By Dinesh Sharma
June 16, 2011
While American media were apoplectic over "Weiner-Gate", a global terrorism trial came to an end in Chicago.
Americans shocked by congressman Anthony Weiner's aberrant behavior, namely, the leakage of his private self
represented as tweets in the public square, may not have fully paid attention to the mind of a terrorist.
There is a common element between the aberrant and the deranged - dissociation. In the age of Twitter, where no
private transgression can remain hidden for very long, we can venture to make the linkage between the private and
the public, the individual and the collective, and perhaps better understand the psychology of terrorism.
In the age of social media, privacy as we knew it is a thing of the
past; almost everything that we define as personal can now be accessed in the public domain.
In the past week, those concerned with homegrown terrorism were shocked to learn about the tightly
compartmentalized - complex, multiple and divided - chambers inside the mind of a Pakistani-American terrorist,
David Coleman Headley, who managed to penetrate and dupe intelligence authorities across many cultural and
When United States Federal authorities finally nabbed him in October 2009, they released a complaint against him
and his alleged accomplice, Tahawwur Hussain Rana, for plotting attacks against a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-
Posten, over the printing an inflammatory caricature.
In December 2009, the Federal Bureau of Investigation also accused Headley of planning the massive 2008 Mumbai
attacks in India in which 164 people were killed; of providing material support to a terrorist group, Lashkar-e-
Tayyiba (LeT), and aiding in the murder of American citizens.
Headley, who pleaded guilty to 12 counts, faces life in prison and a hefty fine. He has in turn fingered his
friend Rana for a role in the Mumbai attacks. Headley cut a plea deal to avoid extradition to India, Denmark or
Pakistan and not to face the death penalty. The trial that concluded on June 9 found Rana guilty on two counts of
plotting against the Danish newspaper and aiding the LeT, but did not find complicity in the planning of the
In addition to confirming the now well-publicized role of Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) in the
planning of the Mumbai attacks, the trial of Headley brought to light the "multiple personalities" or
"dissociative identities" of a home-grown terrorist, offering an object lesson to psychologists and security
experts alike. His complicated story has already generated a documentary; it might even be ideal for a HBO
A quick glance at Headley's profile reveals the presence of deep fissures, splits or dissociations in his
personality profile at different phases of his life. Not surprisingly, Headley was indeed diagnosed with a
multiple personality disorder (MPD) in 1992, so I learned while trying to confirm my clinical hypothesis. However,
the circumstances surrounding his illness and diagnosis remain murky.
He was known as Daood Sayed Gilani in the Pakistani-American community of New York, Chicago and Philadelphia as
well as in his ancestral homeland of Pakistan. Before turning into a terrorist, in the 1980s and 1990s Headley was
a small-business owner running mostly bars and video rental stores. In 2001, to absolve himself of multiple drug
charges for smuggling heroin from Pakistan, he became an informant for the Drug Enforcement Authority (DEA).
While conducting undercover surveillance for the DEA, Headley started to make contacts deep within LeT during 2002
and 2003. "He just turns around immediately and betrays everybody when it's convenient for him," says one
After repeat visits with the LeT, one of the more effective step-children of the ISI, he began to assume
responsibility for the execution of the 2008 Mumbai attacks and other terrorist activities. "A dream come true for
LeT," according to another security analyst. In Headley, the LeT found "the perfect terrorist", an American guy
with money, a US passport and the ability go in and out of the country without any suspicions or interrogations.
In 2006, Headley dropped his Islamic name, adopted an American identity and his mother's surname to hide his
Pakistani-Muslim contacts and make travel to India easier. At the time, even his close friends and associates
could not have imagined what he was planning. "David Headley is insane ... no person with a brain could do these
things," said Rana's wife.
The clinical diagnosis of MPD is not easily obtained or simply doled out; it constitutes a rare psychopathological
condition in the general population. But in the case of this Pakistani-American jihadi, who was born in 1960 in
Washington DC, not too far from the steps of the Capitol, it seems to fit.
In 1992 and during other stressful life-transitions, Headley may have displayed the full-blown markers of MPD as
outlined in the diagnostic and statistical manual of the American Psychiatric Association (APA):
Disruption of identity characterized by two or more distinct personality states, one rooted in Pakistan and the
other in America.
Dissociation of important personal information from everyday events as a result of living two or more separate
Significant distress and impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning.
Headley's different personalities were not seen as a "normal" part of a broadly accepted cultural framework.
Developmentally, the divided lives of Headley may have begun at the beginning. He is the son of a Pakistani
diplomat, Sayed Salim Gilani, and an American mother, Serill Headley, both of whom were employed at the Pakistani
Embassy in Washington at the time of his birth.
Headley spent part of his childhood at an elite preparatory school for the military, Cadet College Hasan Abdal in
Punjab province, after his father divorced and moved the family back to Pakistan. Raised as a devout Muslim, at
this school he may have received a strong dose of radicalization. He met his childhood friend and later apparent
accomplice, Rana, at the military academy and the two became life-long friends and business associates.
The Islamic world of his father would crash head-on with the secular lifestyle his mother offered him in the US.
In 1977, at the age of 17 due to the changing political climate in Pakistan, Headley's American mother moved him
to Philadelphia where she ran a bar called the Khyber Pass.
During turbulent teenage years, while experimenting with American values Headley began to show signs of fanaticism
by rebelling against his mother's open or "libertine" choices and professed to dislike all non-Muslims.
Headley himself could not have imagined that his hatred was so deep-seated that it would propel him so far along
the path of jihad. He managed to infiltrate the ISI, the LeT, the DEA and dodge the Indian security forces by
assuming different disguises, just as he courted and divorced a string of women in the US and Pakistan.
"Most people have contradictions in their lives, but they learn to reconcile them," William Headley, Headley's
uncle told a reporter, "But Daood could never do that. The left side does not speak to the right side."
Headley's fanaticism, rooted in a sickness, seems hidden and tucked away in the compartments of his deranged mind.
Its low-grade variant may be found at much reduced frequency and wavelength among those who live with divided
loyalties across different cultural and national boundaries.
This type of homegrown anti-Americanism may be more virulent than we think, much more dangerous than the salacious
tweets sent from a US congressman's personal blackberry.
Dinesh Sharma is author of Barack Obama in Hawaii and Indonesia: The Making of a Global President (ABC-