While America hotly debates whether or not the Fort Hood shootings were an act of terror and the rights and wrongs of putting five 9/11 al Qaeda conspirators before a civilian trial in New York, an undoubtedly authentic al Qaeda-linked terror cell has been uncovered in Chicago. It was found hatching transnational plots for new attacks from its hidden headquarters on American soil.
(One of the five former Guantanamo Bay inmates, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, won notoriety by claiming he masterminded the 2001 attacks in America, although DEBKA-Net-Weekly counter-terrorism sources and al-Qaeda experts are certain he was no more than the quartermaster dealing only with logistics. This will not detract from the New York trial's exploitation as an al Qaeda propaganda circus.)
However, approximately five years after 9/11, a group of former Pakistani Islamists, some of them US citizens, set up shop in a Chicago grocery store. The FBI discovered the group had been working for at least three or four years with one of al Qaeda's operational arms, Lashkhar e-Taiba, as master planners of overseas operations – though not so far in their adopted homeland.
When the feds caught up with them, the Muslim-American cell was preparing to branch out to other parts of the globe after orchestrating one of al Qaeda's biggest operations ever, the Mumbai massacre of 171 people in November 2008.
That operation was unique in that ten trained elite commando troops were deployed to seize control of key points in the world's biggest city and hold them to siege for five days while fighting off crack Indian counter-terror and security units.
First US-based global jihadi network discovered
The two main suspects under lock and key are natives of Pakistan, David Coleman Headley (49), a US citizen who was arrested on Oct. 3, by the Chicago FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) at O'Hare International Airport before boarding a flight to Philadelphia, en route for Pakistan; and his aide Tahawar Hussain Rana (48), a citizen of Canada, who was arrested by federal agents on Oct. 18, at his main residence in Chicago.
Rana owns several businesses, including First World Immigration Services, which has offices in Chicago as well as New York and Toronto. He was charged with one count of conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorism conspiracy that involved Headley and at least three other individuals in Pakistan.
The two men operated an international terror command center from Rana's grocery store on Chicago's Devon Avenue, home to one of the largest South Asian business enclaves in the U.S. From this headquarters the two Chicago-based men mapped out a series of plots against overseas targets in conjunction with Pakistan-based terrorist organizations. Their latest target was to have been the Danish newspaper which ran a series of cartoons of Prophet Mohammed in 2005 which enraged Muslims worldwide.
This sort of global jihadist terror structure has been found in Britain, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Its emergence in the United States is now confirmed for the first time.
The two terror conspirators have been held in federal custody since their arrest.
If convicted, Headley faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for conspiracy to murder or maim persons abroad, while Headley and Rana each face a maximum of 15 years in prison for conspiracy to provide material support to terrorism.
Marking out targets for Lashkar-e-Taiba attacks
The picture unfolding from the FBI and Indian National Investigation Agency (NIA) investigations, as disclosed by DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources, show that for the Mumbai attacks, Headley took personal charge of advance reconnaissance, intelligence and the selection of targets by methods not lacking in sensational features: frequent foreign jaunts, stays at five-star hotels and even casting members of the Bollywood movie community in supporting roles.
He then turned his findings over to Lashkar-e-Taiba branches in various parts of Pakistan for them to make the operational preparations and recruit the manpower. In the same way, the investigators found, he identified potential targets for a terrorist attack in Denmark in two separate scouting trips, after which he reported to his co-conspirators in Pakistan who were to carry out the attacks.
Rana is accused of helping to set up Headley's trips and concealing their true nature and purpose, which was to survey potential terror targets overseas and coordinate attacks with foreign-based contacts.
One of those contacts has been identified as Ilyas Kashmiri, suspected chief of operations of the Azad Kashmir section of Harakat-ul Jihad Islami (HUJI), a Pakistan-based terrorist organization with links to Al Qaeda. Kashmiri issued a statement earlier this month saying he was alive and working with al Qaeda from his presumed hideout in Waziristan, north-western Pakistan.
The FBI refers to another confederate identified only as "A" in the Headley affidavit and "B" in the Rana affidavit, who is said to be an associate of Kashmiri terrorists and their contact-man with Lashkar e-Taiba.
Headley had no record of financial resources or employment. Yet he had been traveling extensively from the second half of 2008, dropping in and out of Pakistan and making trips to various European destinations which are still under investigation.
The Indian National Investigation Agency, which the FBI briefed on the case, has set up several teams of inquiry in Mumbai and other states to trace Headley's movements with a view to reconstructing the locations he scouted. Both Headley and Rana are found to have crisscrossed India extensively and spent time in New Delhi, Mumbai, Lucknow, Pune (Poona) and Ahmedabad, capital of Gujarat.
Rana's wife Samraz, a Canadian national born in Bahawalpur, Pakistan, is emerging as his companion on his travels through India. The couple registered at a hotel in Kochi on November 16, 2008. They left for Mumbai the next afternoon, just ten days before that city's hotels, railway station and Jewish center were put to siege by terrorists.
In a Hassidic disguise, with help from Bollywood
Headley carried out the spadework himself, according to partial results of the still ongoing investigation. DEBKA-Net-Weekly counter-terrorism sources reveal that before selecting the big hotels as targets, he spent some nights there months before the assault on the city. He stayed longest at the five-star, famous Taj Mahal.
As part of the goal to kill as many Jews and Israelis as possible along with Indians and foreigners, Headley went to the lengths of masquerading as an orthodox Jew to spend time at the Chabad hospitality center in Mumbai. None of the inmates survived the attack except for a two-year old child whose Indian nanny ran out of the burning inferno with him in her arms after his parents were murdered.
A search of his apartment turned up written material on subjects like "How to pray like a Jew," a measure of his thoroughness and precision in researching locations targeted for terror. Also found were detailed descriptions of the buildings to be attacked, meticulously marking out the wings and rooms to serve the terrorists as shooting and siege positions.
An Indian team of investigators arrived in the US earlier this month to interrogate Headley and Rana. Their exchange of information with the FBI revealed that between 2006 and 2009, the former paid nine visits to India, which is still in al Qaeda's sights. In addition to plotting attacks in Denmark, his arrest may have aborted a large-scale wave of assaults he was setting up for Lashkar-e-Taibe in various parts of India.
His itinerary was traced to Indian states which have nuclear installations. This discovery prompted New Delhi to place the country's nuclear plants on alert Tuesday, Nov. 16, and tighten the security measures around them.
According to our counter-terror sources, the investigation centering on the Chicago cell is only just beginning. At its outset it has yielded the outline of a complex transnational terror machine based in America with tentacles reaching into many countries.
The anatomy of an al Qaeda cell revealed
Investigation of the Chicago cell may be instructive as to the makeup, modes of operation and chain of command of possible replicas in other places, including the United States. This one appeared to be semi-autonomous: Al Qaeda's top men named the countries to be punished and type of attack – and then left it to the team led by Headley to select the specific target and carry out field reconnaissance and detailed master-planning. This operative then wrote the script for the operation with his Lashkar-e-Taiba comrades in Pakistan, who took over the operational planning and manpower recruitment.
These discoveries pose many more questions: How did the top al Qaeda leaders communicate with the Chicago cell? Where did the detained suspects find the money to finance their travels and other activities? Were they bankrolled by local Muslims in Chicago or other parts of America? Or did the money come from outside the country?
The US and Indian investigators are certain that the three individuals rounded up in the early stage of their inquiry represent only a small corner of a much larger terrorist organization which plans, prepares and runs major terrorist attacks on two if not three continents.
This story is sure to be continued.