Chicago/New Delhi: In a bid to escape death sentence and extradition to India, Pakistani American terror suspect David Headley pleaded guilty to a dozen federal terrorism charges and admitted his role in planning the horrific Mumbai terror attack. India did not see the plea bargain as a setback to its efforts to know the full story behind the Mumbai carnage, but many disagreed.
Headley, 49, pleaded guilty on Thursday to all 12 counts brought against him and accepted that he had attended training camps in Pakistan run by the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which masterminded the Mumbai carnage, on five occasions in 2002-05. He admitted visiting India to map the terror targets.
Prosecutors said that the son of a Pakistani father and American mother, whose real name was Daood Gilani, was instructed by three Lashkar members to go to India for surveillance that helped the 10 Pakistani terrorists who sneaked into Mumbai in November 2008 to go on a killing spree.
Headley appeared before US District Judge Harry Leinenweber in the Chicago Federal Court, dressed in an orange jump suit and with his hands and legs shackled. He also pleaded guilty to planning an attack on a Danish daily that published cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohammad.
On Thursday, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to bomb public places and to murder and maim people in India, aid and abet the murder of US citizens in India, and to give material support to Laskhar for terrorism in India.
Home Minister P. Chidambaram, who Thursday met US National Intelligence Director Dennis C. Blair and US envoy Timothy Roemer, said on Friday that the Headley plea bargain was not a setback and that India would seek access to him as well as possible extradition.
"Headley has agreed to fully and truthfully testify in any foreign judicial proceedings held in the US. We will continue to press for access to Headley in that he will testify in a court or subject himself to interrogation," Chidambaram said after a cabinet meeting.
He underlined that India had "already been given significant amount of information" on Headley's role in the Mumbai attack that lasted three days and left 166 Indians and foreigners dead.
"Access will give us an opportunity to get more information. Headley has agreed to testify and there is a good chance he will testify in proceedings when Indian authorities get to examine him either in court or through video-conferencing or through a letter rogatory. We have not given up our plea for extradition," Chidambaram said.
Some experts believe there is enough sting in his plea agreement to ensure that Headley is available to Indian investigators looking into the larger conspiracy related to the overall planning of the Mumbai attacks.
The 36-page plea agreement enlists the conditions for cooperation. It requires Headley to "fully and truthfully cooperate in any manner in which he is called upon to cooperate" by a representative of the US Attorney's Office for the Northern District of Illinois.
Although Headley's attorney John Theis did not directly answer a question whether Indian investigators would be able to directly interrogate him, there is enough room in the agreement to satisfy Delhi's misgivings though it has to be done inside the US.
Informal conversations with those in the know suggest that there are pretty good chances that Indian investigators will be able to obtain their answers from Headley in a manner that satisfies their needs.
But terrorism expert Ajay Sahni expressed misgivings, saying Indian investigators had lost a good chance to get information about Mumbai since 'his extradition is impossible now'.
Headley's plea bargain with prosecutors in a Chicago court means he will not be extradited to India, Denmark or Pakistan.
Former Intelligence Bureau chief Ajit Doval agreed with Sahni.
"It seems the US didn't cooperate with India as much as India would have wanted to. Now, India has lost the opportunity to get relevant information from Headley who ... played a crucial role in the Mumbai attack."
Sahni added that the plea bargain strengthened the belief that Headley was an American agent who turned rogue and joined terrorists.
But Americans say there is nothing to credibly back that claim. A DEA official described the assertion as 'absurd'.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took on the Congress-led government over the plea bargain that effectively shuts out Headley's extradition to India where he could have been questioned harshly.
"Instead of expressing major concern, the Indian government is trying to rationalise the US position (on Headley)," BJP spokesman Rajiv Pratap Rudy said. "The BJP will accept nothing short of (his) extradition."
Headley and his close associate Tahawur Hussain Rana, who is also in a US prison, were arrested in October in Chicago. They had both pleaded not guilty to charges of plotting attacks against India and Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper whose cartoons provoked outrage across the Muslim world.
Indian authorities had wanted access but were denied the chance to quiz Headley who had toured India extensively in the run up to the Mumbai orgy. Chidambaram said Headley would be charged in India 'at the appropriate time'.