Ganesh Chaturthi

Mumbai terror attack: 26/11 conspirator’s extradition could open new leads

28 May,2023 07:21 AM IST |  Mumbai  |  Gautam S Mengle

The approval of Tahawwur Rana’s extradition after 13 years takes the conversation away from gun-toting footsoldiers and centers it on suit-clad architects behind the scenes

Illustration/Uday Mohite

May 18, 2023 was a monumental day for Lokanath Behera. The veteran policeman, who retired as Director General of Police, Kerala in June 2021, was an Inspector General with the National Investigation Agency (NIA) when he drafted an application seeking extradition of Tahawwur Hussain Rana from USA. After 13 years, the US District Court Central District of California has approved the request. Rana is alleged to have worked closely with David Headley, laying down the groundwork for the three-day terror attack on the city on November 26, 2008.

"I always knew it was going to be a tough battle," Behra tells mid-day, "But the fact that he is a Canadian citizen and not an American, seems to have worked in our favour - these things are taken into consideration in extradition cases. Even if it has been 13 years, there is a lot of information that can be extracted from him."

US Magistrate Judge Jacqueline Chooljian, of the District Court of California, observed that: "The Court has reviewed and considered all the documents submitted in support of and in opposition to the Request, and has considered the arguments presented at the hearing... The Court… certifies to the Secretary of State of the United States the extraditability of Rana on the charged offences..."

Rana's connection to the Pakistan-based terror outfit Lashkar-E-Taiba (LeT) came directly from Headley's confession in the 26/11 case. Formerly Dawood Geelani, Headley is accused of conducting an extensive recce of Mumbai for LeT which helped plan the terror attack in which more than 150 people were killed.

"None of the things in Headley's confession have been proved wrong as yet in the subsequent independent verification carried out by multiple law enforcement and intelligence agencies," says Behera. "We have no reason to believe the information he gave out about Rana's involvement to be untrue." Behera was part of the NIA team that travelled to the US and recorded Headley's confession.

David Headley, Ramesh Mahale, Ujjwal Nikam and Bhisham Mansukhani

Born in Pakistan, Rana, now 62, studied at the Hasan Abdal Cadet School just like Headley. He went on to serve as a doctor with the Pakistan Army before shifting to Canada. Later, he set up an immigration consultancy firm in Chicago and opened up a branch of this firm in Tardeo, which was little more than a cover for Headley to visit the city repeatedly.

This facilitated Headley's extensive reconnaissance of sites such as Leopold Hotel and the Chabad House, which were attacked by 10 gunmen. He stayed at the Taj, recorded videos of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus and scoured the whole of south Mumbai till he settled on Badhwar Park as an ideal landing site for the fidayeen. The terrorists, including Ajmal Kasab, landed at fishermen's colony in Badhwar Park, from where they made their way into the city and held it hostage for 60 blood soaked hours.

Headley was arrested in 2009 by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) when the agency initiated its own probe in the 26/11 attacks based on the deaths of American citizens. Headley told the FBI that he had met Rana in Chicago and told him of the job the LeT had assigned him. Subsequently, Rana allegedly set up the immigration service agency and funded Headley's Mumbai trips. By the latter's own admission, not a single visa was processed by this agency, and the two men later discussed how the nine of the 10 terrorists killed in the attacks should be conferred Nishan-e-Haider, the highest military honour accorded to Pakistani soldiers.

In his deposition before a special court in Mumbai during the 26/11 trial in 2016, where he deposed via video link while in US custody, Headley altered his version slightly, saying he only told Rana about the plan for the attack a few months before it was executed. He added that Rana had requested him to make sure that no terror activities were conducted from the Tardeo office. This detail has made some officers in the law enforcement fraternity cautious, if not skeptical, about celebrating the development.

"Suppose we bring Rana back and put him on trial, but find nothing to corroborate what Headley said?" wonders retired senior police inspector Ramesh Mahale, "The NIA will be pulled up for botching up the case. Deep preparation needs to go into the extradition of a foreign national in a terror case; I'm somehow not convinced that Headley's confession alone will suffice." Mahale was the investigating officer in Mumbai Crime Branch's case against Kasab, the lone surviving terrorist who was put on trial and sentenced to death. His concern is shared by others in the fraternity.

"India has a poor record of extradition," says a senior anti-terror law enforcement officer. "We could not get mid-level underworld figures such as (Dawood gang members) Iqbal Mirchi and Munna Jhingada, let alone the big fish. Even gangster Abu Salem's extradition was peppered heavily with conditions. If Rana's extradition backfires, it will present a very poor picture of India in the global law enforcement and intelligence community."

India had tried hard to extradite Headley as well but the bid failed when he turned approver, and laid down the condition in his plea bargain that he would cooperate completely only if he was not extradited to any other country.

Rana was arrested in Chicago shortly after Headley's arrest in 2009, and was convicted in 2011 for providing support to the LeT as well as for his role in a plot to attack a Danish newspaper that had published an offensive cartoon of Prophet Mohammed. Rana was sentenced to 14 years imprisonment in 2013, but US courts did not charge him with any direct involvement in 26/11. The NIA has charged him with criminal conspiracy, terrorist acts and murder. The US court approved the extradition request on these charges, considering them suitable ground.

Special public Prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam, who had prosecuted Kasab and examined Headley, said that it would be wrong to view the development only through the narrow lens of the 26/11 case. "The investigation into the attacks and Headley's deposition laid bare the nexus between Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and LeT," says Nikam, "Rana's extradition will only go further in corroborating this. All the evidence, including email correspondence between Headley and LeT operatives, placed on record the fact that the ISI is hand-in-glove with terrorists. This is a great victory for India, and speaks a lot about our diplomatic policies. Rana has the option to appeal the decision but I see nothing to indicate that he will have much luck."

For those affected by the tragedy, the development is a sign of hope. "Rana's extradition gives out the message that our government will not take an attack like 26/11 lightly,' says Bhisham Mansukhani, who was at the Taj Mahal hotel during the attacks and was also held hostage by the terrorists. "That we will keep working towards bringing perpetrators to book. The development, even if it is so late in the day, signifies some sense of justice, even if the likes of (LeT co-founder and 26/11 mastermind) Hafiz Saeed are still walking free."

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