David Headley

By Editor Aug1,2023 #Headley

David Coleman Headley (48) and Tahawwur Hussain Rana (48)
were accused by US federal authorities in Chicago on October
27, 2009, of plotting against the employees of a newspaper in
Copenhagen. Headley was accused of traveling to Denmark to scout
out the Jyllands-Posten newspaper offices and a nearby synagogue,

for an attack by terrorists. On December 8, 2009, the FBI addition-
ally accused Headley of conspiring to bomb targets in Mumbai,

and providing material support to LeT, a militant Pakistani Islamist
group; and aiding and abetting the murder of US citizens in the 2008
Mumbai attacks.
Headley pleaded guilty to all charges on March 18, 2010. He
faces life in prison and a US$3 million dollar fine when he is
Headley’s and Rana’s arrests complicated the story of the 2008
Mumbai attack. US intelligence believes that the action was carried

out by LeT – allegedly a proxy arm of the Pakistan Army – in conniv-
ance with Al-Qaeda. In fact, Headley was Al-Qaeda’s mole in LeT,

through which Al-Qaeda hijacked the ISI’s blueprints and used them

to broaden its regional agenda. However, the more Headley’s state-
ments were made public, the more complicated the situation became.

Headley told his interrogators that the ISI paid out PKR2.5 million
and provided logistical support to carry out the Mumbai operation.
Meanwhile Ajmal Kasab, the only surviving Mumbai attacker, had
already confessed to being trained and equipped by the ISI.
I documented these facts in my December 2, 2008, reportage
in Asia Times Online of how meticulously Al-Qaeda had hijacked
the ISI and LeT plans for fuelling the Kashmiri insurgency. I had
documented that an ISI forward section was behind the attack, but
that they had planned a very low profile proxy operation, of a type
both India and Pakistan regularly undertake against each other. But
Al-Qaeda, with the help of its network, turned the event into an
international act of terror which brought Pakistan and India to the
verge of war – a war that was only narrowly avoided by timely US
This is typical of the type of Al-Qaeda operation which the
world has witnessed in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, but for
which most people had failed to understand the motives. Despite
both Headley and Rana identifying figures such as Kashmiri, retired
Major Haroon and retired Major Abdul Rahman as responsible

for the India operations, the Indian establishment and US coun-
terterrorism experts continue to suspect the Pakistan Army and its

proxy LeT of being behind the Mumbai carnage. At one point they
even thought that the Pakistan Army and Al-Qaeda had developed
relations to operate against India together!
In 2010, when I look at the events that transpired, I am fully
convinced that the author of 9/11 must have been an avid reader
of the Arabic classic Alf Laila Wa Laila (One Thousand and One
Nights), anticipating as he did a comprehensive dialectic beyond

9/11, and the following US invasion of Afghanistan which devas-
tated the Al-Qaeda network. As a result, there was a mass migration

of Al-Qaeda members into the Pakistani tribal areas. From there
began a new series of events which originate from 9/11 and give
birth to a new range of immortal tales which go all the way from
Central Asia to India and Bangladesh, as might be seen by somebody
flipping through the pages of Alf Laila Wa Laila.
Al-Qaeda’s Alf Laila Wa Laila is a collection of tales with each
new tale throwing up a stream of new characters in the theater of
war in South Asia after 9/11. It is presented at a juncture when
a new phase of Al-Qaeda’s war on the West has only just begun.
As in 2002, when the United States was absolutely convinced of
Al-Qaeda’s obliteration, it tells of the birth of a new generation
of fighters – such as Kashmiri’s 313 Brigade – committed to an
Al-Qaeda agenda which stretches all the way up from North Africa.
Al-Qaeda achieved its aims through the 9/11 attack. It succeeded
in creating a Muslim backlash against the West and Westernized
Muslim rulers. By attacking the US icons of supremacy, the Twin
Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, Al-Qaeda
challenged the “cowboy” mentality of the United States and
succeeded in instigating anger against the arrogance of power that
brought the United States to the swamp of Afghanistan.
The United States had a free pass into Afghanistan. It thought
it had already annihilated Al-Qaeda and was not wrong when
it announced its destruction. Dozens of top Taliban leaders fled
to Pakistan. The middle cadre of its leadership was either killed
or arrested. Taliban footsoldiers melted into the tribal weave of
Afghan society. The entire resistance had died down by 2002. The
United States announced victory and a road map through the Bonn
Agreement (2001) to acknowledge the need for a US and NATO
presence in Afghanistan until democratic institutions in Afghanistan
were restored.
For the United States that was the endgame in Afghanistan, but
for Al-Qaeda it was only the beginning of a new story. A long-term
stay for the United States and its allies meant they would be trapped

