Federal Prosecutors in Chicago have filed a document in District Court, illustrating the narrow dance they performed with David Coleman Headley, a Rogers Park resident accused of performing critical surveillance in advance of the November 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, India in which scores of civilians were brutally murdered.
In their filing, prosecutors Daniel Collins and Sarah Streicker concede the important role Headley played and the joy he took in the successful outcome of his deeds. But at the same time, they asked for leniency in Headley’s sentencing, scheduled for Thursday, advising the judge that he provided critical information which aided in the conviction of co-defendant Tahawwur Rana, as well as charges against seven other individuals.
"Headley played a supporting role to the attacks but an essential one," the prosecutors said, admitting that the planning he facilitated for two years in Mumbai, "unquestionably contributed to the mass murder that took place."
"Headley worked to advance the violent goals of terrorist organizations for approximately seven years," they said. "The death toll from the Mumbai attacks was staggering."
Investigators said Headley had lived in India for two years, from 2006 to 2008, performing critical surveillance of numerous targets, including the Taj Mahal and Oberai hotels, as well as the Chabad House, Leopold Café, and the main rail station in Mumbai, all of which were attacked with massive civilian casualties.
More than 160 men, women, and children died during the three day assault. Hundreds more were wounded.
Within months of the Mumbai attacks, Headley accepted an assignment from terror mastermind Ilyas Kashmiri to perform similar surveillance on a Copenhagen newspaper which had published cartoons critical of the prophet Mohammed.
"The plan was to take over the newspaper building and fight to the death," prosecutors wrote in their filing with Federal Judge Harry Leinenwebber. They said Kashmiri "wanted the attackers to behead the hostages and throw the heads on the street in order to heighten the response from Danish authorities."
That attack never happened. But the Mumbai attacks were especially terrifying in their scope. Six Americans died in the assault, and the prosecutors admitted Headley was "pleased by the attacks."
Survivor Andreina Varagona wrote of her experience in the lobby of the Oberai Hotel, watching as her friend, Alan Scherr, and his 13-year-old daughter, Naomi, were killed.
"Two gunmen came running into the packed restaurant, bullets flying," she said. "I remember hearing screams, and saw all of us sitting there, frozen with fear."
Varagona said she shouted for her friends to dive under the table.
"Naomi was so scared, she just kept screaming and screaming. Her dad Alan was desperately trying to calm her," she wrote.
"We have to play dead," Varagona said. "But as I reached up to grab Alan’s neck, I suddenly felt the warm spray of blood on my face and in my hair. Naomi’s screams had stopped too. They’d both been shot dead."
Even though Headley had been a ruthless participant in the planning for the attacks, prosecutors advised the judge of his almost limitless cooperation, noting that he had aided investigators, even though he was advised early on he faced charges that carried the death penalty in the United States. They said he spoke with federal agents for two weeks before his arrest even became public and provided critical information about the masterminds of the attack.
Headley met with Indian investigators for an additional seven days and pled guilty to all 12 charges in the indictment. In exchange, the government agreed not to seek the death penalty and not to extradite him to Pakistan, India, or Denmark.
"While there is no question that his criminal conduct was deplorable," they wrote, "his decision to cooperate, and the uniquely significant value that cooperation has provided to the government’s efforts to combat terrorism, support the government’s recommendation."
Prosecutors have asked for a downward departure from the life sentence Headley faces to a sentence of 30 to 35 years.