A terrorism trial set to begin in Chicago next week could end up further inflaming tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan. The case involves a man named Tahawwur Rana, who was arrested two years ago and charged with conspiring with others in the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India. Jury selection in his case begins Monday, but the question of Rana's guilt or innocence has taken a back seat to a bigger issue: Pakistan's role in the deadly attacks.
Ten Pakistani gunmen wielding semiautomatic weapons and grenades laid siege to Mumbai for three days. The television footage was unforgettable. The cameras caught flames rising from the roof of the more than 100-year-old Taj Mahal hotel; Indian policemen were filmed diving for cover; and the city's central train station was the scene of a bloody massacre. More than 160 people died, including six Americans.
The Rana case is about what happened leading up to that attack.
Prosecutors allege that Rana allowed a friend of his, a Pakistani-American named David Coleman Headley, to use Rana's immigration business as a cover for something sinister. Headley pretended to be a businessman working for Rana and flew to India to do reconnaissance ahead of the attacks — that part of the story isn't in dispute. Headley has already pleaded guilty to terrorism charges. Rana says he didn't know what Headley was planning.
What makes this case so sensitive is its timing: Just weeks after Osama bin Laden was found hiding in a Pakistani garrison town, Rana's trial is going to take Pakistan's shadowy ties to terrorist groups public.
"I can't remember a case in terms of either its substance or timing that has such potential grave political impact," said Juan Zarate, a terrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former member of the Bush administration. "In a very real way, you have the Pakistani intelligence services, and perhaps the military, on trial here for its potential complicity in the 2008 attacks — and that's in the wake of all the questions that have arisen about Pakistan complicity in harboring bin Laden. This is a volatile mix coming at a volatile time."
Rana's friend, Headley, the man who used his business as a cover, is going to be the prosecution's star witness.
Prosecutors say he's going to provide names and dates and details of phone calls. Documents made public before the trial suggest as much. People close to the case say Headley will implicate Pakistan's spy agency, the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence directly. He will talk about handlers, money and meetings that all lead back to the spy agency.
"I think people will be left wondering why the United States not looked closer at the ISI and everything that is going on in Pakistan," said Charles Swift, Rana's defense attorney.
A member of the ISI, a man known simply as Major Iqbal, was indicted as part of the Rana case late last month along with three members of Pakistan-based Lashkar e-Taiba, which the U.S. calls terrorist group.
There was no press release, no press conference and the story got scant coverage in the U.S. But the Indian press went wild.
"For the first time, America has confirmed what India has been saying all along. That the 10 men that came onto Mumbai shores were not acting alone, they were trained and tutored by the ISI," said the anchor of the Indian news channel TimesNow. "That the entire operation was monitored from Islamabad. We knew it."
Swift, the defense lawyer, says he expects the courtroom will be filled with Indian reporters, and now, in the wake of the bin Laden raid, the U.S. media is going to be there in force, too. All that attention might explain something prosecutors have just done: NPR has learned that a couple of days ago, they asked for a special hearing — something called a Section 6, SIPA hearing, in which the prosecution and the defense hash out what can be safely said in court without revealing classified information.
Calling a SIPA hearing this late in a case is an unusual maneuver. Those kinds of details are usually settled months in advance. Amid all the sturm und drang of the past two weeks, prosecutors may have had some second thoughts about what they want to reveal in court. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.