‘A Perfect Terrorist’ is a frightening account of the Mumbai terror attack

Courtesy of PBS

He looks out from archival pictures, and it’s hard not to have a shiver go up and down the spine. One eye is blue, the other dark. Sometimes he smiles, sometimes he looks serious. David Coleman Headley, one of the masterminds behind the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, is currently living a secluded life of imprisonment away from the public eye. But his devious plans of disrupting the world will never be forgotten.

A Perfect Terrorist: David Headley and the Attack on Mumbai is one of the strongest FRONTLINE / ProPublica pieces to come from the expansive PBS catalog. Currently available on DVD, the 60-minute program investigates how this man grew into a monster.

There are surprising wrinkles in the strange tale. For starters, Headley is an American citizen. His father was Pakistani and his mother a Westerner. He lived in a variety of places around the United States, including Chicago’s North Side and Manhattan’s Upper West Side. From the footage that is collected for the documentary, we’re led to believe he was a person who never shied away from society. Whether it was owning a video store in New York City or getting busted for smuggling heroin from Pakistan, Headley lived life and “enjoyed the game,” as one commentator says.

In the late 1990s, the man started moving toward radical Islam. And Sept. 11, 2001, only cemented his fervor. Eventually, he joined with Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani militant group associated with the country’s secretive intelligence agency (the ISI), and the training began. Within a few years, the American citizen found himself making key decisions in the eventual bombing at the world-famous Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai. Before the authorities could stop the slaughter, 166 people were killed, many of them shot in the head.

The Perfect Terrorist looks at Headley’s life from a journalist’s perspective. Sebastian Rotella, a reporter for FRONTLINE and ProPublica, follows the man’s journey from his upbringing to his eventual arrest and imprisonment. He unearths many difficult-to-understand details. Forget about the fact that Headley is an American citizen. What about the fact that he was a U.S. government informant for years? What about his constant giving up of information in order to protect his future prospects? What about his connections to al-Qaeda and a potential attack in Copenhagen? The facts, when stacked up in this documentary, are mind-boggling to behold. This man didn’t just slip through the cracks; he flew through them with ease.

Thankfully, the program isn’t just about the sensationalism of Headley’s story. After a visit to a synagogue that was targeted in Mumbai, the audience is able to put a real face on this horrific crimes. We hear a phone call from one of the orchestrators, and his commands are brutal: Shoot them in the head.

A Perfect Terrorist is unsettling and engrossing. Headley is a subject that needs to be examined. FRONTLINE and ProPublica provide a worthy investigation into the life of this violent man, and the lingering details will haunt viewers for days.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

  • A Perfect Terrorist: David Headley and the Attack on Mumbai

  • A FRONTLINE and ProPublica production on PBS

  • Written, produced and directed by Thomas Jennings

  • Featuring Sebastian Rotella

  • Running time: 60 minutes

  • Not Rated

  • Rating: ★★★★

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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