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'David Headley has a very deep-felt hatred for India'

By Vaihayasi Pande Daniel
Last updated on: August 01, 2016 11:45 IST
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'If the radical Islamic movement had been largely peaceful, Headley would have probably found another way to ensure real life excitement.'
'But I really do believe that his relationship with radical Islam is real. Very real.'
'It was a match for his desires.'

IMAGE: Smoke and fire billows out of the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, November 27, 2008. Photograph: Jayanta Shaw/Reuters.

On November 26, 2008, David Coleman Headley was glued to a television set in Lahore, Pakistan.

He was probably filled with a barbaric sense of satisfaction as he watched the Mumbai 26/11 terrorist attacks unfold, 1,400 kilometres away, exactly how he had blueprinted them.

That done and dusted, like a horror film director, a Sam Raimi or a Hideo Nakata planning his next blood-and-gore outing, Headley turned his attention to his next real-life terror project.

Denmark presented itself as an exceptionally plum target. The country needed to be punished for the cartoons on Prophet Mohammed published in the daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten.

Headley -- much in the same way that he went about planning the Mumbai tragedy -- got busy figuring out how a Lashkar-e-Tayiba-sponsored Denmark attack could be mounted.

It involved two trips in 2009 to the country, from alternate home-base Chicago, during which he was audacious enough to visit the offices of the Posten in both Copenhagen and Aarhus in the east, on the pretext of wanting to place a large and expensive advertisement in the newspaper, and while there, brazenly did a recce. He even video-taped surrounding areas, creating 13 small films.

Providentially, the Danish attacks did not come to pass. The one-time video store proprietor and United States Drug Enforcement Administration informant was arrested at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on October 3, a little less than a year after the Mumbai atatcks.

The contours and planning techniques of the not-to-be Danish terror strike captured the interest of Danish investigative journalist Kaare Sørensen, who has covered international affairs, Islamic terrorism, surveillance, intelligence agencies and subsequently the foiled Copenhagen/Aarhus 2009-2010 attack.

When he dug deeper, probing the strategies and tactics utilised, he decided the sinister Headley was worthy of a book, nothing less.

Mainly because as he examined, further and further, the depraved workings of the mind of the man who pulled off 26/11 that killed over 160 people and maimed hundreds of others and who was fiendishly mapping the Jyllands-Posten attack, Sørensen was struck by the importance of the world knowing how a terrorist's mind and psyche works.

Headley, left -- who is imprisoned in an Illinois jail for the next 32 years -- is, hopefully, history. But the patterns of his mind, and the warped rationale he functioned by, are not that different from the rationale of an Omar Mateen (Orlando, 2016), a Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel (Nice, 2016) and a Rohan Imtiaz (Dhaka, 2016) and other self-styled, misguided soldiers of Islam.

Headley possessed an ego and mentality identical to many a past and future terrorist. Hence: Kaare Sørensen's well-paced, gripping The Mind of Terrorist: David Headley, the Mumbai Massacre, and His European Revenge.

Sørensen travelled to Chicago and Philadelphia to 'cover Headley's tracks,' but was unable to come to India to research his book. He says, at the time, there were some intense discussions between the Indian embassy in Denmark and Danish journalists on another issue, which made it very difficult for them to get a visa to visit India officially.

The journalist -- who has worked for the Posten and now works for the Danish national television station TV2 and has journeyed to Pakistan, Yemen, Iran and Egypt -- decided he didn't need to go to Mumbai to write the story, and instead spoke to a range of eyewitnesses, read all the numerous reports and collected as much information as he required.

"I read thousands of documents and extracted all the details I needed (with) a text tool called Scrivener. It helped me with all the details. And then I read all the Headley e-mails again and again and again to get a feel of his mind, beliefs and ideas," Sørensen, left, below, told's Vaihayasi Pande Daniel in a multiple e-mail interview.

Danish journalist and author Kaare SorensenHe spent more than 1,000 hours over a little less than four years, off and on, working on his book, which was first published in Danish under the title, Halshug (Behead).

The first of a two-part interview.

You are a Danish journalist. It is therefore pretty clear why you would want to tell the Headley story, especially since the Danish chapter is lesser-known. But what sparked your desire/interest to do so?

I covered the case for the Posten back in 2009, and I was instantly fascinated and horrified by Headley's character. I pretty much, right away, knew that if it was possible, I wanted to do a book on the case.

I started taking extensive notes and keeping all available information for later. I was intrigued by Headley's persona. How could someone like him get away with everything he did?

To this day I'm still curious about Headley's mind.

You being an authority on Headley, let me ask you this: From whatever I have read on Headley, including now your book, I have always held a view of him being a mercenary, narcissistic, power-and thrills-seeking psychopathic killer who was not really that hung up on his version of Islam.
In the end he even ratted on his jihadi friends. Religion was just a vehicle for him to channel his thrills or his murderous side.
Do you feel that Headley was primarily driven by his Islamic fundamentalism? Or more by his ego?

It is the one essential question about Headley: What motivated him?

My answer is this: Headley is a first and foremost a man with a desire for action. I don't doubt that for a second.

If the radical Islamic movement had been largely peaceful, Headley would have probably found another way to ensure real life excitement.

But I really do believe that his relationship with radical Islam is real. Very real. It was a match for his desires.

If you look at all his 300-plus e-mails, they are written with such a passion that it at times is hard to comprehend. Often page after page after page (is packed) with religious discussions.

(It) seems to me that we find this crossover within every modern day terrorist -- at least those from the West. They have a flaw in their lives. Something is wrong. Something is missing. And then they find a way to release their energy into radical jihad.

