Two U.S. Terrorism Cases Have Ties To Pakistan

Originally published on May 16, 2011 7:59 pm

Two terrorism cases now winding their way through the federal court system have links to Pakistan: One involves a Chicago businessman who stands accused of helping plot the 2008 attacks on Mumbai, India. The other case is in Miami, where two local imams and several family members were charged with allegedly providing money and support to the Pakistani Taliban. Both cases come at a time when the U.S. relationship with Pakistan is under intense scrutiny.

Jury selection began Monday in Chicago for the case of Tahawwur Rana, a Pakistani-Canadian businessman. Prosecutors say Rana, 50, allowed a friend of his, David Coleman Headley, to use his immigration business as a cover so Headley could travel to India and scout targets for the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

That part of the case isn't in dispute. Headley has already pleaded guilty to the terrorism charges. Some of the places he identified during his trips to India were subsequently targeted by the 10 armed gunmen who had Mumbai under siege for three days at the end of 2008. More than 160 people died in those terrorist attacks, including six Americans. The American deaths are what give the U.S. jurisdiction in the case.

"It's a big deal in the sense that it is a part of the evolving revelations of something that we already knew: that at some level, Pakistan's spy agency, the ISI, was involved in Mumbai," said Christine Fair, a professor and terrorism expert at Georgetown University. "It was a big deal before Osama bin Laden was killed, but it is an even bigger deal now because in part there is so much frustration across the U.S. government with Pakistan. This is another opportunity to focus on alleged Pakistani perfidy."

Headley is a big reason the case is getting so much attention. To avoid the death penalty, he has agreed to testify against Rana. In pretrial releases it is clear he's going to say that the Pakistani spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, played a huge role in the Mumbai attacks. India has been saying as much for some time. This case threatens to provide more evidence of that. Headley has already said publicly that he had an ISI handler and spent the agency's money to help terrorists plot the Mumbai attacks. When he testifies in open court, he's expected to name names and dates and details of phone calls.

When prosecutors were putting together the case over the past year, those revelations appeared embarrassing for Pakistan, but not incendiary. Now, coming just weeks after Pakistan has had to explain how it didn't know bin Laden was hiding on its soil for five years, this case has taken on outsized proportions.

Officials say now that everyone is watching this case so carefully, it could have far broader implications. There is definitely some concern among U.S. officials that this could end up being a public airing of what looks like Pakistan's tendency to turn a blind eye to terrorism.

Miami Arrests

Pakistan loomed large in another case that came to light this weekend. The FBI arrested two imams in South Florida and charged them and four others with funneling money to the Pakistani Taliban, the terrorist group that, among other things, took responsibility for the failed car bombing in Times Square in May 2010.

One of the men in the docket is Hafiz Khan, 76, the imam at one of the oldest mosques in Miami. One of his sons, Izhar Khan, 24, an imam at a nearby mosque in Margate, Fla., was also arrested. Another son, Irfan, was arrested as well. Hafiz Khan's daughter, grandson and another man — all living in Pakistan — were also charged in the plot. The Khans are U.S. citizens, and officials were quick to say that their mosques were not suspected of wrongdoing. They appeared in federal court on Monday.

Prosecutors say the FBI has been investigating the Khans for three years. The bureau said it tracked money transfers and wiretapped conversations that led it to believe the Khans were funneling money to the terrorist group. There isn't a great deal of money involved. Since 2008, they allegedly sent about $50,000 to Pakistan, funds U.S. authorities say went to help the terrorist group buy guns and fund training. The Khans are expected to answer the charges next Monday, when they are scheduled to appear in court again. If convicted, they face 15 years in prison for each of the four counts listed in the indictment.

U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said suspicious activity reports from local banks triggered the investigation three years ago.

"This is based on the defendants' words, actions and records," Ferrer said at a news conference after the arrests on Saturday.

The Muslim community in South Florida has reacted with a mixture of shock and disbelief.

The FBI had been bracing for a huge backlash given that two imams in the community were arrested. Because of that concern, it went about these arrests particularly carefully. The bureau waited until after morning prayers on Saturday to arrest the men. Apparently the agents took off their shoes before entering the mosque, and didn't swarm the Muslims who were gathered there for prayer. Agents sat down with Muslim leaders in the community before the arrests went public and talked to them a little bit about the case.

Partly as a result, the reaction from the community has been measured. Community leaders said they would wait to see what evidence comes out in court.

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NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston is with us to discuss both cases. And, Dina, let's start with the trial in Chicago. Why is that an important case?


Well, so this friend of Rana's was a Pakistani-American named David Coleman Headley. And he's really why this case is getting so much attention because he's going to testify against Rana. And apparently he's going to say that the Pakistani spy agency, the ISI, played a huge role in these 2008 attacks.

SIEGEL: Meaning that Pakistan had a direct connection to a major terrorist plot against India and a real attack.

TEMPLE: And when prosecutors were putting together this case over the past year or so, you know, that was bad enough. But now, coming just weeks after Pakistan is having to explain why they didn't know Osama bin Laden was hiding out in their country for five years, you know, the timing can't be worse.

SIEGEL: Yeah, this can only make things look worse for Pakistan than they already do.

TEMPLE: Exactly. And the fact that people are watching this case now much more than they would have, it could have huge implications.

SIEGEL: Let's talk about the case in Miami now. This is the two imams who were arrested.

TEMPLE: The Khans had to appear in court today to talk about who would be representing them. And they'll be back in court on Monday and will likely answer the charges then and plead guilty or not guilty.

SIEGEL: And how have those arrests gone over in the Muslim community in South Florida?

TEMPLE: So - so far, anyway, the reaction from the community has been let's let these men have their day in court instead of focusing on perhaps the way they might feel that the FBI was unfairly targeting Muslims. So that's sort of a surprising development.

SIEGEL: OK. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston in New York. Thank you, Dina.

TEMPLE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.