Split life defined alleged Mumbai attack conspirator

David Coleman Headley lived in two worlds – using a fake name and a fake job to help a terrorist group in Pakistan plan the 2008 Mumbai attack and a potential attack against a Danish newspaper, the FBI says. He pleaded not guilty to conspiracy charges Wednesday.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The Chicago intersection near First World Immigration Services is by all appearances a crossroads of global empathy, with honorary streets named after Mohandas Gandhi, Golda Meir, and Mother Theresa.

But the address was the cover that helped David Coleman Headley do the bidding of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a global terrorist outfit with links to the Taliban and Al Qaeda, the FBI say. Posing as an employee of First World Services with the help of the owner, Mr. Headley traveled the world, scouting locations for the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai that killed 170 people and planning a strike against the Danish newspaper that published controversial cartoons of Islam's Prophet Muhammad in 2005, prosecutors say.

Headley was arrested in October and charged with conspiring to attack the Danish newspaper. On Monday, he was charged in the Mumbai case, as well. Wednesday, he pleaded not guilty at an arraignment in Chicago.

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His is a story perhaps unique among the growing number of suspected terrorists caught in the United States, in that the FBI believes he was in direct contact with senior terrorist leaders abroad, as opposed to lower-level go-betweens. Born in the US to an American mother and Pakistani father, he has flitted between the US and Pakistan his entire life.

But it is Chicago that became the home base for his terrorist exploits, the FBI says.

The Chicago connection

It is in West Ridge, the Chicago neighborhood on the city's far northwest side, that Headley – born Daood Gilani – rented an apartment using the name of a dead acquaintance and his mother's maiden name, Headley.

It was on Devon Avenue that he found the convenient cover for his world travels, First World Immigration Services, the agency considered the city's gateway for first generation South Asian immigrants. In his formative years, Headley had attended military school in Pakistan with the owner of the business, who has also been arrested and charged with providing material support to terrorists.

Headley carried bogus First World business cards to gain entry to Jyllands-Posten, the Copenhagen newspaper, sometime between December 2008 and January 2009, where he said he had interest in placing an advertisement, prosecutors say. In Copenhagen he took videos of the newspaper's exterior, a synagogue believed to be attended by the newspaper's editor as well as the city's central train station, according to the FBI.

Although federal authorities say Headley did not show he possessed significant financial resources, he managed to take multiple trips overseas under the ruse of First World. Besides attending several training camps in Pakistan run by Lashkar-e-Taiba, an anti-India terrorist organization there, he displayed the stature of an international businessman.

Indian newspapers have been abuzz over references in his correspondence to going to see "Rahul" in Mumbai – someone Indian reports have linked with the thriving film industry there.

A wandering life

It is characteristic of a life that has seen many twists and turns. After his birth in the US, the family soon moved to Pakistan, where he was raised and educated at a military school outside Islamabad. His mother, however, returned to the US, and after 10 years in Pakistan Headley broke off his Pakistani education to join her in Philadelphia, where she ran a bar called the Khyber Pass.

Twenty years later, he was convicted of smuggling heroin into the country in Brooklyn and sentenced to 15 months in prison.

During the past few years, Headley communicated with members of Lashkar-e-Taiba through cell phone and e-mail, using coded language that would otherwise describe ordinary business dealings.

Among the terms meant to describe receiving religious redemption were "rich," and making a "profit" while the discussions of both plots were described using words like "investments," "projects," "business," and "action." He called the Danish plot "the Mickey Mouse Project."

Although he adopted the name "Headley" wherever he traveled, he often posted to Yahoo discussion groups as Daood Gilani, which revealed a more passionate believer than the sober businessman he portrayed in person.

On October 29, 2008, Headley wrote of the Denmark plot: "Everything is not a joke. We are not rehearsing a skit on Saturday Night Live ... call me old-fashioned but I feel disposed towards violence for the offending parties."

See also:

FBI arrests two Chicago men for Danish terror plot

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