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Accused in India massacre claims ties to Pakistani secret service

Canadian businessman Tahawwur Hussain Rana appears before Judge Matthew Kennelly in Chicago's federal court in Jan. 6, 2010.

Verna Sadock/AP

India-Pakistan tensions will likely be inflamed by a trial that's slated to begin in the United States next month: New court documents reveal that two terrorist operatives accused in the 2008 Mumbai massacre conspiracy are preparing to say they believed themselves to be working for Pakistani spies.

On May 16 in Chicago, Pakistani-Canadian Tahawwur Hussain Rana is to go on trial for allegedly providing terrorist scouts with the false credentials they used to pick targets in India's largest city. Months after the surveillance operation was executed, Pakistani gunmen stormed luxury hotels, train stations and a Jewish centre, killing more than 160 civilians.

The rampage threatened to set two nuclear-armed neighbours on the path to war, until Pakistan - backed by U.S. intelligence officials - rushed to assure India that the attacks were not state-sponsored. A year later, Federal Bureau of Investigation agents in Illinois arrested Mr. Rana and his long-time friend David Coleman Headley - and accused the two Pakistani expatriates in their 50s of doing surveillance on behalf of a terrorist group.

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Lashkar-e-Taiba, or LeT, is blamed for the Mumbai massacre, though Indian officials suspect the jihadists did not operate alone. Pakistan's spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, or ISI, is notorious for rogue elements and double games - and it has long cultivated ties with militant Islamist groups such as LeT to create buffers.

Mr. Rana's trial threatens to lend an aura of credence to the suspicions of ISI complicity. According to court documents, the jury will hear the two Chicago conspirators say they believed themselves to be working for both LeT and the ISI.

Previously secret testimony heard only by a grand jury is referred to in a decision published earlier this month.

"I also told him [Mr. Rana]… how I had been asked to perform espionage work for ISI," Mr. Headley, a Pakistani-American, testified to the grand jury.

Though cryptic, the statement is highly significant.

Having turned FBI informer in a bid to escape the death penalty, Mr. Headley will reveal the blow-by-blow of the Mumbai massacre surveillance scheme when he gives evidence against Mr. Rana.

That testimony should include the specifics on how Mr. Headley anglicized his Pakistani name, cultivated ties with LeT, videotaped sites in Mumbai, and briefed his handlers in Pakistan in the run-up to the carnage.

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Speaking about how he entered India under a "false flag" to scout out targets, Mr. Headley told the grand jury that "I told [Mr. Rana]about my assignment to conduct surveillance in Mumbai. … I explained to him that the immigration office would provide a cover story for why I was in Mumbai."

Though Mr. Rana is a Canadian citizen, for years he has been the proprietor of First World Immigration Services, a consultancy based in a South Asian enclave of Chicago.

Mr. Rana has been struggling to explain away allegations that he gave Mr. Headley the papers that allowed him to pose as an immigration consultant. According to recent filings, Mr. Rana argues he is a Pakistani patriot who was led to believe the ISI wanted his help - and therefore he should get the equivalent of diplomatic immunity.

On April 1, Judge Harry Leinenweber ruled that that defence to be "objectively unreasonable."

"Defendant's proposed defence is that his alleged illegal acts of providing material support to terrorists - at least those related to the Mumbai attacks - were done at the behest of the Pakistani government and the ISI, not the Lashkar terrorist organization," reads the decision. "He argues that he is entitled to a public-authority defence because he acted under the authority - whether actual or apparent - of the Pakistani government and the ISI."

Prosecutors also say they caught Mr. Rana and Mr. Headley on tape after the Mumbai attacks, discussing a plot to kill a Danish cartoonist who had lampooned the Prophet Mohammed.

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About the Author
National security reporter

Focusing on Canadian matters during the past decade, Colin Freeze has reported extensively on the interplay between government, police, spy services, and the judiciary. Colin has twice been to Afghanistan to be embedded with the Canadian military. More

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