This was the case with Headley, and we've seen this time and time again with the shooter from the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando or similar cases. It's not just jihad. And it's not just their lust for thrills. It's the combination that's the fuel for a dangerous situation.

Forgive this criticism, but all the brainwash given by the Lashkar handlers in Pakistan to the 26/11 killers as the attack unfolded, is it really that simplistic that it excites them to kill -- the talk of houris and paradise etc?

No, it's not only that simple. But it is part of it.

When you look at Headley's way of arguing -- I've used some excerpts in the chapter,'Why This Talk Of Death?' -- he is arguing from a sense of logic, not feelings: So the Americans did this and that during World War II when they dropped the bombs in Japan, and that gives us the moral reasons to do this and that today. He has an argument. (Headley argued that 9/11 was justified because America was responsible for the deaths of 250,000 civilians in Hiroshima.)

Now, we might disagree with Headley's arguments -- I do, for sure! -- but it's important to understand, that his arguments are based on the world view presented to him time and time again. He has an argument for everything.

So how will we convince him -- and all the others like him -- to stand down? That's the question.

IMAGE: People duck as gunshots are fired from inside the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai. Photograph: Punit Paranjpe/Reuters

Was Headley a functioning double agent when the Mumbai attacks happened? I was not able to ascertain that exactly from the sequences in your book.

I don't know. It's the honest answer.

I don't know if Headley was a double agent, when the Mumbai attack happened.

But if he was -- then I don't think that the Americans knew.

Let me try to explain: I'm not trying to be naive, but I really do think the Americans would have stopped the attack in Mumbai in advance, if they could. For me it's much more a story of incompetence.

If the Americans had looked at all the evidence they should have connected the dots. But they didn't.

We have seen this in the 9/11 attacks and more recently in the Pulse pub attack. We have seen this time and time again also in Denmark and many other places in the Western world: That the evidence is there in the computers, but the police are simply not able to see the bigger picture. They only see all the small parts of the puzzle.

The surveillance just doesn't work to stop all terror attacks; it mainly helps to track down information afterwards.

But having said that: If I was in India, I would still demand more answers from the American government. Answers not only to the heads of India, but available for the general public.

The Americans should have provided more clear and public information about their role with Headley.

While the actual attack attracted huge global attention, very few people know even today that an American of Pakistani origin was behind the attack. Why do you think that is?

People forget.

It's a sad story, but it's true.

People forget these things. I found this to be true also in Denmark. Even though the case got widespread media attention when he was arrested -- and I've been on national television several times to talk about it -- people just forget.

For Denmark, at least, this for sure also has to do with the fact that nothing happened.

In India I would think that people remember the details of Headley. And they are right to request more information from the Americans, about who knew what and at what time.

IMAGE: The Jyllands-Posten House in Copenhagen. Photograph: Martin Sylvest Andersen/Reuters

What is the kind of criticism your book received? Or queries? Did you toy with different ways to tell Headley's story? Why did you tell this story in English?

The book was written in Danish, and published at the end of 2013. It got a really great review and won the prize for best investigative journalism book of the year by the Danish Association for Investigative Journalism -- Foreningen for Undersøgende Journalistik, FUJ.

As I said, it took almost four years to write. Most of (that) time was spent on thinking about the different ways to tell the story, so it would seem relevant and interesting to people.

Was Headley's hatred of India indeed that powerful? What are the one or two reasons that make you feel that way?

If you look at Headley's many e-mails to his friends from Pakistan, it is clear that he has a very deep felt hatred for India.

Headley was very dedicated to the fight in Kashmir and feels that India should leave as soon as possible.

Page after page of him goes on about all things in India. In fact: Of the more than 300 plus e-mails from Headley, that I have obtained from 2008 to 2010, India is mentioned in more than 110 of them.

Take this from a mail in August 2009 after a discussion when Gujarat banned a book on Muhammad Ali Jinnah: So much for 'democracy' in India. I said it here before, that (Narendra) Modi (then chief minister) is a real **** (what Tahir just said). I am told the m***** has more security than Manmohan (Singh, then prime minister of India), which is why none of your brothers has been able to 'meat' him yet. But Allah key han dair hai.......(there is delay in God).'

'On the other hand, I do respect Jaswant Singh (former defence minister), as a man, even though he is a Mushrik (polytheist) and our enemy. I recall him tearing up Tim Sebastien (sic) on the show Hardtalk a few years ago and really enjoyed it. His quip about (then Pakistani prime minister Pervez) Musharraf not visiting Ajmer was really witty too.'

Why was he so bent on attacking Denmark? Surely at the time there were other European countries hurting Islam's narrower interests/sentiments in a more significant way, other than a bunch of cartoons?

Headley was not the only one bent on attacking Denmark. It might seem strange that cartoons -- several of them which actually mocked the newspaper Posten for the whole idea of asking for cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed -- created all his hatred. But they did. Not only in Pakistan, but in many places in the world.

As I write in the book, even Osama bin Laden considered the cartoons to be an even greater offence than the attacks on civilian in Afghanistan. (For) these religious groups drawing the Prophet is against Islam. And it probably also seemed like an easy thing to ask people to support.

Most Muslims can relate to this.

What is missing in the discussion ever so often is the fact that this is a Danish tradition. You can see cartoons making fun of everyone (in Denmark): Our queen, our prime minister -- well, especially him! -- Jesus, god, everybody. So this was not an attempt to do something special (to) Muslims. It's actually something we do in Denmark with everybody.

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Vaihayasi Pande Daniel / in Mumbai