By Annie Sweeney, Tribune reporter
11:21 PM EDT, May 5, 2011
The crime scene is thousands of miles away, but the details of the plot will soon unfold in a courtroom here when a Chicago businessman stands trial on charges he aided in the bloody terrorist attack in Mumbai, India.
Tahawwur Hussain Rana, who is married and raised three children, is alleged to have provided a cover for the scout who checked out locations for the deadly rampage and acted as a messenger for the Pakistani terrorist group allegedly behind the 2008 attack.
The case was already expected to be the most important terrorism trial ever in Chicago, but it has taken on even more significance since the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden brought renewed attention to Pakistan's commitment to fighting terrorism as a key ally of the U.S. Testimony is also expected to reveal a troubling link between at least one of Rana's co-defendants and Pakistan's largest intelligence agency.
The federal trial will pit childhood friends against each other. The government's star witness, David Coleman Headley, who met Rana when the two attended a Pakistani military school in their youth, pleaded guilty to scouting targets for the Mumbai assault and agreed to cooperate with authorities to avoid the death penalty.
Prosecutors have also charged six others, including five with ties to terrorist groups such as Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba. All of them are fugitives, leaving Rana the lone defendant to go trial in federal court for the bloody attack on India's largest city in which about 170 died, including six U.S. citizens, and hundreds of others were wounded.
"It's obviously important," James Kreindler, a New York attorney who represents Mumbai victims in a pending civil lawsuit against Pakistan and Lashkar, said of the criminal trial set to begin May 16 with jury selection. "Any person who loses a family member to an act of mass murder wants to see the guilty convicted and punished. From our point of view, this should only be the beginning."
Federal authorities also charged Rana and Headley in a plot — never carried out — to bomb a newspaper office in Copenhagen, Denmark. According to the charges, the plot followed calls by al-Qaida for attacks on Danish interests to avenge the publication of unflattering cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, which had inflamed much of the Muslim world. An influential leader of the Islamic Struggle Movement, another terrorist group, is also charged in connection with the plot. He was in regular contact with al-Qaida, the indictment alleged.
The relationship between Rana — who denies all involvement — and Headley will be a central issue in a trial that will feature secretly recorded calls and emails, in addition to critical testimony from Headley about the plots.
While the government has cast Rana as key to Headley's efforts to scout targets in both Mumbai and Denmark, his attorneys have argued that their client was duped into helping an old friend.
Indeed, Rana, who has been married 21 years and is described by his attorneys as a respected entrepreneur, has no criminal background. In court, he displays a calm and engaged manner, greeting attorneys with a nod and smiling at the occasional light remark during the otherwise serious proceedings.
In contrast, Headley, the son of a Pakistani diplomat and an American socialite, has had a troubled and controversial past. He was convicted decades ago of smuggling heroin from Pakistan, then turned informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. By 2002, he had trained at Lashkar camps in Pakistan, authorities have charged.
Prosecutors allege that more than two years before the Mumbai attack, Headley enlisted Rana's assistance after Headley had been assigned by Lashkar contacts to conduct surveillance for potential targets in India. Headley had changed his name from Daood Gilani so as not to draw attention in his travels overseas.
Rana, a former military doctor in Pakistan, had by now started several businesses in the Chicago area, including one on the busy Pakistani and Indian strip of Devon Avenue.
Rana is charged with letting Headley use his business — First World Immigration Services Inc. on Devon Avenue — as a cover when Headley traveled to India to scout for sites to attack. Headley made five separate trips, taking photographs and videos to help a team of gunmen who would carry out assaults on hotels, a Jewish center and other locations.
Rana also is accused of passing messages between Headley and a co-conspirator who was added to the indictment last month.
Ten assailants — all young — came ashore in Mumbai in November 2008 and went on a rampage that lasted three days.
A month or two later, Headley allegedly advised Rana of the plot to attack the Copenhagen newspaper, according to the charges. Again, he obtained Rana's approval to pose as a representative of Rana's business and supplied him with business cards, authorities charged.
During the planning, Headley gave Rana a copy of the video in which al-Qaida called for attacks in retaliation for the cartoons of Muhammad, the indictment alleged.
Headley scouted the Copenhagen office of the newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, but the plot never materialized.
FBI agents in Chicago arrested Headley in October 2009 as he was trying to board a flight at O'Hare International Airport. He pleaded guilty in 2010 to all dozen counts against him, including conspiring to murder and maim people in India and plan bombings there. Headley also admitted to plotting the bombing of the newspaper in Denmark.
Headley agreed to testify against Rana in exchange for avoiding the death penalty as well as extradition to face charges abroad.
His testimony is likely to go beyond Rana's involvement and into the highly charged allegation that Pakistani intelligence officials were involved in the Mumbai plot. That could add strain to already delicate relations between the U.S. and Pakistan, experts said.
"Right now is one of the lowest points in the U.S.-Pakistani relationship," Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said even before U.S. forces discovered bin Laden last weekend living in a walled compound not far from Pakistan's capital.
Markey, who focuses on U.S. policy in Pakistan and India, called the Rana trial "poorly timed."
"It's another layering on of serious problems that have emerged," he said.
While federal prosecutors link the alleged Mumbai plotters only to Lashkar, Headley has told investigators of a co-conspirator known only as "Major Iqbal," who was working for Pakistan's largest intelligence service, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI.
Further, Rana's attorneys have also alleged in court documents that Rana believed Headley was working for ISI.
"I told him about my meetings with Major Iqbal, and told him how I had been asked to perform espionage work for the ISI," Headley said in his testimony to a grand jury, according to a public court filing. "I even told him some of the espionage stories that Major Iqbal had told me."
Major Iqbal, who was added to the indictment last month, was accused of telling Headley to get established in India, open a business and conduct surveillance. At one point, Iqbal specifically asked Headley to target the conference room and ballrooms on the second floor of the Taj Mahal hotel, one of the targets of the attack, authorities alleged.
Pakistan has often drawn sharp criticism and suspicion from U.S. officials that — while accepting billions of dollars from the U.S. — it ignores or supports Lashkar.
Even before the killing of bin Laden, tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan had heightened, experts said, citing U.S. drone attacks in the region and the highly publicized case of a CIA contractor held by the Pakistani government on murder charges after he allegedly shot two Pakistanis.
Now sharp questions are being directed at Pakistan to explain how bin Laden was able to hide there.
While Rana's trial — and specifically Headley's testimony — might be ill-timed for U.S. and Pakistani relations, victims of the Mumbai attacks have been waiting three years to start getting answers about what happened — and who was responsible.
Andreina Varagona, 47, of Nashville, Tenn., who was shot in a leg and arm that day in 2008, said she has forgiven the "children" whom she believes were brainwashed into shooting her and others.
The planners are another matter, though.
"The cowards that were leading these children," she said. "They should be held accountable."
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