The Odyssey of David Coleman Headley

When the city of Mumbai, India, was attacked by terrorists allegedly from the Lashkar-i- Taiba (LeT) group – a Muslim separatist organization fighting for independence for Kashmir from Indian occupiers – the CIA chief at the time, Gen. Michael Hayden, reportedly confronted his Pakistani counterpart, Lieutenant Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, and, according to Bob Woodward, said:

“’We’ve got to get to the bottom of this. This is a big deal.’ He urged Pasha to come clean and disclose all.”

With the revelation that David Coleman Headley, the “scout” who visited Mumbai and did reconnaissance work for LeT prior to the attack, was an informant for the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), one might say pretty much the same thing to Hayden and his successor: come clean and disclose all.

According to a report published in and the Washington Post:

“Three years before Pakistani terrorists struck Mumbai in 2008, federal agents in New York City investigated a tip that an American businessman was training in Pakistan with the group that later executed the attack.”

When Headley’s wife found out that he had another wife in Pakistan, she went to the FBI and reported his activities on behalf of LeT, his presence at Pakistani training camps, and his shopping for night vision goggles and other items that a terrorist might find handy. US government officials claim they investigated, but the accusations were too vague to be acted on. After being arrested as a result of the domestic dispute with his wife, he was freed, whereupon he roamed the world – Pakistan, India, New York, Chicago – meeting with terrorists while still claiming to be a DEA informant.

If ever there was a “terrorist” suspect whose bona fides stunk to high heaven, it was Headley. Born Daood Sayed Gilani, in Washington, D.C., the son of a prominent Pakistani broadcaster and an American mother from a wealthy Philadelphia family, he went to an elite military school in Pakistan. Upon his return to the US, at the age of 17, he married and soon became a heroin addict. He was arrested in 1988, and received a slap on the wrist for smuggling heroin in from Pakistan, getting a mere 4 years in prison while his partner in crime received 10. He was arrested again, in 1997, received a few months in prison, and emerged as a “prized DEA informant,” according to the official story.

Here is where it gets interesting: soon after his arrest and release, but while he was still on probation, he received permission to go to Pakistan to get married. As ProPublica puts it:

“Previously casual about his Muslim faith, he became radicalized. He sought out new recruits and raised funds for Lashkar and began preparing for its mountain training camps, getting corrective eye surgery and taking horse riding lessons, according to a person close to the case who requested anonymity.

“Gilani’s mix of extremism and Pakistani nationalism pushed him toward Lashkar, because of its popularity in Pakistan and its fight against India, anti-terror officials say. Although Lashkar is a longtime al Qaeda ally, it still functions largely unscathed in Pakistan, officials say.”

Let’s stop here and consider: how is it that someone who has been a heroin addict, and a DEA informant, who regularly travels to Pakistan on the US government’s dime, is all of a sudden “radicalized”? Here is someone who has lived in the United States as an adult for years, and works for the government, turning on a dime and becoming enamored with the cause of an obscure Muslim separatist group. It’s a murky picture made murkier by the comments of anonymous “anti-terror” officials, as reported in ProPublica:

“Court documents and interviews depict Headley, who is now 50, as a chameleon-like figure with a taste for risk and a talent for deception. Because of his sophistication and unusual profile, he was a valuable asset to police, spies, criminals and terrorists, officials say. ‘Headley’s a fascinating study,’ the U.S. anti-terror official said. ‘I see him as a mercenary, not ideologically driven. He’s not an Islamic terrorist in the classic sense.’”

So what happened to his “radicalization,” if he wasn’t “ideologically driven”? A mercenary is paid – but who was paying Gilani-Headley? According to him, as ProPublica reports, his paymaster was Uncle Sam:

“After the September 11 attacks, Gilani told associates that he planned to train with Lashkar as part of a secret mission for the U.S. government, [a] person close to the case said. ‘The FBI and DEA have joined forces and I am going to work for them,’ this person quoted him as saying. ‘I want to do something important in my life. I want to do something for my country.’”

Court records seem to verify he’s been doing exactly that since 2001: although scheduled to be released from probation in 2004, he was discharged early – in December 2001. The feds wasted no time in deploying him: “Within two months he was training in Pakistan with Lashkar, which had just been designated a terrorist organization by the United States and Pakistan, documents say.”

Mr. Headley, who changed his name just before his leap into terrorist activities, apparently had three wives – simultaneously – two of whom turned him in to US authorities. In 2005, his Moroccan wife went to the US embassy in Pakistan to report him for his association with LeT: she claimed he was planning a terrorist attack. US officials did nothing.

