Last year, Indian and U.S. investigators came upon a rare promising lead in an internationally sensitive case: the 2008 attacks on Mumbai that killed 166 people and implicated Pakistan's spy agency in terrorism.
Despite Interpol warrants and diplomatic pressure, Pakistan had refused to hand over accused plotters, including an officer of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) and chiefs of the Lashkar-i-Taiba militant group. But investigators learned that a wanted suspect had traveled from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia.
The suspect, Zabiuddin Ansari, an Indian militant, was a potential investigative gold mine. During the Mumbai attacks, intercepts recorded him talking to the gunmen from the Pakistani command post where Lashkar chiefs directed the slaughter by phone, Indian and U.S. counterterror officials say.
Ansari made the mistake of using an email address in Saudi Arabia that was known to those hunting him, officials say. Investigators tracked him and alerted Saudi police, who arrested him in May 2011. Diplomatic wrangling ensued. Finally, DNA evidence from India and pressure from Washington resulted in Ansari's deportation to New Delhi in June, officials say.
Now, after weeks of interrogation, Ansari's statements to Indian police have reinforced evidence of the ISI's role in a terror plot that targeted Americans at the same time Pakistan was receiving billions of dollars in U.S. aid, officials have told ProPublica. Previous disclosures in U.S. and Indian courts about the spy agency's links to the Mumbai attacks, which killed six Americans, contributed to a dramatic decline in U.S.-Pakistani relations over the past two and a half years.
On Nov. 26, 2008, attackers opened fire at locations across the city, many frequented by foreigners. The targets were the Taj Mahal and Oberoi Trident hotels, the popular Leopold Cafe, a train station and a Jewish center. Some gunmen took hostages and held off Indian forces for nearly three days.
Ansari has admitted to being in the Pakistani command post and assisting the telephone handlers who oversaw the rampage in India, according to Indian and U.S. counterterror officials. His statements give investigators the first account of an insider at the Karachi command post.
"It's important that he was in the room," said Stephen Tankel, a professor at American University and author of "Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba." "He can speak to who else was in the room. And from India's perspective, the most important issue is the involvement of ISI officers in the plot and whether Ansari can confirm that."
Ansari's emergence has generated intrigue and confusion that are typical of the labyrinthine Mumbai case. His arrival from Riyadh on June 21 caused a flurry of media coverage in India. Headlines described him as a "key handler" and "mastermind" of the plot. A prosecutor referred to Ansari as a "prime key conspirator" during a court hearing last month, according to media reports.
Nonetheless, Indian and U.S. counterterror officials with knowledge of the case have told ProPublica that Ansari is not a senior figure. The reality is less spectacular and more complex. His significance rests largely on knowledge gained as a trusted Indian member of Lashkar, which has worked closely with the ISI in a self-described holy war against India, according to officials and experts.
"He was one of the more important Indians in the organization," Tankel said. "They have taken an important figure off the battlefield, but by no means an irreplaceable one."
Hours before the Mumbai attack began, Ansari saw Major Samir Ali of the ISI meet with the terrorist plotters at the Lashkar safe house where the command post was located, according to his statement as described by officials. Ansari also said that an ISI officer known as Colonel Hamza helped him travel to Saudi Arabia to recruit fellow Indian Muslims and move funds for Lashkar, officials say.
Major Ali and Colonel Hamza had been previously identified by a star witness: David Coleman Headley, a Pakistani-American who pleaded guilty to doing reconnaissance for the Mumbai attacks and for a plot in Denmark. Headley testified that the officers helped train him and direct his activity as an ISI agent along with his handler, known only as Major Iqbal.