Trying to decipher the enigma that is David Coleman Headley (Book Review)

Title: The Mind of a Terrorist – The Strange Case of David Headley; Author: Kaare Sorensen/Cory Klingsporn (Translator); Publisher: Penguin Books; Pages: 376; Price: Rs 599

In the current phase of Islamist terrorism, the second-most discussed and analysed protagonist after Osama Bin Laden could well be Daood Sayeed Gilani/David Coleman Headley – but not only for his fervent passion for planning unconscionable and indiscriminate bloodbaths across the world.

Though Indians will long remember Headley for his meticulous reconnaissance for the 26/11 attack in Mumbai, the Danes for planning one of the most audacious terrorist outrages for the country – though nipped before it come to fruition, and the US for the way he misled and deceived them for over a decade, they will also bear in mind the ease with which he turned over and told all, in copious detail, all he had done, once in custody.

And not only his role, he even agreed to finger his former associates for the authorities (which enured that not only did he evade capital punishment in the US, he has also pardoned by an Indian court), as this latest book on him by a veteran Danish journalist brings out.

Sorensen reveals that Headley was so impressed with Ilyas Kashmiri (one of the few high-ranking non-Arabs in the Al Qaeda hierarchy) of the infamous ‘313 Brigade’ who promised to help Headley to attack Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten (which had printed a set of cartoons deemed “blasphemous” by the Muslim world) that he became frantic when he could not contact him, distraught when reports said he had been killed, and ecstatic when these were proved wrong.

On the other hand, it was Headley himself, who once in custody, offered to go and meet Kashmiri in his hideout on the Pakistan-Afghan borderlands and present him a sword (with an homing device embedded) that could held Americans track him.

As Sorenson, an investigative journalist who has extensively covered Islamic terrorism and international affairs, brings out, Headley’s life may have been a long litany of deception and betrayals, but especially because even “before a terror attack becomes an item on a breaking-news ticker or social media, before the first shot is fired, even before the attackers pack their werapons, you will find a guy like David Headley”.

“He could be the person sitting next to you in the hotel lobby or at a bar in any major city in the world. And he would fit in…”

Headley’s role in 26/11, as well as the attack itself, has been discussed threadbare, most recently by Indian ex-police officers Shirish Thorat and Sachin Waze in “The Scout – The Definitive Account of David Headley and the Mumbai Attacks” and others, but Sorenson gives it a new angle by beginning his account with the experiences of Danish businessman Jesper Bornak, who was at the Leopold Cafe, when Nazir and Arshad attacked it.

The terror as Bornak and a Lufthansa crew which was close faced during the attack and their helplessness and disorientation as they staggered out after the assailants departed and roamed the streets looking for assistance is most vivid and palpable.

Headley’s chaotic life has also been well covered, as well as the way he deluded US authorities for a considerable period, but the two things set this book apart and make it essential reading.

One is the planning for the Danish operation – which Sorenson, who was many years a reporter on politics, terrorism, and intelligence agencies for Jyllands-Posten itself, has rendered in detail and insight – in most accounts, especially India-centric, this doesn’t get this level of focus.

The second is Headley’s email exchanges with his peers, including old school mates, which not only reveal his state of mind and thinking, but more vitally make it clear that his views are by no means shared by the majority and there are many who oppose them – and quite forcefully for that.

Ultimately, the evident conclusion is the same as Adrian Levy, co-writer of “The Siege: The Attack on the Taj”, that Headley is a “extraordinary maverick chameleon character who only served himself despite professing multiple allegiances”.

The problem is what if there are more Headleys out there?

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at )



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