WASHINGTON – The al-Qaida-affiliated militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba has been actively planning one or more additional Mumbai-style attacks in India, based in part on scouting by a Chicago man recently charged with being a longtime clandestine operative of the group, according to current and former U.S., Indian and European counterterrorism officials.
FBI and Justice Department officials spent last week in India and Pakistan as part of an urgent effort to head off such an attack, sharing a wealth of information from their investigation into the activities of David Coleman Headley, the officials said.
The new plots, believed to be in the works for months, are most likely against “soft” civilian targets such as hotels or synagogues frequented by Americans, Israelis and other Westerners, the officials said. But India’s National Defense College and other government sites have also been scouted as targets, according to officials and FBI affidavits recently unsealed in Chicago.
The investigation has found that Headley, who is cooperating, spent much of the past few years scouting targets not only for the Mumbai siege but also for the suspected future attacks – and another in Denmark. And authorities allege he did so at the direction of two senior operatives of Pakistani militant groups who had also been members of Pakistan’s military.
The Justice Department last week filed terrorism charges against a third former Pakistani military officer in the Denmark plot.
Those accusations are sure to exacerbate tensions in the region, current and former U.S. and allied officials said. Washington and India have long accused the Pakistani military of maintaining close ties to Lashkar and other militant groups and using them for attacks on India. Pakistan has long denied those accusations and demanded proof.
While Headley was charged last week for his alleged role in planning the 2008 attack on Mumbai, authorities now say he traveled widely through India searching for other targets for future attacks.
Headley often traveled to locations in India that are frequented by Israeli tourists, according to the authorities and court documents. After each mission, officials allege in recently unsealed court documents, he took a circuitous route to Pakistan to brief his Lashkar handlers and turn over tapes before heading home to Chicago.
Separate streams of threat reporting appear to have corroborated the FBI’s findings.
In response, the Israeli national security council’s counterterrorism bureau recently issued two “highly concrete” travel warnings about possible Lashkar terrorist attacks in India with Israelis and Westerners as targets.
Indian authorities have been on red alert since getting briefed by U.S. officials on the Headley investigation, especially his extensive conversations with his Lashkar handlers in Pakistan about possible attacks. Last month, the current threat level was a prime topic of discussion during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Washington to meet with President Barack Obama, U.S. officials said.
The initial leg of the trip by agents of the FBI’s Chicago field office to Mumbai and then New Delhi was based, in part, on orders from the White House that they share as much information from the investigation as possible with India about when and where such an attack might occur, and the roles Headley and his alleged co-conspirators in the U.S., Pakistan and Europe might have played in it.
The FBI trip was also designed to help India fill in the still-significant gaps in what it knows about the Mumbai massacre and the growing global threat posed by Lashkar, also known as LET, the officials said. The three-day siege in November 2008 left at least 166 people dead, including six Americans, which gave the FBI jurisdiction to conduct its inquiry.
The agents’ purpose on the last leg of the trip was more politically delicate: to present Pakistan with new hard evidence that Lashkar is plotting attacks from its soil despite the Islamabad government’s promises to crack down on it – and that it is doing so with the help of some former and possibly current high-ranking military officers.
The arrest of an American allegedly controlled by foreign terrorists for years has raised alarms at the highest levels of U.S. government.
Authorities are now scrambling to determine whether Headley had other co-conspirators here in the United States and overseas.
“There’s something missing, which is what he was trying to do here,” one senior U.S. counterterrorism official said of Headley, the son of a Pakistani diplomat and an American socialite who converted to Islam. “He travels under the radar, he looks white and he’s older,” unlike most would-be jihadists, who are often half his age.