in Afghanistan and Al-Qaeda would be able to set up a battle dispen-
sation to bleed them to death in the trap it had set. Al-Zawahiri

was the person who structured the next phase of operations. This
included reviving Al-Qaeda cadres, devising new strategies, and
building new bases in Pakistan.
Al-Zawahiri was not an ordinary person. He was the last Emir

of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. He was the planner of a long recruit-
ment process from amongst Egypt’s civil and military officials aimed

at launching a coup in the country against the rule of then President
Anwar Sadat. Egyptian officials got wind of the plot and carried out
a successful counter-coup in which dozens of people were rounded
up. But al-Zawahiri had equipped the organization with contingency
plans directed through various cells, to ensure Islamic Jihad would
survive the blow. Thus, while the Egyptian government’s crackdown
on the organization had successfully countered the coup, Islamic
Jihad had Sadat assassinated at the hands of Egyptian army officer
Khalid Islamboli.
The astute al-Zawahiri drew a precise picture of the US invasion
of Afghanistan and its effect on Al-Qaeda. In the post 9/11 era we see
al-Zawahiri applying the same strategy in Afghanistan that he had
earlier applied in Egypt. This included penetrating Pakistan’s armed

forces, and creating different cells with horizontal command struc-
tures so that if one cell was penetrated by security agencies, another

cell would immediately become operative. Al-Qaeda followed this
design of “planned replacement” with the tribesmen who joined the
organization when they arrived in Pakistan from Afghanistan.
However, al-Zawahiri did not see any direct role for the few
hundred Al-Qaeda operatives who had migrated from Afghanistan
into Pakistan, except to inspire a new generation of “Sons of the
Soil” (Ibnul Balad) fighters fortified by the Al-Qaeda vision and
its ideology. That was the nucleus of the whole strategy on which
irregular resistance would turn into popular global resistance against
the West. And this is Al-Qaeda’s battle hymn.
How Al-Qaeda was structured for fighting this war was crucial.
Had it been structured with a centralized control and command system like any regular army and used standard weaponry, it would
have lost the war by mid-2002, as appeared to be the case during
the developments which had left Al-Qaeda in the lurch after the US
invasion in Afghanistan. At the time, the United States was convinced
that it had broken Al-Qaeda’s back. However, the organization had
strong enough foundations to structure a new strategy stemming
from the unshakeable commitment of its founding members.
Al-Qaeda leaders such as al-Zawahiri had spent decades working
with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and helped found several

underground organizations. Such men were familiar with the dialec-
tical process of state clashes with underground organizations – and

the consequences. Al-Zawahiri knew exactly how to react in trying
circumstances and how to generate resources to wage a new war.

Al-Qaeda devised its strategy in such a way that the team, charac-
ters, and leadership at the time of the US invasion of Afghanistan in

2001 quietly receded into the background and a new team of players
subscribing to the Al-Qaeda ideology emerged. This continued until
2003, but there were new strategic dimensions.
Other Al-Qaeda leaders of al-Zawahiri’s experience enabled them
to anticipate the enemy and prepare multi-layered counter-moves.
The approach Al-Qaeda employed for a recovery in its war against
the United States was to prepare layers of leaders and adherents,
focused first on first understanding the enemy’s mind; second on
knowledge of the enemy resources; and third, expanding the war
into the wider South Asian region to drain the enemies’ resources,
with the obvious intent of reducing the status of the United States
to that of a more easily assailable enemy.
In pursuit of this, Al-Qaeda’s leadership morphed into three

