CHICAGO — When the authorities arrested David C. Headley, the man who has since confessed to helping plot the 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai, India, they confiscated two items essential to the plans for his next plot: a book titled “How to Pray Like a Jew” and a lemon-yellow notepad.
In hours of testimony last week that provided a rare look at the clandestine world of Islamic extremists, Mr. Headley said he acquired the book because the target of his surveillance — the editor of a newspaper that had published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad — was Jewish. So to get close to the target, Mr. Headley was preparing to visit a synagogue.
And he kept a notepad for reasons familiar to anyone who travels a lot, including to-do lists with reminders to buy maps and to check where to go for decent lodging and food.
Naturally, a terrorist’s to-do list reads differently than a tourist’s. Mr. Headley, for example, included coded items like “magic eye,” so he would not forget to check whether a target area was covered by security cameras, and “mixed fruit dish,” which was his way of contemplating whether a particular attack would involve a car bomb or gunfire, or both.
The fact that Mr. Headley kept such lists at all went at least a little way toward demystifying the groups that have tied the world in knots since Sept. 11, 2011.
Bruce O. Riedel, an expert on Islamic militant groups at the Brookings Institution and a former Central Intelligence Agency officer, said the public has had almost no opportunity to hear actual terrorists talk at length and in perfect English about terrorism since 9/11.
Mr. Headley, the son of a Pakistani diplomat and a Philadelphia socialite, spoke almost nonstop for four days in federal court here in the trial of a Chicago businessman, Tahawwur Rana, who is accused of supporting the attacks on Mumbai, the city formerly known as Bombay.
Journalists from around the world have parsed Mr. Headley’s every word for evidence of geopolitical significance. And, to be sure, there has been plenty of that, including comments about Mr. Headley’s work as an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration and as a spy for Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate while he was training with terrorists.
There have also been chilling moments involving everyday details, like Mr. Headley’s description of a simple text message he received on Nov. 26: “Turn on your television.” He spent the next three days glued to it, watching the siege in Mumbai that he had helped to plan take the lives of at least 163 people, including six Americans.
When a prosecutor, Daniel Collins, asked Mr. Headley how the scenes made him feel, he said dryly, “I was pleased.”
It was perhaps more surprising to hear Mr. Headley describe, in his low monotone, the day-to-day life of a terrorist. There were months of guerrilla training and lots of secret meetings in remote corners of Pakistan’s tribal areas. But more of it seems to have involved mundane tasks like monitoring myriad e-mail accounts — Mr. Headley alternated for a time between firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
He also talked of establishing a believable cover complete with offices and business cards, getting the proper documents for travel and getting to know every nook and cranny of a location to be attacked, largely by filming hours of video so the terrorists back home could be familiar with those places as well.
“At the end of the day, terrorists and spies have to have to-do lists just like housewives — otherwise they’d forget something,” Mr. Riedel, the former C.I. A. officer, said. “But generally you’re supposed to destroy them.”
In other words, the lists are not supposed to ever end up, as Mr. Headley’s have, in court.
Those watching the trial have learned that a man who is considered one of the most dangerous terrorists in the world, Ilyas Kashmiri, speaks with a lisp. They have heard that a couple of months before the attacks on Mumbai, militants made two other attempts to carry out the plot, including one when the boat carrying Pakistani gunmen ran into rocks and sank.
And they were reminded that not all Muslims — any more than all Christians — share exactly the same beliefs, when the defense lawyer, Charles Swift, explained that members of the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which led the Mumbai assault, consider themselves part of a fundamentalist sect of Islam called Salafism, but that not all Salafis are members of Lashkar.
Terrorists seem to be taking full advantage of modern technology. Mr. Headley plotted coordinates for the Mumbai attacks on a GPS device, and his videos of the Taj Hotel in Mumbai were so good that the attackers were able to build a detailed mock-up of it to use in rehearsals.
Still, there seems something distinctly retro about the terrorists’ code words. According to Mr. Headley’s testimony, “making investments,” for example, means planning an attack; taking a “stronghold position” refers to fighting to the death.
And someone who has “gotten married” has been killed. It is a term that Mr. Headley may have come up with himself, since he has been married three times, and his plotting was nearly discovered when two of his wives separately reported him to the authorities.
Deception seemed to define Mr. Headley’s life. He told so many lies to so many people, it is no wonder he kept to-do lists. Another one that was introduced in court last week showed Mr. Headley trying to juggle a busy, somewhat conflicting schedule that involved doing just enough to keep up his cover as an American immigration consultant in India while simultaneously shutting down the office he had opened there in the final months before the attacks.
The list had vague notes about checking on visas for Indian nurses and the phone number of another prospective guest worker interested in a hospitality course.
At the top of the list was a note reminding Mr. Headley to call a good friend who was planning to visit Mumbai in November 2008, when the attacks took place.
The note was straightforward. It listed the friend’s name and the words, “Don’t come.”
Terrorist vs Tourist
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