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US trial hears claims of link between Pakistan's spies and terrorists

Witness in trial in Chicago of Tahawwur Rana, a Pakistani-Canadian accused of involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, claims the Islamist terrorist group Lashkar-i-Taiba 'operates under the umbrella" of Pakistan¿s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.

The terrorist assault on Mumbai's Taj Mahal Hotel on November 29, 2008 left 166 dead and strained relations between India and Pakistan. Arko Datta / Reuters
The terrorist assault on Mumbai's Taj Mahal Hotel on November 29, 2008 left 166 dead and strained relations between India and Pakistan. Arko Datta / Reuters

NEW DELHI // Testimony emerging from a trial in Chicago is feeding India's claims that Pakistan's intelligence agency supported terrorist outfits operating on its soil and that it helped plan the terror attacks on Mumbai in November 2008.

The testimony comes a month after it was discovered that Osama bin Laden had lived in Pakistan for years before his death, and analysts say that these events could affect India's future engagements with Pakistan.

India and Pakistan announced a formal resumption of peace talks this year, the most positive move forward in bilateral relations since terrorists from the Pakistan-based Lashkar-i-Taiba militant group took credit for killing 166 people in the notorious assault on Mumbai three years ago.

The defendant in the Chicago trial is Tahawwur Rana, a Pakistani-Canadian accused of involvement in the Mumbai attacks. But the most crucial testimony thus far has come from David Headley, a Pakistani-American arrested in October 2009, who claimed to work for both Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency and Lashkar-i-Taiba.

Headley has told the court that he helped scope out targets for terrorist attacks in India; that he exchanged several e-mails with a man identified as Major Iqbal, from the ISI; and that groups such as the Lashkar-i-Taiba "operated under the umbrella of the ISI".

"They co-ordinate with each other," Mr Headley said of the ISI and the Lashkar-i-Taiba, "with financial and military support".

Headley also said that the senior leaders of the ISI may not have known beforehand about the planning of the terrorist operation in Mumbai.

The Chicago trial and the death of bin Laden, said Uday Bhaskar, a former director of the New Delhi-based Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, "bring into the public domain a lot of material that buttresses India's position on the ISI. Previously, it has been a challenge to get the US in particular and the world at large to see this the way India does".

Mr Bhaskar recalled that in the early 1990s, "when I was a part of the [government] system, we'd tell the Americans that there was a pattern of Pakistan nurturing terror, and they'd refuse to accept it, for their own reasons". It remains to be seen, he added, how the recent negative publicity about the ISI will shape US policy.

Pakistan's interior minister, Rehman Malik, has dismissed Headley's testimony in an interview with Newsweek. "Headley … is a criminal and a convict," Mr Malik said. "If he has credible evidence that can stand in a court of law to support his claim that he was being aided by the ISI, he should present it … This man has no credibility and cannot be trusted. Our hands are clean on Mumbai."

The Indian home minister, P Chidambaram, has refused to offer any "running commentary" on Headley's testimony until the trial concludes. Closing arguments were to begin this week.

Mr Chidambaram has also said that the government has not decided whether it will join a lawsuit filed against the ISI in New York by victims of the Mumbai attacks.

One of the first signs of the impact of the Chicago trial on India's approach to Pakistan emerged over the weekend, at an event organised by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

On Saturday, speaking at the Asia Security Summit in Singapore, India's junior defence minister, Pallam Raju, remarked that the international community was closely observing "the damning evidence that has come out from David Headley during his interrogation. Against this light, if a provocation is to happen again, I think, it would be hard to justify" the sort of self-restraint exhibited by India after the Mumbai attacks.

The overall picture of the Mumbai attacks has been further muddied by the publication of Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond bin Laden and 9/11, a book by the Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad.

Shahzad, a well-known journalist, was found murdered outside Islamabad in late May with torture marks on his face and chest.

His book claims that a Lashkar commander, aware of an earlier ISI strategy to attack Mumbai, "hijacked the ISI plan and turned it into the devastating attacks that shook Mumbai", in order to provoke a war between India and Pakistan. Such a war, Shahzad's sources reasoned, would divert attention and resources from the military campaign against militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan's border areas.

The book also clears the ISI's leaders of direct involvement in the Mumbai attacks - ironically, since Mr Shahzad's murder is suspected to be the handiwork of the ISI. An ISI spokesperson has called allegations of the agency's involvement in Shahzad's murder "baseless".

The testimony from the Chicago trial, as well as other hints of the ISI's close ties with terrorist groups, is likely to shape the way the Indian government conducts its diplomatic exercises with Pakistan. The government, under prime minister Manmohan Singh, is already beleaguered at home over many corruption crises and a perception of weakness.

"Unlike most other policies of this government, Pakistan policy is exclusively identified with Dr Singh," said Nitin Pai, a geopolitics fellow at the Takshashila Institution, an independent strategic-affairs think tank in Chennai. "If the rising criticism of the government extends into foreign policy areas, Dr Singh will find himself under popular pressure to take a tougher line on Pakistan even as his own authority diminishes."

The formal peace talks with Pakistan, Mr Bhaskar said, would go on, and he pointed out that "India's ability to ensure that Pakistan acts in a certain manner is limited". But India would closely watch how these events affected internal debate in Pakistan as well as in the United States. "That's the effect it will have, in a non-linear way."

SSubramanian@thenational.ae