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Informant: Pakistani officer wanted Jewish center on Mumbai terrorists' list

A Pakistani intelligence officer directed that a Jewish community center be added to the list of targets in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack, a U.S. government witness testifies.
Image: David Coleman Headley
David Coleman Headley, shown in a courtroom sketch, testifies in federal court in Chicago. Tom Gianni / AP
/ Source: NBC News

A Pakistani intelligence officer directed that a Jewish community center be added to the list of targets in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack because he believed it was being used as a front for Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, a U.S. government witness testified Tuesday.

The testimony by confessed terrorist David Coleman Headley may be especially significant because three Americans — including a young Brooklyn rabbi who ran the community center — were killed when Pakistani terrorists invaded the building during a November 2008 rampage through the Indian city that left 164 dead.

Headley has admitted on the witness stand that he was used by Lashkar e Taiba (LET), the terrorist group that conducted the attack, to videotape the Mumbai targets during advance scouting trips to the city between 2006 and 2008.

But he has also said that, before his trips, he met separately with an officer of Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency — a man he has called “Major Iqbal” — to review the targets and discuss the operational plans for the mission.

He said it was in June 2008, just before his last scouting mission, that Major Iqbal told him to expand the list of targets to videotape to include the Chabad House, a Jewish community center. The center, on a crowded back alley of Mumbai, was one of the 3,500 such community centers around the world run by the Lubavitch Hasidic movement, an orthodox Jewish group.

“He told me that the Chabad House would be added” because it was “used as a front for the Mossad,” Headley testified.

Headley testified that when he later reviewed the list of targets with an alleged Mumbai co-conspirator, a former Pakistani military officer who had served as a top trainer for LET, the former officer was elated that the Chabad House had been added.

The former officer, Abdur Rehman Hashim Syed, whom Headley knew as “Pasha,” was "very happy about the Chabad House,” he said. “This would be revenge for actions against Muslims,” Headley testified that Pasha told him.

Headley is testifying in the trial of a childhood friend, Chicago businessman Tahawwur Rana, who is accused of assisting in the Mumbai attacks. Specifically, Rana is charged with providing Headley with business credentials as an immigration consultant in order to facilitate his trips to Mumbai to help plan for the attack.

But it is Headley’s testimony about the mysterious Major Iqbal and ISI that has turned the trial into a subject of international media attention with potentially major political consequences. Coming at a time when members of Congress are demanding to know whether the ISI helped protect Osama bin Laden at his compound in Abbottabad, the new charge that an ISI officer may have also selected terror targets that led to the killing of Americans is likely to further aggravate tensions between Pakistan and the U.S.

Pakistani officials have denied they played any role in the Mumbai attacks and described Headley as a liar with no credibility. They have also refused to say where or who “Major Iqbal” actually is or what his current status might be. Pakistani embassy in Washington did not respond to repeated requests for comment Tuesday.

But in a statement to the Wall Street Journal this week, a Pakistani official appeared to leave open the possibility that Iqbal was a rogue officer acting on his own and who is no longer with the agency. “ISI and serving officers did not provide support to David Headley, and ISI had nothing to do with the Mumbai attack,” the unnamed official was quoted as saying.

Sources familiar with the case said that Headley’s plea deal with the government — in which he agreed to testify — was personally vetted by Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney in Chicago and one of the Justice Department’s most experience and respected prosecutors. As if to underscore the point, Fitzgerald showed up in the courtroom Tuesday to observe parts of Headley’s testimony.

Assistant U.S. attorney Dan Collins sought to buttress Headley’s testimony by introducing multiple emails among the witness, Rana, Major Iqbal and Pasha — most of them written in code — to establish his ties to all the players. He also asked Headley to recount conversations with Rana about the attacks after it received international media coverage.

“We are even with the Indians now,” Headley testified he told Rana. “Even if Pakistan was not even,” Headley said he told Rana that he felt “even” because of what the Indian military had done during a 1971 conflict between the two countries.

Rana’s replay, according to Headley: “They deserved it,” Headley testified.

The subject of the Chabad House came up again later in the day when Headley testified about his meetings with Ilyas Kashmiri, a top al-Qaida terrorist, in 2009. Headley was taken to meet Kashmiri in Waziristan by Pasha to discuss more terrorist attacks — in India and Denmark, where Kashmiri wanted to target a Danish newspaper that had published cartoons deemed disrespectful of the Prophet Mohammed.

Headley said Kashmiri congratulated him on the Mumbai attack, telling him “well done.” He then asked him to return to India to videotape Chabad Houses in three other Indian cities for another attack in retaliation for the Israeli bombing of Gaza.

In a later conversation about the plan to attack the Danish newspaper, the Jyllands-Posten, Kashmiri laid out a plan for terrorists to storm the building, take hostages, kill them — and then chop off their heads and throw them out of the window.

“Shoot them first — and then behead them,” Kashmiri told him, according to Headley.