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The Many Faces of Islamist Terror

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The arrest of David Coleman Headley alias Daood Gilani by the FBI at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport in mid-October has focused attention in India on the transnational nature of the Islamist terrorist networks. Indian media is full of revelations from the ongoing investigation into the activities and connections of the accused, Headley and his Pakistani-Canadian accomplice, Tahawwur Rana.

The best comment that showcases the sense of utter surprise and consternation, which most Indians feel at the nature of the case, was delivered by the Bollywood film director, Mahesh Bhatt. Bhatt's son, Rahul has recently been identified as the man referred to repeatedly in the e-mails exchanged between Headley and his Lashkar e-Toiba (LeT) handlers based in Pakistan. While Rahul is a fitness instructor at an upscale Mumbai gym that Headley visited, subsequent police investigations have found that the former had no inkling about the latter's intentions to unleash deadly terrorist strikes in India. But that did not stop the intense media glare from being focused on the Bhatt family for few days. Mahesh Bhatt, in the midst of all that, had reportedly said, "How could you believe that a white American could be involved (in all this)?"

This disbelief was precisely the weapon that Headley and his controllers had sought to exploit. The fact that Headley could easily pass off as a normal business traveler having legitimate business interests in India and Pakistan was the best cover the LeT commanders could have sought. The driblets of information that has emerged show Headley and Tahawwur Rana also had a Danish newspaper office as target. But the immediate imperative of the LeT to target high value Indian targets overtook their desire for revenge against the Danish newspaper that had lampooned Prophet Mohammad.

Headley and Rana had at the top of their target list the prestigious National Defence College in New Delhi. An otherwise innocuous choice as target, the NDC must have featured in their mind because of its unimposing fame. A college for senior defense personnel, the NDC teaches a year-long course on higher defense management. Among its international alumni has been the current king of Bhutan and various chiefs of armed services of Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia, Nigeria and the UK.

The NDC building is located in one of the quiet streets of the Indian national capital. Run by the Ministry of Defence, the College building itself is thinly guarded. It could have been a n easy target to attack but would have attracted global attention. Considering that the Indian armed forces hold the College in high esteem, an attack on it would also have angered the military brass no end, possibly directing their ire against Pakistan -- the natural harbor of the Islamist terrorists.

The other targets of the Headley and gang were the two famous public schools of the country -- the Doon School and the Woodstock School. Situated away from the main population centers, the attack on these two schools would have had lethal effect as they would have roused sentiments and influenced decision-making, more so because the two schools house the children of the Indian elite.

The FBI's arrest of these two individuals has also aroused consternation at the way a section of the population who belonged to the mainstream could be subverted. It is of course a fact that both Headley alias Daood Gilani and Rana had studied in a military school in Pakistan. It could be thus said that they were influenced by the pernicious syllabi of the school at a young and impressionable age. So, in effect, it could also be said that the responsibility of making them potential terrorists rest on Pakistan's military establishment, consisting of not just the 'professional' armed forces but also such shadowy organizations like the Inter Services Intelligence.

In the current perspective India has taken Pakistan to task for another failing. Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh has charged Islamabad for failing to report the developments regarding Headley and Rana to New Delhi through diplomatic channels. This is despite the fact the two countries have an intelligence sharing pact catering to such specific situations.

Pakistan's ruling establishment is also not above suspicion for its possible involvement in the plans of Headley and his cohorts. For, barely a few days before last year's major attack in Mumbai on 26 November, Headley and Rana had visited Pakistan. And a section of Pakistan's ruling clique is still not beyond suspicion on account of their fingerprints on the Mumbai attack.

But it remains a fact that international coordination on issues of terrorism still remains mired in the competing interests of various national governments. Otherwise, it could not be explained why an Indian group of investigators and intelligence specialists had to return home empty handed after visiting the USA with the hope of getting a chance to interrogate Headley and Rana. They also wanted to sift through the intelligence available on their intentions about India. But that was not to be.