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In this courtroom sketch, Chicago businessman Tahawwur Rana is shown in federal court as the prosecutor makes an opening argument Monday, May 23, 2011, in Chicago.Tom Gianni/AP

The Pakistan-based masterminds of the Mumbai massacre frequently told their most prized operative to go easy with the praying.

"I was told to prostrate lightly," admitted terrorist David Headley told a Chicago court Monday, in the first day of testimony keenly anticipated around the globe.

He was explaining how his masters - fundamentalist fighters and spymasters in Pakistan - felt that a single prayer bump on his forehead could blow the meticulous conspiracy to sneak terrorists into India.

A middle-aged man born in Philadelphia, Mr. Headley was the linchpin of a 2008 plot that's been called India's 9/11 - when terrorists gunned down 160 people in the country's largest city, Mumbai.

He is now testifying against Pakistani-Canadian Tahawwur Rana, who is charged with conspiracy to provide material support to terrorism in the Mumbai attacks.

The trial of Mr. Rana, who claims he was working for Pakistan's spy agency, will be the first American legal proceeding to publicly probe the inner workings of the secretive service and is a window on U.S.-Pakistani relations.

Speaking without emotion, Mr. Headley described networks of Pakistani agents sponsoring terrorism. He even said he had met some agents who were interested in scoping out Indian nuclear power plants and still others who were not interested in securing the Afghan border at Tora Bora when Osama bin Laden was fleeing U.S. forces.

Through another lens, though, this prosecution is about friends and betrayal.

Part of the terms of a plea deal Mr. Headley signed is that he will give public testimony against alleged co-conspirators, in order to be spared the death penalty.

Mr. Headley surfaced from custody this week to give testimony against Mr. Rana, his boyhood pal from Pakistan who is accused of helping lay the groundwork for the attacks.

Colin Freeze in Chicago

The two men attended the same Pakistani military boarding school. A star student, Mr. Rana grew up to become an army doctor. Mr. Headley, the child of an American mother and a Pakistani father, flunked out. An abiding friendship nevertheless persisted, even as they changed countries and careers. They reunited in Chicago in the early 2000s, where Mr. Rana was self-employed as an immigration consultant.

In 2006, Mr. Headley said, he approached to say he needed an old friend's help. "I asked if he would allow us to use his office as a front. … He agreed," Mr. Headley told the court.

The prosecution's star witness says he told his Canadian friend that he had been secretly training with a jihadist group, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), since 2000. What had started with Koranic study, Mr. Headley testified, evolved into courses in spy techniques, weaponry and even commando-style paramilitary raids.

Mr. Headley said the LeT experience opened doors for him to meet a "Major Iqbal," who was said to be a serving member of Pakistan's spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate.

Mr. Headley said there was no practical distinction between the instructions from his LeT handler and ISI handler. They were scheming together to get agents into Mumbai, he testified, and Mr. Headley was to be their eyes and ears on the ground.

While Mr. Headley could look the part of an American tourist, he didn't have the papers. His Pakistani background would surely red-flag him. He needed Mr. Rana's immigration experience to disguise his background and intent.

"I explained to him I had been drafted, as it were, by the ISI. … But I still had contacts with Lashkar," he testified.

Mr. Headley spent a couple of years in Mumbai as the titular "South Asian regional director" for Mr. Rana's Chicago immigration consultancy, though he says he never actually got a single Indian client a visa.

He was too busy in Mumbai videotaping the Taj and Oberoi luxury hotels, transit stations and the city's harbour, he testified.

In November, 2008, 10 young Pakistan gunmen from the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist group attacked in Mumbai, landing in the harbour, storming the predetermined targets and seeking out Westerners as they killed scores of civilians. Nine of the gunmen were killed; one survived and is in custody.

The trial continues.