  • Osama bin Laden featured as the symbolic and charismatic
    spiritual figurehead, supported by monetary contributions from
    around the world, and attracted young Islamists to join the
    anti-US war.
  • The visionary al-Zawahiri defined the Al-Qaeda ideology to
    draw all of this cadre under a single ideological umbrella, as well
    as to set broad parameters of the war, with himself as the chief
  • There were several (changeable) operational chiefs, who while
    adhering to al-Zawahiri’s ideological mission of war against
    the West’s presence in Muslim lands, formulated operational
    procedures according to need and circumstance.
    For public consumption, Osama bin Laden was the leader, but the
    real direction of the whole game came from al-Zawahiri, whose ideas
    had been instilled into a select group of people with a sense of purity
    of purpose. They comprised battle-hardened teams groomed in the
    South Asian theater of war over decades. From each such team, one
    person was installed as the operational field commander, and if he
    was killed or captured, another was readily available to replace him.
    In the new situation there was no time or space for Al-Qaeda to hold
    regular meetings to decide on strategy and disseminate day-to-day
    orders. The team had to be trusted to shape events on its own, and
    not stray away from Al-Qaeda’s broader strategy of global war.
    The modus operandi to achieve this was muffled in multilayered
    plans. These plans set the stage of the living Alf Laila Wa Laila tales
    – in which one story appears on the pages with a line of characters
    and, as each story ends, its characters fade into the background,
    but the tales move on with another story of equally motivated
    The margin of failure was thus minimized with multiple layers
    and folds cushioning the impact of any attack, and an unending
    stream of actors ready to play their roles in new actions. In other
    words, where one plan failed, another plan with a new team would
    immediately replace it. This Alf Laila Wa Laila drama, even today,
    goes by the original script, whether by way of Al-Qaeda action
    against an enemy and the enemy’s reaction to this, or an action by
    the enemy against Al-Qaeda and Al-Qaeda’s reaction to that.
    The person who fired the imagination of Osama bin Laden and
    al-Zawahiri for the 9/11 attack was Khalid Sheikh Mohammad,
    a US-educated Balochi, raised in Kuwait. He was arrested in
    Rawalpindi in 2003. It was he who conceived a situation where
    the United States would believe it had won outright victory and
    so work towards developing a strategy envisaging a long-term stay
    in Afghanistan. Khalid had reasoned that the single blow of 9/11
    would drag the United States into the Afghan net, and from there
    the inhospitable Afghan terrain would slowly but surely drain US
    material resources to a point from which it would never be able
    to recover. There was also the conviction that although the United
    States might mercilessly butcher Al-Qaeda’s human resources at the
    outset, Al-Qaeda’s spiritual and ideological strength would breed a
    long line of poverty-stricken Muslims ready to fight the war anew.
    That was why Pakistani and Afghan impoverished tribal areas were
    chosen by Al-Qaeda as the initial theater of war. In addition to this,
    Pakistan was a country under an Islamist military dictator, General
    Zia-ul-Haq, who had already begun to move away from the normal
    pattern of third-world social development.

In the 1980s and 1990s Pakistan’s military establishment encour-
aged the formation of the Jihadi community in Pakistan’s rural areas

to fuel the insurgency in Indian Kashmir. That influence spread all

the way from Central Asia to Bangladesh, and raised another gener-
ation of militants. The Taliban rule in Afghanistan had inspired

them, and the Jihadi madrassas network in Pakistan had increased
their numbers many times over in a few short years. Al-Qaeda was
certain that it would successfully use these assets to fight the United
States and then capture the larger network to expand the theater of
war from Central Asia to Bangladesh.
Put another way, there was faith that while the United States
might be able to inflict repeated defeats on Al-Qaeda and kill
one generation of militants, another generation of militants would
surface in a short space of time and the US war machine would
ultimately run out steam. Al-Qaeda, meanwhile, would move from
strength to strength until victory was assured in Afghanistan to
hail the promised Mahdi’s arrival for the final battle. Muslim
armies would then join hands and march from South Asia to
the Middle East, and inflict a conclusive defeat on Israel to
usher in a Global Caliphate. This particular perspective helped
Al-Qaeda expand the boundaries of its operations, weaponry,
human resources, and ideology for a type of war not witnessed
in the region before.
In the next few years a new generation of fighters were raised,
which though local and owning first allegiance to the Taliban, were
ultimately led by Al-Qaeda. They are sons of the soil and generally
understood as Taliban, but as they are not part of Al-Qaeda’s
organizational set-up, so I call these recruits the Neo-Taliban or
Al-Qaeda’s “blood brothers.” Unlike the traditional Afghan Taliban,
who mostly live in south-west Afghanistan and south-west Pakistan
and adhere to Pashtun tribal traditions, these Neo-Taliban live in
the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and stand against
state-supported tribal dispensations. These Neo-Taliban are today
to be found in many parts of South Asia. They have massacred

local tribal chiefs, or forced them to leave. They have assassi-
nated dozens of traditional clerics. They live on both sides of the

