David Coleman Headley pleaded guilty Thursday in the most significant terrorism case ever linked to Chicago, acknowledging he was an operative here who traveled to India multiple times to scout targets for a team of gunmen who carried out the bloody coordinated assault in Mumbai in 2008.
By cooperating with authorities since his arrest in October, Headley was spared from the death penalty and from being extradited to India to stand trial there. Attorney General Eric Holder, who approved the plea deal, said in a statement that Headley is providing "valuable intelligence about terrorist activities."
Headley, 49, a U.S. citizen of Pakistani descent, is a shadowy figure at the center of a terror case that stretches from Chicago to Europe and India. In addition to the Mumbai assault, he admitted he scouted targets for a plot to attack a Danish newspaper for printing controversial cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad that outraged the Muslim world.
Headley pleaded guilty to all 12 counts of the indictment, including conspiring to bomb public places in India, to murder and maim people in India and Denmark as well as to aid and abet the murder of U.S. citizens in India. The Mumbai attack killed about 170 people, including six Americans.
Headley is expected to testify against co-defendant Tahawwur Hussain Rana, a Chicago businessman who is charged in both the Mumbai and Danish plots. The allegations against Rana are sketchier, but authorities have said he let Headley pose as an employee of Rana's immigration business to use as cover for his travels overseas. Headley changed his name from Daood Gilani in 2006 to bring less suspicion in his travel abroad, authorities said.
After court, attorneys for Headley said his decision to plead guilty shows his remorse. He has provided "thorough, trustworthy and complete" information on both the India and Denmark plots as well as other matters, lawyer Robert Seeder said. His help may have saved "hundreds, if not thousands of people," Seeder said without elaboration.
Headley was returning to Pakistan when he was arrested last fall at O'Hare International Airport. Authorities said he was bringing videotapes of his surveillance of the newspaper's offices in Copenhagen to his handlers.
Two of them, Ilyas Kashmiri, an alleged terror leader who is believed to be in regular contact with al-Qaida, and Abdur Rehman Hashim Syed, a retired Pakistani major, also have been charged in the indictment but remain fugitives.
As part of Headley's guilty plea, authorities alleged that Kashmiri was interested in making the newspaper attack a shocking one, but it was never carried out. Headley met with him in May 2009, according to his plea agreement.
"Among other details, Kashmiri stated that the attackers should behead captives and throw their heads out of the newspaper building in order to heighten the response from Danish authorities," the plea agreement said.
Chicago man admits role in Mumbai attack
Guilty plea spares him from death penalty in terrorism case
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