The National Investigation Agency is pulling out all stops to lay its hands on Tahawwur Rana, a key accused in the 26/11 terror attacks, before 2024 which can be a feather in the cap of the BJP government ahead of Lok Sabha polls, as he will be the first key conspirator of the Mumbai attacks to be extradited to India. After the US district court in Los Angeles approved Rana’s extradition, the central counter-terror agency is treading carefully to examine all possibilities of bringing him back- including a possible delay that may be caused if Rana goes to appeal in a higher court.
There are at least two stages of appeal in a higher court (circuit court in the US) that are available to Rana and it is likely he will exhaust his options before he is extradited on the orders of the US Secretary of State, security sources said.
Even if Rana does not avail his legal options, his extradition proceedings are unlikely to complete before October and could spill over to next year as well. In case Rana goes for appeal, it may take another year or more for him to exhaust his legal options.
What is working in favour of the Indian government is the fact that Rana’s extradition case is being fought by the US authorities on its behalf, which is rare, particularly in extradition matters related to another country. The fact that the US is supporting India’s stance on bringing the 26/11 perpetrators to book is reassurance for investigators who believe that Rana, who is Pakistani by birth and a Canadian citizen, will not be given shelter in the US. “Unlike David Coleman Headley, a US citizen, who recceed the 26/11 targets and used Rana as a cover, the Americans are not interested in keeping him(Rana) on its soil,’’ said an official.
Rana was arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 14 years imprisonment in 2013 by a US federal court for providing material support to Lashkar-e-Taiba which executed the attacks.
As Rana’s days in the United States are numbered, the NIA is keen to jump on the opportunity to bring him back at the earliest and not allow him to return to Canada. If Rana completes his sentence and returns to Canada without being extradited to India, New Delhi may have to pursue the matter afresh with Canadian authorities.
The key is a quick extradition from the US. Based on these legal tangles, the NIA is examining what could be the contours of delay, whether it can be resolved or does it need diplomatic intervention at the highest level with the Biden administration. These are issues being discussed among various stakeholders before Prime Minister Narendra Modi embarks on his visit to the US.
If the extradition comes through, Rana can spill beans on the key conspirators hiding in Pakistan like Lashkar patron Hafiz Saeed, “project manager” of the attack Sajid Mir and Lashkar commander Zaki ur Rehman Lakhvi among others. The fact that the main conspirators are in Pakistan, NIA’s best bet is Rana, as none of the other main accused are likely to be brought to justice in the biggest case of terrorism in recent times.
The NIA has travelled to Chicago to meet its counterparts earlier and pursue the extradition. Sources said the US law enforcement officers have been extremely cooperative and discerning to New Delhi’s concerns around Rana’s role and the trial and have approached the extradition case on their behalf in a strong manner.
It may be recalled that Headley has entered a plea bargain with the US authorities to escape extradition and heavy punishment, but Rana enjoys no such immunity. Rana’s role in the 26/11 conspiracy was first revealed when details of his First World office in Mumbai was spilled out in Headley’s confessions in the US. It was in June 2006 Headley visited Chicago to obtain Rana’s approval for opening an immigration office called First World in Mumbai. Rana owned and controlled the offices of First World, which also had set-ups in New York and Toronto in Canada. Rana then directed an individual associated with First World to prepare documents to support Headley's plan.
The 26/11 probe in the US court revealed that top Lashkar commanders Sajid Mir and Major Iqbal gave monetary assistance to the tune of $25,000 to Headley to operate the Mumbai office of First World among others and later in 2008 suggested closing it down and provide an alternate cover for Headley. Rana’s role becomes key as he conspired with Headley at the behest of Pakistani spy agency ISI to recce the targets and provide maps and coordinates to ISI and LeT to carry out the attacks.