Afghan–Pakistani border, believe in a global Muslim brotherhood,
and subscribe strictly to radical Islam. Both the traditional Taliban
and the Neo-Taliban fight against NATO forces in Afghanistan.
But while for the traditional Taliban the war begins and ends in
Afghanistan , the Neo-Taliban’s war starts from Central and South
Asia and ends with the emergence of the Global Caliphate.
The Neo-Taliban, who evolved through the testing circumstances
of the US invasion of Afghanistan, the US bombings, and state
oppression of Jihadi organizations by the Pakistani government,
extend from south-east Afghanistan to Karachi. They were the
ones who set the stage for Al-Qaeda to develop its huge bases in
Pakistani tribal areas to fuel the theater of war in Afghanistan. They
enabled the Afghan Taliban to capture 74 percent of Afghanistan by
2009, and helped expand the war from Pakistan into India, while
Al-Qaeda opened new war fronts in Yemen and Somalia.
In the post-9/11 scenario the game plan was going exactly as
Al-Qaeda wanted. The US supposed victory in Afghanistan had
encouraged it to invade Iraq in 2003. However, the US invasion of
Iraq came as something of a surprise – and bonus – to Al-Qaeda. It
had planned a single trap for the United States in Afghanistan, but
the United States had fallen into two different traps.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, formerly a non-Al-Qaeda leader of an
anti-Shiite group, was already in Iraq. Al-Zawahiri awarded him the
Al-Qaeda franchise for Iraq to stir up sectarian strife so that Iraq’s
theater of war would be more complicit. The violence that resulted
made Iraq ungovernable. However, this was a diversion. The real
war was still to be fought in Afghanistan, as Al-Qaeda’s control of
the Iraqi resistance movement was still tenuous.
Al-Qaeda had tried to influence local resistance groups in Iraq
with the idea of an “Islamic Emirates of Iraq,” but the experiment

failed. The reason was that there are over two dozen organiza-
tions involved in the Iraqi resistance, and the majority of them are

associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. They take their guidance
from the Muslim Brotherhood councils in the Middle East as well
as in Europe. The local franchise of the Muslim Brotherhood in
Iraq, Hezbul Islami Al-Iraqi, is already in Iraq’s parliament, with

its leaders holding important positions including the office of vice-
president of Iraq. These groups openly negotiate with the United

States. The United States also holds dialogue with the Iraqi resis-
tance in Turkey. The United States has no problem dealing with

either, but provide no quarter to Al-Qaeda’s foreign fighters in
The Iraqi indigenous resistance groups have huge differences with
Al-Qaeda, especially regarding its strategy to create crises through
sectarian violence. Al-Qaeda focuses on trapping the United States
in the Afghan quagmire. The Iraqi resistance aims at liberating
Iraq with the withdrawal of the US forces from its territories. This
divergence in approach left Al-Qaeda isolated in Iraq, and so in
2007–08 Al-Qaeda turned to Afghanistan, leaving the war against
the West to the local Iraqi resistance.
In Pakistan and Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda acquired the ability to
shuffle the pack. From 2002–05 it kept its eyes on Pakistan’s tribal
areas to provide franchises as part of its regrouping program. The
game-plan in 2006 was to win the war against US and NATO
troops in the Taliban heartland of south-west Afghanistan. I went to
Helmand in November 2006 and visited all the important districts.
The Taliban were in complete control there, with NATO’s presence
barely visible only in the capital, Laskhar Gah, and a few other
places, where NATO’s British troops were mainly restricted to their
bases. The Taliban’s comeback compelled Washington to look for a
radical shift in its political and war strategy.
Washington then began to use Pakistan for negotiations with the
Taliban, on the one hand, and for the elimination of Al-Qaeda’s
structures on the other. The fallout of this was that in 2007
Al-Qaeda moved into Pakistan’s capital Islamabad and into the
scenic Swat Valley in Khyber Paktoonkhwa. The expansion of
the war from the tribal areas to Pakistan’s urban centers aimed
at puncturing Pakistan’s peace process efforts with the Taliban. In
Iraq, Al-Qaeda was never permitted this kind of leverage. Thus,
despite Iraq’s Arab origin, Al-Qaeda was left with little choice but
to pursue its war on the West in Afghanistan. However, setting up
a theater of war in South Asia was no less of a challenge. It was an
attempt to pass on to indigenous tribes the revolutionary ideas of a
few hundred Arabs not even remotely connected with local culture
or traditions.
Although some leading ideological thinkers such as Mustafa Abu
al-Yazid and Abu Waleed Ansari were killed in US Predator drone
attacks, there were still some seasoned Arab ideologues such as
al-Zawahiri present. Each had been a long-time affiliate of Egypt’s
Muslim Brotherhood and spent several years in the Afghan Jihad.
They knew exactly how to network their future actions in these
areas. They did not interfere in local affairs, but had on constant

call tribesmen who had either trained in Al-Qaeda camps, or inter-
acted with them in Afghanistan. The dilemma of Western analysts

