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#3075, 26 March 2010
David Headley’s Plea Bargain and India-US Relations
M Shamsur Rabb Khan
email: samsur.khan@gmail.com

Now that 49-year-old Pakistani-American David Headley has pleaded guilty before a US court to all the 12 charges against him of conspiracy of 26/11, which includes killing 166 people and providing material support to LeT there is a test for India-US relations. While the initial reports suggested that the US would allow India’s security agency to investigate Headley on FBI’s conditions, there is still uncertainty in the US response. Ever since Headley’s name appeared as one of the prime accused in 26/11, India has been asking for his extradition but the US has denied any access to the terrorist. This is a bewildering situation, if not disappointing, for India since this puts a lot at stake in the US’ commitment to its principles on the “war on terror”. 

Past activities of David Headley, a.k.a. Daoud Gilani, a Pakistani-origin American, have been a serious concern for India, and ever since he became the focus of global terrorism, the role of the US has been far from satisfactory. From being convicted on drug charges and sent to prison in the US, Headley was subsequently released from jail early and handed over to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which sent him to Pakistan as an undercover agent. So, as a “double agent”, Headley worked for Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT in Pakistan as well the US agencies.) The big question facing India is how an American agent turned into a terrorist. As per the Home Ministry’s statement, the more shocking fact is that Headley traveled to India many times, especially in March 2009, four months after 26/11, but the FBI did not alert or inform their Indian counterpart. And if Headley was working with the LeT, CIA must have known his plans about 26/11 but it did not inform India.

There is a strong point in believing that since the Indian intelligence agencies were close to assessing Headley’s role in 26/11, the FBI arrested him on 3 October 2009 in Chicago. It gives another lead that Headley might have been working with the LeT as the US agent, who turned rogue, and any revelation by him to the Indian investigating agencies would have created a strain in the India-US relationship. Now, if he is given lesser punishment by the US court, which seems very likely, it would only strengthen India’s suspicion that he was a “double agent.” Plea bargain is a clear indication that Headley would be given a light punishment. Not only is it going to weaken the global fight against terror, but it will also create a distance between India and the US, in case of a refusal to extradite or deny access to Headley. India might have to fight its war against terror all on its own, as the US seems to have different sets of rules for dealing with terrorists. 

As a nation that has suffered so many deaths and destructions due to terror attacks in the recent past, India would have appreciated the US move to extradite Headley. But it seems highly unlikely. If, for a while, we suppose that the Indian security agencies had arrested a terrorist who was involved in 9/11, or had prior knowledge of its plot, then what would have been the US reaction? We can be very sure the US would not have demanded anything less than his immediate extradition, as well as his trial in a US court. And what if, like the US, India had outright rejected any such demand for extradition or denied access, what course of action would the US have adopted? Do we believe that the US’ anger would have subsided if India had provided the same response that it has been sending to New Delhi for the last six months? The entire US machinery would have swung into action to extradite the terrorist from the Indian jail to Washington as soon as possible. Besides, there is the other worse possibility that India could have been accused of betraying the war on terror. 

Perhaps the US is unable to weigh the strong emotion in India about Headley. The US must know that just as 9/11 is the worst incident for the US, 26/11 carries the same significance for India. And it was the US that informed India about Headley’s several reconnaissance trips for 26/11. So, India has every right to investigate him through its agencies as well as try him in an Indian court, so that it can know the other terror targets that Headley and his cohorts in Pakistan were planning. But, if the US does not cooperate with India on such a crucial issue, then there is a big question mark over the US’ global war against terror.

In response to the US Ambassador Timothy J. Roemer's remark that no decision has been taken on giving New Delhi direct access to Headley, India can take a tough stand and ask for nothing less than his extradition since a plea bargain cannot be a substitute for the extradition treaty.

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