Since the 9/11 attacks, conventional wisdom has held that acts of terror on U.S. soil would most likely come from abroad. Much time and effort have been spent on beefing up border security to make sure the next Mohammad Atta never reaches the homeland. Yet the massacre at Fort Hood by Major Nidal Hasan underscored what has long been known in counterterrorism circles: Muslims born and raised in the U.S. might become radicalized and perpetrate acts of terror here at home, and more resources need to be directed inward.
Now, a string of arrests by the FBI over the past year has raised awareness of a new phenomenon: there exist Americans who wish to commit acts of terror abroad.
For the most part, those arrested have been individuals who wished to join foreign jihadi groups as foot soldiers. Many of those attempts have failed. Boston’s Tarek Mehanna went to Yemen to join al-Qaeda but was rebuffed. His friend Ahmad Abousamra traveled to Pakistan and Iraq for the same purpose and also failed. Similarly, several young men from North Carolina made a pilgrimage to the Palestinian territories to join in jihad against Israel, but they seem to have spent the majority of their time seeing the sights in Cairo.
Late last month, two arrests in Chicago seemed to confirm a pattern of American citizens wishing to engage in acts of terror abroad but failing. But new reports from India indicate that at least one of the two arrested may have been involved in planning the coordinated attacks in Mumbai last year. Those attacks killed 173 people and have been described as India’s 9/11.
If these reports pan out, then a Chicago-area man who legally changed his name from Daood Gilani to David Headley — and who had previously been indicted for planning a foiled terror attack against Denmark’s Jylland Posten newspaper as “revenge” for printing cartoons of the prophet Mohammad — conducted surveillance of targets in Mumbai. He helped facilitate the massacre in which innocent civilians were methodically gunned down at the real-time urging of their Lashkar-e-Taiba controllers from Pakistan.
On October 18, over 100 federal and local law enforcement agents swooped in on a meat processing plant in rural Illinois. The raid seemed like overkill for an immigration raid, given that the plant only employed 13 people. When the FBI announced that the plant’s owner — a Canadian citizen named Tahawar Rana who lived and ran other businesses in Chicago — had been indicted along with David Headley on charges of plotting terror attacks abroad, the raids still seemed like overkill.
The specific charges were that Rana had conspired with Headley to attack the Jyllands-Posten headquarters. However, the attack was still very much in the planning stages. Although Headley was in contact with at least two separate Pakistani-based terror organizations, his contacts there had urged him to focus on India rather than Denmark. There was no indication that the pair had made any progress towards obtaining either the weapons or explosives necessary for the attack. They also seemed to have lacked the volunteers needed, as there is no indication that the two were themselves willing to die for the cause.
So why put so much manpower into a raid on two men who seemed to fit into the category of “aspirational terrorists”?
Last week, Indian officials revealed that “Headley” had visited Mumbai, and that two of the hotels he stayed at were attacked during the terror raid. One might be tempted to write this off as coincidence — both hotels are frequented by Westerners, which is why they were targeted in the attacks. Headley had gone to India on a “business” trip on behalf of an immigration company owned by Rana. Perhaps he was in Mumbai recruiting immigrants for work in the U.S. and stayed at two hotels popular among Western businessmen?
The federal indictments against the pair indicate that Headley did not actually work for Rana. In fact, Headley used his “employment” as cover for trips abroad to facilitate terror. The indictments indicate that Headley reminded Rana that, should any one inquire about his trips, he should tell them he worked for Rana’s immigration service.
On one such trip Headley was able to make it inside the Jylland-Posten building. He posed as a representative of the company and said he was there to inquire about advertising rates. The federal indictment against him indicates otherwise: Headley was there conducting surveillance — surveillance which he later reported to his Lashkar-e-Taiba contact.
But his Lashkar-e-Taiba contact was not impressed with the plan. The federal indictment against Headley has an entire section entitled “Lashkar-e-Taiba Shifts its Focus From Denmark to Potential New Attack in India.”
But had Headley already done some leg work for Lashkar-e-Taiba to further their plans against Indian targets?
The coincidences would have to be astronomical to think otherwise. In 2006, Headley stayed at the Trident and Taj Mahal hotels targeted in the 2008 Mumbai attack. He also stayed at a third guesthouse located near the train station that was also targeted. Reports from India indicate that Headley may have visited ten of the ten locations attacked.
But it was Headley’s visit to the the Jewish Chabad House in Mumbai four months before the attacks that is the key. The building was attacked by Lashkar-e-Taiba on the day of the massacre, and seven of its occupants — including Rabbi Gavriel Noach Holtzberg, his wife Rivka, and their unborn child — were killed.
Indian news media now reports that Headley pretended to be Jewish in order to gain access to the house.
These reports perfectly match the pattern set forth in the federal indictments against Headley and his co-conspirator Tahawar Rana. Headley goes abroad posing as a businessman. He scouts the locations of possible targets for terror attacks. He lies in order to enter targeted buildings. He then passes on that information to his Pakistan-based contacts.
If the reports pan out to be true, then to what extent did Headley or Rana know that Lashkar-e-Taiba was planning an attack on such a massive scale? That remains a mystery. It could very well be that Headley, alone or in concert with Rana, was asked to scope out areas of Mumbai but not told specifically about the details of the plan. Operational security demands compartmentalization and a need-to-know basis — even for terrorists.
But it should be remembered that it was Headley who approached Lashkar-e-Taiba with the plan to attack the Jyllands-Posten. Headley had actually first looked to the notorious terrorist Ilyas Kashmiri and his al-Qaeda-linked Harakat-ul Jihad Islami group to back him. Only after false reports of Kashmiri’s death did Headley turn to Lashkar-e-Taiba for support.
Headley, it seems, saw himself as more than a mere foot soldier. He was a terrorist entrepreneur.
The body of evidence suggests that Headley was involved in the Mumbai attacks. To what extent he had prior knowledge of them is unclear, but if the known details of his plot against the Danish newspaper are mirrored in his involvement with Mumbai, then it is entirely possible he was involved at the planning stages.
We are used to the idea of a foreign terrorist plotting on Pakistani or Saudi soil to attack targets within the United States, and the Fort Hood attacks have awakened in most of us the sense that it is entirely plausible that Islamists radicalized here might attack their own country. But it is hard for most of us to imagine that an American would plot to attack targets abroad — that Mumbai’s Khalid Shiekh Mohammed did not plot from a cave in Afghanistan or the slums of Peshawar but in a Chicago high-rise.
That the Dutch or Indians need fear attacks by Americans seems something from a politically correct Hollywood movie. This is a very disturbing development which requires a whole new set of ideas regarding how law enforcement and intelligence agencies share information with their foreign counterparts.