was that they never tried to understand Al-Qaeda and its dialectic.
Most of the time they viewed the Al-Qaeda-inspired events either in
isolation or from the wrong perspective – as was the case with the
Mumbai attack of 2008.
The US war in Iraq and Afghanistan continues to drain billions
of dollars of taxpayers’ money, and the war is getting increasingly

untenable. Each year US think tanks discover new Al-Qaeda strate-
gies against the United States, and by the time the United States

comes up with counter strategies, Al-Qaeda has moved in a different
direction in its war against the Western coalition.
US intelligence did its homework thoroughly before launching the
war against Al-Qaeda. It researched Islamic resistance movements
down the decades and minutely studied the French occupation of
Algeria in 1830 and the resistance there led by the famed Abd
al-Qadir. Algerian resistance never permitted smooth sailing for the
French in Algeria, and at one time controlled one-third of Algeria,
even to the point of knocking on the door of the country’s capital.
The British occupation in Egypt ran much the same course, as did
the Russian occupation of the Caucasus, and the British occupation

of India. Each of these occupations resulted in fierce Muslim resis-
tance inspired by liberation movements and reformist movements

undertaken on the fundamental precepts of revolution.
The US invasion of Afghanistan and later of Iraq was launched
on the understanding of these earlier models of Muslim resistance
movements and therefore, subsequent to the swift defeats of the
Taliban and Saddam Hussain respectively in Afghanistan and Iraq,
power was as quickly as possible transferred to local politicians
with US forces standing in support. In Afghanistan, Provincial
Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) of roughly 60 to 100 military combat
personnel were put in place as a show of force in outlying urban
areas, but they only managed to provide limited security to local
projects. In Iraq, on the other hand, US forces in Baghdad and
other troubled cities withdrew from the urban areas, sequestering
themselves in armed camps and limiting their presence in the cities.
The United States sought to convey the impression to the local
population that they were not living under foreign occupation forces
but under an independent sovereign government. It took three and a
half years in the case of Afghanistan and in Iraq only a year before
this US strategy fell apart and armed resistance against the foreign
occupation forces began in both countries.
The international community, including the United States, the
United Kingdom, Pakistan, Turkey, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and
India saw the war on Al-Qaeda as a unique conflict where for the
first time in history the militant networks were engaged in a power
struggle against nation-states. They failed to realize that it was not

simply an alliance of various international groups whose foundation had been laid in Afghanistan, but in fact the rediscovery of a
dialectical process understood by a group of battle-hardened people
after a 20-year-long underground struggle in the Middle East against
the Soviet Union.
Afghanistan is the catalyst of many international dramas including
9/11. The main drama, however, remains the exploration of the
dialectic through which Al-Qaeda elevated its status from a simple
insurgency to a global resistance movement aiming to organize a
backlash of the Muslim population to set up a mechanism under
which the resources and the arsenal of the Muslim majority states can
be used after bringing the state machinery to the point of collapse.
In early 2009, Pakistani militants seized huge parts of Khyber

Paktoonkhwa. The entire police force of the civil administra-
tion defected, and defections also became common among army

personnel. This was a time when Al-Qaeda looked to seize some
batteries of the Pakistan Army, convinced the war could conclusively
be decided in favor of militants in Pakistan as well as in Afghanistan.
However, Pakistan’s newly installed chief of army staff, General
Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, realized the danger and employed maximum
force against the militants, compelling them to disperse. This was,
of course, only to be a temporary arrangement as Pakistan, the
United States, and Saudi Arabia each saw Al-Qaeda as no more than
a minor irritant. In keeping with the US war strategy, they fought
a low-intensity anti-insurgency war with all steps taken, whether
political, economic, or military, to keep that particular perspective
in mind. However, the fact of the matter is that Al-Qaeda can only
be understood by going through its One Thousand and One Nights
tales and the cast of characters, charisma, ideology, and the myths
and realities that appear in them.
Today, Osama bin Laden is in the background. Dr Ayman
al-Zawahiri is invisible. A large number of Al-Qaeda legends such
as Mustafa Abu al-Yazid and Abu Waleed Ansari have been killed in
drone attacks. Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and Abu Zubaida, along
with dozens of other key operators, are under arrest. However, the
saga of Al-Qaeda’s One Thousand and One Nights tales continues
with new strategies and new characters. For Al-Qaeda these are
just measures to keep the West running from pillar to post until it
exhausts itself and Al-Qaeda can announce victory in Afghanistan.
Al-Qaeda next aims to occupy the promised land of ancient
Khurasan, with its boundaries stretching from all the way from
Central Asia to Khyber Paktoonkhwa through Afghanistan, and
then expand the theater of war to India.

By Editor

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