Only a handful of witnesses are left to testify in the trial of a Chicago businessman accused in the 2008 Mumbai attacks as questions linger about the reported death of a fugitive defendant also charged in the high-profile terrorism case.
Tahawwur Rana, the businessman, is accused of providing cover for longtime friend David Coleman Headley, who laid the groundwork for the rampage on India's largest city. Headley has pleaded guilty and was the government's star witness, spending five days on the stand detailing how he worked with both Pakistani intelligence and a militant group as he scoped sites ahead of the attacks.
Six others are charged in absentia, including Ilyas Kashmiri who was reportedly killed Friday in a U.S. missile strike and was believed to be al-Qaida's military operations chief in Pakistan. Rana is the only one on trial.
It wasn't immediately clear if Kashmiri's reported death would affect the trial, which has been closely watched in the wake of the May 2 killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. forces in Pakistan and amid suspicions that the country's government may have known or helped hide the former al-Qaida leader. Pakistan has denied the allegations.
Federal prosecutors _ who called seven witnesses last week to bolster Headley's testimony _ had one witness left Monday. Defense attorneys said their witnesses included a computer expert and immigration attorney. Closing arguments were expected Tuesday.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago, Randall Samborn, declined to comment.
Headley testified about working for both the Pakistani intelligence agency known by the acronym ISI and Lashkar-e-Taiba, a militant group that took credit for the Mumbai rampage. Headley also testified about being in communication with Kashmiri over a plot to attack a Danish newspaper that in 2005 published cartoons of Prophet Muhammad.
Headley's testimony revealed that Kashmiri, leader of a Pakistani terrorist group called Harakat-ul-Jihad al-Islami, had wanted to attack U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin because he was angry over the U.S. drone attacks inside Pakistan.
Some experts said that regardless of the effect on the court proceedings, Kashmiri's reported death could help mend relations between the Pakistan and the U.S., especially at a tenuous time for the ISI. Most recently, suspicions have surfaced that the military-run agency killed a Pakistani journalist who told friends he'd been threatened by intelligence agents. The ISI took the unusual step of publicly denying the charge.
"Both sides could agree he (Kashmiri) was a dangerous actor," said Stephen Tankel, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "It may act as a confidence building measure for Pakistani and U.S. intelligence, who agreed that this was someone they wanted to go after."
Pakistani officials said Sunday that they were nearly certain the strike killed Kashmiri but that verifying the dead in drone strikes is difficult. Initial reports have turned out to be wrong before, including one in September 2009 that said Kashmiri had been killed.
Others charged in the case include an ISI member known only as "Major Iqbal" and Headley's Lashkar handler Sajid Mir.
Rana, a Pakistani-born Canadian, has pleaded not guilty to assisting Headley as he carried out surveillance for the Mumbai attacks and the planned attack on the Danish newspaper.
Headley and Rana met as teens at a Pakistani boarding school.
Defense attorneys have tried to paint Headley's testimony as unreliable and have hammered on how Headley initially lied to the FBI as he cooperated, lied to a judge and even lied to his own family. They claim he implicated Rana in the plot because he wanted to make a deal with prosecutors. Headley's cooperation means he avoids the death penalty and extradition.
Still, experts have said that the U.S. government has a high level of confidence in his testimony and noted that he was their first witness.
Sophia Tareen can be reached at http://twitter.com/sophiatareen