when he was arrested in New York in 1997 and charged with drug trafficking. His co-accused in that case was sentenced to 10 years. Mr. Headley, at that time still known by his given name, Daood Gilani, was released after serving two years and later signed on as an undercover agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Over the following decade, he traveled frequently to Pakistan and India, perhaps on missions for the D.E.A., perhaps in an individual capacity. It is now clear that he was using his travels to build ties with militants. His plea bargain lists at least five occasions when he attended camps sponsored by Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani group believed to be responsible for a number of atrocities, including those in Mumbai.
Many questions have been raised about Mr. Headley’s travels — about his apparent ease in moving between Pakistan and the United States despite his checkered past, and about the U.S. government’s failure to inform India about his status as a D.E.A. agent.
But what has really aroused suspicion here is the claim, made by Indian officials and picked up by the media, that U.S. intelligence agencies, suspicious of Mr. Headley’s association with extremists, had him under surveillance for at least a month before the Mumbai attacks.
Reportedly, not a word of their suspicions was conveyed to India. Indeed, Mr. Headley even traveled to India after the attacks, in early 2009, during which time Indian officials speculate he may have laid the seeds for the bombing in Pune that took place last month.
Ironically, Indian suspicions have also been raised by the cooperation provided by the U.S. authorities before the Mumbai attacks, and in particular by their remarkably specific warnings about potential sea-based assaults on luxury hotels. “Did America keep mum on 26/11?” ran a headline in The Hindustan Times last year, over an article that speculated that the United States might have “watered down” information received from a mole (presumably Mr. Headley) in order to maintain his cover.
Skeptics have dismissed such theories. But in Mumbai last week, I had the distinct sense that, real or imagined, public perceptions of the case have begun to erode the fount of good will toward the United States so assiduously built up over the last decade. It has been years since I’ve been part of so many conversations, or read so many articles, that cast aspersions on the United States and its motivations.
Adding to the disenchantment is a more general sense that the Obama administration, desperate to cut a deal with the Taliban, is increasingly turning to Pakistan for help.
In many ways, it seems the complex geopolitics of this region have come full circle. For years, it was Pakistan that accused Washington of being a fickle ally. Now, there is growing apprehension that it is India’s turn to be sold out.
As Barkha Dutt, one of India’s leading TV journalists, wrote in an op-ed piece: “There is growing disquiet over whether the United States is a serious partner in India’s fight against terrorism. … The Obama administration’s changing Af-Pak policy already appears to be that of a government that doesn’t have India on its mind. The Headley mystery may just take the simmering discontent to boiling point.”