As the New York Times reports:

“In several interviews in her home, Mr. Headley’s Moroccan wife, Faiza Outalha, described the warnings she gave to American officials less than a year before gunmen attacked several popular tourist attractions in Mumbai. She claims she even showed the embassy officials a photo of Mr. Headley and herself in the Taj Mahal Hotel, where they stayed twice in April and May 2007. Hotel records confirm their stay.

“Ms. Outalha, 27, said that in two meetings with American officials at the United States Embassy in Islamabad, she told the authorities that her husband had many friends who were known members of Lashkar-e-Taiba. She said she told them that he was passionately anti-Indian, but that he traveled to India all the time for business deals that never seemed to amount to much.

“And she said she told them Mr. Headley assumed different identities: as a devout Muslim who went by the name Daood when he was in Pakistan, and as an American playboy named David, when he was in India.

“’I told them, he’s either a terrorist, or he’s working for you,’ she recalled saying to American officials at the United States Embassy in Islamabad. ‘Indirectly, they told me to get lost.’”

He’s either a terrorist, or he’s working for you. Here’s another possibility which you’ll pardon Ms. Outalha for not posing: he’s a terrorist and he’s working for us.

Two warnings from people close to him, and yet US officials do nothing while Headley-Gilani travels all over the world meeting with terrorists, free as a bird, with no visible source of income and plenty of help from various “friends.” The help he received, according to his court testimony, came from ex-officials of Pakistan’s spy agency – a group with longtime ties to the US military and intelligence agencies. Headley, we are told, is “cooperating” with authorities, but isn’t that what he’s always done?

The campaign to target Pakistan, and specifically Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency, as the real sponsor of the Mumbai attacks, and the shadowy force behind al-Qaeda, has picked up a lot of steam since President Obama took office. You’ll recall Obama directly threatened Pakistan even before he took office, during the campaign, and once in the White House has escalated attacks on Pakistani sovereignty that provoked a rebuke from Islamabad.

If the Headley case isn’t an attempted frame-up of the Pakistanis, then it is a very good imitation. The big problem for the US, however, is that Headley’s wives – who know where the bodies are buried – are talking.

As I write, India’s army of occupation in Kashmir – numbering some 700,000 – is murdering unarmed civilians, who are protesting in the streets because the Indian army is killing their sons. The ongoing “peace” talks have gotten nowhere, and were broken off by New Delhi in response to the Mumbai incident. The rise of Hindu ultra-nationalism, and the determination of the government to hold on to Muslim-majority Kashmir, have brought the long-simmering conflict between India and Pakistan to the boiling point. Having fought three wars, India and Pakistan are on the brink of fighting a fourth, with the former taking full advantage of US pressure on Islamabad to cement an alliance with Washington against their old enemies. Into this cauldron of bubbling tensions the Mumbai terror attack dropped like a packet of C-4 explosives.

In Obama’s Wars, Woodward relates an episode in which the former US ambassador to Afghanistan, and longtime neoconservative apparatchik Zalmay Khalilzad had a dinner discussion with Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari, in the course of which Zardari “dropped his diplomatic mask” and revealed his true beliefs about the terrorist attacks that are an everyday occurrence in his country:

“He suggested that one of two countries was arranging the attacks by the Pakistani Taliban inside his country: either India or the US. Zardari didn’t think India could be that clever, but the US could. [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai had told him the US was behind the attacks, confirming claims made by the Pakistani ISI.”

Woodward’s disdain is all too palpable: Khalilzad, he tells us, “listened calmly, even though the claims struck him as madness. The US was using the Taliban to topple the Pakistani government? Ridiculous. But Khalilzad knew Afghanistan’s President Karzai also believed in this conspiracy theory, more evidence that this region of the world and its leaders were dysfunctional.”

So “dysfunctional” that they have to be replaced with more competent – and compliant – sock-puppets. However, in light of the US government’s strong connection to Headley, perhaps Zardari and Karzai are a bit too functional for their own good.

Of course, any imputation of US wrongdoing can always be construed as a “conspiracy theory.” This is meant to divert attention away from the obvious question, which is: how and why was Headley-Gilani allowed to travel freely from Chicago to New York to training camps in the wilds of Pakistan, to Mumbai and other cities in India, all the while in the pay of the US government?

A known US spy turns up as an accomplice in the most dramatic and bloody terrorist attack since 9/11, and no one – not the US media, not a single member of Congress, not one prominent public figure – suspects there may be something to the Zardari-Karzai “conspiracy theory.” Is it something in the water, or are Americans so inured to the crimes of their government that they no longer care?

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].