With the arrest of Sayed Zabiuddin Ansari alias Abu Jundal, one of the alleged dispatchers at the Karachi control room directing the nine November, 26, 2008 Mumbai attackers, we now have in custody all three key players. The other two being Ajmal Kasab, the lone surviving gunman from that day of the carnage, and David Coleman Headley, a key reconnaissance man and plotter.
Essentially the planning-dispatching-executing circle is complete with Jundal, an Indian national who allegedly became an important player within the terrorist outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba, now revealing details of the plot to the Indian authorities.
While Kasab is sentenced to death, Headley, who pleaded guilty to all 12 counts, is awaiting formal sentencing. Both the death penalty and extradition to India were taken off the table by the US prosecutors as part of a plea bargain with Headley in exchange for a guilty plea and full cooperation.
Jundal’s arrest on June 21 after his reportedly difficult extradition from Saudi Arabia has reinvigorated India’s case that the Mumbai terrorist attacks could not have happened without some sort of state involvement in Pakistan. The country’s Home Minister P. Chidambaram has been specifically quoted as saying that the control room used to direct the attackers “could not have been established without some kind of state support."
Chidambaram has also said that Lashkar chief Hafiz Saeed, who carries a US bounty of $10 million now, was also likely present in the control room at the time of the attacks.
The 30-year-old Jundal hails from Beed district in the state of Maharashtra in western India and could become an important source for New Delhi as it goes about reviving its assertion that the Mumbai attacks were more than just an operation carried out by the Lashkar.
It is in this context that Chidambaram is once again asking the United States to extradite Headley. He has said India will discuss the matter with the US. This is notwithstanding the fact that Headley was given a no extradition commitment as part of his plea bargain.
I have been trying for months to get some specifics from the US government here in Chicago whether there would be any circumstances under which that deal with Headley may be revoked to clear the way for his extradition. My sense from the very little information I have is that it is unlikely to happen. Perhaps as a compromise the US may allow Indian investigators to question Headley one more time. This is my educated guess which has no basis in any official indication. My general sense from talking to US prosecutors has been that Headley has lived up to his commitment of full cooperation that would ensure that he is not extradited.
Is it possible that larger bilateral relations between India and the US could weigh on the strictly legal aspect of the case and indeed lead to the revocation of the deal with Headley? I suppose it is. However, as of now I have no reason to believe that Jundal’s arrest would add extra urgency to that process.
Since Headley’s conviction stems from the killings of six US citizens who were among those who died in Mumbai, not to mention the fact that he is a US citizen himself, it would be extraordinary if he was indeed extradited to India. The deaths of the American citizens give the US primacy over Headley’s fate.
Chidambaram has also been quoted as saying that he is confident that Headley would receive a long sentence. However, on March 18, 2010, in an official release the US department of Justice had said, “Regarding sentencing, which will be deferred until after the conclusion of Headley’s cooperation, the plea agreement calculates an anticipated advisory sentencing guideline of life imprisonment. Provided that Headley continues to provide full and truthful cooperation, the government will ask the court to grant an unspecified departure from the sentencing guidelines which will be solely up to the court to decide.”
“An unspecified departure from the sentencing” is legalese for some leniency in exchange for his cooperation. So Chidambaram’s confidence could turn out to be misplaced. At the time of the trial I kept hearing at least 15 to 25 years as the likely quantum but then who knows?