Editor’s NOTE: The following op-ed, penned by me, was originally published by NDTV on February 10, 2016. I’m pleased to cross-post the article on my blog from NDTV’s website without any editing. (Ali Salman Alvi)
David Coleman Headley, a Pakistan-born American national who helped plot the deadly Mumbai terror attack in 2008, has testified that that he visited India seven times before the attacks to scout potential targets for his handlers in Pakistan. During the deposition, Headley repeated the statements he had made earlier in 2011 while testifying in a US court – he said that Pakistan’s main spy agency, the ISI, was involved in planning and executing the attacks which lasted for three days and left 166 people dead.
The news of David Headley’s deposition met with a rather cold response in Pakistani newspapers and electronic media. While a couple of Urdu and English newspapers carried the news, almost all the leading television channels in Pakistan gave no or very little coverage to Headley’s testimony in which he more or less repeated what he had already told a US court.
There could be a couple of reasons behind the snubbing of Headley’s deposition by Pakistani media at large. One is that David Headley, formerly known as Syed Daood Gilani, was never given any significant coverage in Pakistani media even when he was being tried in a US court where he first stated that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency provided financial, military and moral support to terrorist organisations such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad and Hizbul Mujahideen. Pakistan, remember, has always insisted that the ISI has no links to Lashkar-e-Taiba and has categorically denied a connection of “state actors” to the Mumbai attacks.
The other reason which might have kept Headley’s deposition out of the headlines in Pakistan is that it contained nothing new apart from the revelations made by Mr Headley during Monday’s hearing that that two failed attempts to carry out terror attacks in Mumbai were made in September and October 2008. Last but not the least, any statement directly accusing Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency ISI of planning and executing a terror attack would be deemed as anti-Pakistan material among Pakistani media and ultimately won’t see the light of day in Pakistan.
The only notable reaction came from the then interior minister of Pakistan, Rehman Malik. Talking to reporters in Islamabad, he claimed that David Headley was an agent hired by Indian intelligence agency RAW and that India itself was involved in the 26/11 attacks. While these claims would sound outrageously absurd to many readers on both sides of the border, Mr Malik could not care less about that.
While declaring David Headley a RAW agent, Rehman Malik, who now chairs a committee on interior and narcotics control in Pakistan’s Senate (the upper house of parliament), also questioned India’s intelligence failure, pointing out that the terrorist entered India repeatedly without any problems and spent two years photographing and filming potential targets.
India has long sought Mr Headley’s deposition in a bid to establish a direct connection between the Pakistani authorities and the deadly attacks in Mumbai. It has alleged this clearly and submitted evidence, but the Headley statements will help generate pressure on the Pakistani government to take action against those who masterminded the Mumbai attacks. Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, one of the main accused in 26/11 and a commander with the outlawed militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, was freed from jail last year. Lashkar founder Hafiz Saeed, who moves freely throughout the country, recently praised the Pathankot air base attack and warned of others like it while addressing a public rally in Muzaffarabad.
David Headley’s deposition has come at a time when Pakistan has just given a clean chit to Masood Azhar, chief of the outlawed militant group Jaish-e-Muhammad, in the Pathankot attack. According to media reports in Pakistan, the investigators termed evidence provided by India insufficient and claimed that some lower-rung members of the Jaish could be behind the terror attack on the Indian airbase last month. Earlier, Pakistan had told Delhi that cell phone numbers submitted as evidence by Indian
authorities had no record in the country.
What all this adds up to is the return of India-Pak relations to razor’s edge.