Tuesday, 26 April 2011

US charges 4 more Pakistanis in Mumbai attack case

US prosecutors on Monday charged four Pakistanis, including the mysterious "Major Iqbal" of ISI, in connection with the 2008 terrorist carnage in Mumbai, just a day after it emerged that Washington considers Pakistan's spy agency a terrorist outfit.

Also charged in a second superseding indictment filed in the US District Court in Chicago are alleged LeT operative and former Pakistani armyman Sajid Mir, and two other men, Mazhar Iqbal and Abu Qahafa, who allegedly helped train the 26/11 attackers.

The new defendants were charged with aiding and abetting the murder of US citizens and others in India, conspiracy to murder and maim, and providing material support to Lashkar-e-Taiba. In addition, Mir, Qahafa, and Iqbal also were charged with conspiracy to bomb public places. None of the accused is in American custody and it was not immediately clear how the US justice system will proceed with the case.

Washington has an extradition treaty with Pakistan that pre-dates its creation (inherited from British India and invoked occasionally), but it also has other levers with Islamabad that it has used for extraordinary rendition on other occasions.

The fresh indictment, coming at a turbulent time in US-Pakistan relations including the outing of ISI as a terrorist outfit, precedes the scheduled trial later this month of Chicago businessman Tahawwur Rana on charges of helping to plan the Mumbai rampage. Prosecutors say Rana, who owned First World Immigration Services in Chicago, helped another Pakistani expat, Daaod Gilani aka David Coleman Headley, open an office in Mumbai as cover so that he could scout sites for the attack.

Headley has pleaded guilty to the charge in a plea bargain to escape death penalty and it is believed he provided the names of Major Iqbal, Sajid Mir and others added in the superseding indictment. A previous indictment in the Rana case also named former Pakistani special services commando Ilyas Kashmiri and a retired Pakistani military man Abdur Rehman Hashim Syed.

Headley told Indian investigators in June 2010 that his trip to Mumbai in 2006 was sponsored by Maj. Iqbal, who handed him $ 25,000 to open an office and set up a house in Mumbai to be used as a front during his scouting trips. Maj. Iqbal then served as the supervisor of Lashkar's planning, helping to arrange a communications system for the attack and overseeing a model of the Taj Mahal Hotel, so that gunmen could find their way around the hotel.

Pakistan has played smoke and mirrors ever since the nexus between ISI and LeT and their role in the Mumbai carnage was exposed by the fortuitous capture of Ajmal Kasab and subsequently confirmed by David Headley. In the ever-shifting narrative, Pakistani officials have sometimes suggested Major Iqbal is a former ISI officer and may have been part of a rogue operation with LeT leading to the Mumbai attacks. But the state has done little to reel in all the players and prosecute them.

The country's jihadi-sympathetic courts, combined with lack of political will, a constant sense of denial and false grievance, and an extremist mindset have all combined to protect the accused from prosecution for the murder of more than 170 people in Mumbai. The intelligence community believes Pakistan deliberately creates "cut outs" of its service personnel so that it can maintain operational deniability.

But with both the US and Indian justice system moving ahead relentlessly to bring the accused to book, the spotlight is squarely on Pakistan to act, particularly since it has now again come close to being named a state-sponsor of terrorism following the red-flagging of ISI.

On Tuesday, Pakistan reacted angrily to its spy agency being dubbed a terrorist outfit saying it was being defamed internationally. "The ISI is a patriotic organisation which has a huge role in combating terrorism. Those who are trying to bring the ISI into disrepute would never succeed in their design," the country's interior minister Rehman Malik was quoted as saying, a day after WikiLeaks cables showed US investigators considered the ISI a terrorist group.