A Day in Court with David Headley

Indian police personnel stand guard outside the sessions court in Mumbai where David Headley was deposing. PUNIT PARANJPE/AFP/Getty Images
14 February, 2016

At 9.30 am on 12 February 2016, I found myself observing David Headley—the Pakistani-American who scouted targets for the 26/11 terror attacks in 2008 that had been planned by the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). I could see Headley on a screen in a specially convened Mumbai courtroom. Since he was deposing via video camera from an undisclosed location in the United States, I could not know what time it was for him. Although he was one of the prime accused in the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai, Headley was granted a pardon by a Mumbai special court for turning approver in December 2015. The evidence he provided as a co-conspirator was considered to be of "immense importance and assistance to the prosecution" by the court.

Mumbai’s special court, which, since Monday, has been opening at 7 am—earlier than usual—to conduct the hearing, had taken a 25-minute break during the deposition. The Americans on the other side of the camera, including Headley and three officials, were at ease and relaxed. The audio on both sides had been switched off and the courtroom had all but emptied, but for a few who stayed and watched the screen as if it were playing a silent film.

Headley was dressed in the same grey V-neck sweater he had worn the previous day. He sat behind an oval table that held a smattering of coffee cups and a bunch of papers. Headley was narrating some sort of story to the others, his long slender fingers eagerly describing motions in the air. He was by a good measure, the most talkative man in the room. At one point, he held his face in his left palm and appeared to chuckle. The hint of a paunch was discernible through the sweater, and his hairline was visibly receding. In this anodyne setting, he barely resembled a terror plotter. But what does a terrorist look like?

The contrast between Headley and Syed Zabiuddun Ansari or Abu Jundal, who is accused of being involved in the 2008 attacks, could not have been more apparent. Jundal’s features were obscured by his heavy beard. He sat on a chair and looked ahead, stone-faced and unblinking in a cold, white-washed room in Mumbai’s Arthur Road Jail. Jundal, was for most part alone, occasionally flanked by a policeman.. He had sought to be produced in court for the trial, but the state’s argued that his presence may prove a security threat. The court accepted this line of reasoning. The men—so different in their appearances, legal standing and, body language–could not have been more set apart, but for the single plot that united them: the attacks in 2008. Headley, sentenced to 35 years by a US court, was here after turning approver to give evidence in the state of Maharashtra’s case against Jundal’s alleged involvement. While giving evidence till now, Abu Jundal has barely been mentioned.

Between the two large television screens was the full force of the Indian judicial system; additional sessions Judge GA Sanap and public prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam. Behind them was a cavalcade of journalists, and assorted police officers. The rear walls of the court had trunks marked “roznama” stacked on tops of cupboards against them. Every seat in the room was taken.

Headley has been many things over the course of his deposition: patient, impatient, sharp, respectful, matter-of-fact, and forthcoming. He has said many things, about the LeT operations, the Inter-Services Intelligence’s (ISI) involvement in the attacks and his role in conducting reconnaissance for the attacks. These would constitute useful bits of intelligence and form a crucial part of evidence. But what about the rest of him, the man behind the intelligence?

Headley or Dawood Gilani as he was once known, spoke loudly and lucidly in a distinctly South-Asian accent, that was inflected with his American twang periodically. His ‘Rs’ were especially American; ‘guarrrded’ and ‘tarrrgets’ rolled off his tongue. He was mindful of his Pakistani heritage, responding with a “ji” when responding in the affirmative to a question Nikam asked him in Hindi. He was polite, responding with a “No, I’m fine, thank you,” when Nikam asked if he was tired. Despite turning approver, he was reverent towards those he had worked under during these attacks, referring to them as “Hafiz [Saeed] saab” and “Zaki [Rehman Lakhvi] saab”.

Nikam asked him about his handler Sajid Mir, playing conversations between the attackers and the handlers as well as the Indian media’s coverage of the attacks. “He was very happy,” said Headley, responding to the question on what Mir’s reaction was to the clips.

“And what about your reaction after that?”

“I also felt happy.”

An unspoken shudder coursed through the room. It did again, when Headley identified a photo of the sole surviving gunman from the attacks. “Ajmal Kasab,” he said, and then trailed off into another word that wasn’t quite clear.

“Can you tell us his full name, Mr Headley? “ Nikam asked.

There was no full name beyond Kasab, Headley clarified. He had only added to his name a phrase he said, which translated as “may god be merciful” or “may god forgive him”.

How did Headley know Abu Kahafa [another LeT operative and Headley’s trainer], Nikam asked at some point. “I told you,” Headley, said with mild impatience, “because he was working with Sajid”.

Through this, the two suited men and the woman in the room with Headley–Sarah Streicker, an assistant US attorney–stayed still and silent. Streicker, who Nikam took the liberty of calling “Sarah”, only responded when addressed by Nikam (in turn calling him “Sir”).

Nikam, described as a star by many, was uncharacteristically somber. In dealing with Headley he was respectful, accommodating, and patient. He guided him through the fog of his own past (“just stretch your memory”), praised him judiciously (“your memory is very sharp”), and re-affirmed some of his answers heartily when the moment called for it (“yes perfectly right”).

Although the proceedings tended to become dull, delving repeatedly into a tangled and complicated narrative, Headley did his best to stay keen and focused. What he did not know, he was happy to concede. When asked about something he did, he was happy to clarify.

Some home truths were delivered with an air of banality. When Nikam asked Headley about Mir’s reaction to Kasab’s apprehension, he replied, “He was saddened by this news.” Nikam persisted in this line of questioning, and Headley stated, “That’s it. Everyone in Lakshar was, I guess, saddened by it.”

He was also cocksure. Nikam asked him about the “stronghold option” because of which the terrorists chose to stay and fight till they died, rather than return. “You’ll have to ask them,” said Headley, nonchalantly. Nikam, never one to be outdone, responded, “We will ask them… but as per your knowledge?”

After Nikam discussed some of the email exchanges between Headley and al Qaida member Abdul Rehman Pasha following the attack, his line of questioning skirted around the issue of one of Headley’s three wives. Nikam asked Headley about an email mentioning his wife. Headley appeared to bristle and cut in curtly. “If it is about the case, I will answer,” he said. “I won’t answer about my personal life… What is between me and my wife are personal matters.”

Judge Sanap stepped in to soothe the approver. “If you feel any question is interfering with your family life you can tell me,” he said. “I will take care of it.”

Headley was mollified. “Thanks, my lord.”