A jury has partially ruled against Chicagoan Tahawwur Rana on two of three charges. He was found not guilty of helping plot the 2008 Mumbai, India attacks that killed at least 164 people. Jurors found Rana guilty of providing material support to terrorist organizations and of plotting an attack on a Danish newspaper that printed cartoons of the Muslim prophet Mohammad many Muslims found offensive.
For more than two weeks, Rana, 50, was on trial for his behind-the-scenes role in helping terrorists. Prosecutors say the Chicagoan used his Devon Avenue immigration company, First World Immigration Services, as a cover to make travel arrangements for his friend, David Coleman Headley.
Headley proved to be the key witness in the trial. He spent five days on the stand testifying against Rana, who he called one of his oldest and dearest friends. Headley agreed to testify against Rana in exchange for avoiding the death penalty and not being sent to India to face charges. Headley admitted to doing video surveillance work in Mumbai and Copenhagen in preparation for attacks by the terrorist group Lashkar e Taiba.
Who is David Headley?
During his closing statements, Rana’s defense attorney, Patrick Blegen, spent a lot of the time attacking Headley’s credibility as a witness. Blegen pointed out that Headley was full of “loose talk” and he was trained by terrorists to deceive people and compartmentalized information, telling some people one thing and others the opposite. Headley had been arrested twice before for smuggling heroin from Pakistan. Blegen’s defense centered around the concept that Headley never clued Rana in on his reconnaissance work for Lashkar e Taiba.
On the witness stand, Headley said he felt remorse for his role in the Mumbai attacks and that if he were ever released from federal custody, he wanted to teach religion because he believed there were misconceptions about Islam. Blegen characterized those comments as the biggest lie of all that Headley told from the stand.
Prosecutors wrapped up their final arguments combating the defense’s arguments that Headley was an unreliable witness. Prosecutors Dan Collins said even without Headley’s testimony that Rana was in on the Mumbai and Denmark plots, there was enough evidence from secretly-recorded conversations and emails to put Rana away.
The Mumbai Plot
Prosecutors said Rana created a new immigration office in Mumbai before the 2008 attacks that Headley could use as a base of operations. Headley testified he would go out and film places like the Taj Mahal Hotel and show the videos to his fellow Lashkar e Taiba members to plan the attacks. At one point, Headley said he received orders to go back and film more locations in the hotel, focusing on the conference rooms and ball rooms.
On cross examination, Headley told Rana’s defense attorney that he never showed any of the videos to Rana. A key argument for the defense also revolved around a trip Rana planned in the fall of 2008, shortly before the attacks. Defense attorney Patrick Blegen asked jurors in closing statements why would Rana plan a trip to Mumbai with his wife if he knew attacks were imminent. They said Rana was warned by Headley not to come to Mumbai and if Rana needed a warning, then he wasn’t involved in the plot.
The Denmark Plot
Prosecutors also charged Rana with a similar plot related to a Danish newspaper, the Jyllands-Posten. They pointed to business cards made for David Headley saying he was a representative of Rana’s immigration business. Headley said from the stand that the cards were made for him to go to the Copenhagen offices of the Jyllands-Posten to pose as someone who wanted to put an advertisement in the paper. Prosecutors said Rana was giving Headley the cover necessary to get into the offices and get a lay of the land to plan attacks. Part of the plan was to decapitate the newspapers’ employees and throw their heads out the windows. When Headley was arrested in 2009, FBI investigators found videos Headley had made of the Jyllands-Posten offices in his luggage.
Defense attorneys argued that Rana legitimately wanted to expand his business in Denmark. They asked the jury to consider that if Rana knew Headley was going to Copenhagen to plot a terrorist attack, then why did Rana ask his elderly co-worker, Ray Sanders, to travel with Headley. They also point out that Headley referred to the Denmark plot in several emails as the “Mickey Mouse Project” or the “Northern Project.” But they point out Rana was never included in any of those emails.
The Key Piece of Evidence
Both prosecutors and the defense focused on a secretly-recorded conversation between Rana and Headley during their closing arguments. Federal investigators bugged Rana’s car and heard the two old friends talk for hours as they drove to Kinsman, Illinois, where Rana owned a farm. The conversation took place after the Mumbai attacks. Rana is heard saying the nine Lashkar e Taiba attackers who died conducting the attacks in Mumbai should be awarded medals. The two are also heard talking about the Denmark plot and targeting four other places in India, including a political party and Bollywood, the Indian film industry. Prosecutors said what’s most chilling about the conversation is that Rana and Headley are heard laughing when they talk about more attacks.
Defense attorney Blegen said there are flaws in the prosecutors’ interpretation of the conversation. Blegen said the mood in the car was jovial and the two were not laughing about attacking more places, but joking around as old friends do when they take long road trips together. Blegen also said jurors should consider that there are chunks of the conversation, which occurred in Urdu, which could not be translated into English, so there is no way to put the entire dialogue in perspective.
Headley’s ties to Pakistan
Headley and Rana went to high school together in Pakistan, where they first met as teenagers. Headley testified the two remained good friends over the years, even though they took very different routes with their lives. Rana joined the Pakistan military to do medical work, while Headley smuggled drugs. Headley eventually joined Lashkar e Taiba and trained how to use weapons and blend in with crowds. Headley testified he was in contact with an official with the Pakistani secret service who helped plan the Mumbai attacks. But Headley never learned the official’s real name, only referring to him as “Major Iqbal.” Headley said he received additional training from Major Iqbal and saw him drive a military Jeep.
Headley also said he worked with Ilyas Kashmiri, an al-Qaida official who was reportedly killed last week in a drone attack. Headley testified Kashmiri wanted to kill the CEO of Lockheed Martin, a weapons manufacturer for the U.S. government, because Kashmiri was struggling to put up a defense against drone attacks.