August Issue 2005
The Pakistan Connection
By Massoud Ansari | News & Politics | Published 18 years ago
All roads in the investigations aimed at tracking down the perpetrators and masterminds of the 7/7 bombings in London seem to lead to Pakistan. Once again charges are being levelled against Pakistan for being an “incubator” in which Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants continue to flourish or regroup, and from where they guide their sleeper cells across the world.
Following the London attacks, the Pakistan government came under immense pressure when information emerged that not only had three of the four alleged suicide bombers visited Pakistan at various times, reportedly to “seek guidance” from local “terror gurus,” but also that at least two of the masterminds of the attacks, wanted by the British authorities, were likely to be hiding in Pakistan.
The pressure mounted further when an uncle of one of the alleged suicide bombers disclosed in several media interviews, that his nephew Hasib Hussain had attended one of Pakistan’s religious seminaries for three months, where he was probably ‘indoctrinated.’
Investigations reveal that Mohammed Siddiq Khan, the Edgware Road bomber, and Shehzad Tanweer, who allegedly blew himself and seven others up at Aldgate, were in Pakistan between November 19, 2004 and February 8 this year.
The data retrieved from the sophisticated PISCES system, installed at all Pakistani airports with the help of the FBI post-9/11 to record the arrival and departures of passengers to and from Pakistan, shows the two alleged suicide bombers — a clean-shaven Shehzad Tanweer, and bearded Mohammed Siddiq Khan — looking straight into the camera at the time of their arrival in two separate pictures. Looking visibly tired, both men are wearing white T-shirts and identical jackets.
According to official information made available to Newsline, Mohammed Siddiq Khan, who was born on October 20, 1974, and held a British passport (number 040169095) arrived in Karachi on a Turkish Airline flight, TK-1056, which landed at about 3.30 pm on November 19, 2004. Khan’s photograph was taken at the immigration counter at Jinnah terminal at about 3.59 pm.
Shehzad Tanweer, born on December 12, 1982 and bearing British passport No. 453897014, arrived by the same flight. Both Tanweer and Siddiq left together for London on February 8, 2005, once again via a Turkish Airline flight, TK-1056. In one picture taken at the time of their departure, both of them are seen standing together. Apparently they had submitted their passports together at the same counter.
While the alleged bombers’ ‘Pakistan connection’ has created an international media frenzy, Pakistani officials refuse to attach too much importance to the men’s trip to the country. They argue that all three alleged suicide bombers were born and bred in Britain, and it is unreasonable to claim they could have been brainwashed into becoming suicide bombers in the few months they spent in Pakistan.
“They [the UK] should set their own house in order rather than blame us,” said an angry General Musharraf in one of his interviews to BBC, and criticised the British government for not taking any action against these militants in the name of human rights and freedom of speech. “We certainly have a problem here [with Islamic militancy] which we are trying to address, but may I say that England also has a problem which needs to be addressed. There are some extremist groups like Al-Mohajiroun and Hizbul-Tehrir [HUT] who operate with impunity from the UK and have issued edicts to physically eliminate me. But have they [the British government] done anything against them?” he asked.
So far Pakistani investigators have failed to determine the nature of the London bombers’ activities or track down the people they may have met during their stay in Pakistan. They only thing that they do know is that Tanweer spent time with relatives in Kottan, a village north of Faisalabad, where Khan had visited him twice.
Relatives in Pakistan say that while Tanweer held decidedly anti-American views, they had no inkling that he was planning any kind of terrorist activity or that he was even capable of doing such a thing. “I never felt that he was an extremist. He was intelligent enough to imagine what a terrible effect [the bombings] would have,” says a relative.
While the Pakistan government is attempting to distance Pakistan from the alleged bombers, local intelligence officials do admit to knowing that militants linked to Al-Qaeda had, for the past couple of years, been looking around to recruit ‘suitable operatives,’ who could carry out suicide missions in the heart of London.
Pakistani investigators disclose that in 2004, members of UK-based sleeper cells linked to Al-Qaeda travelled to Pakistan to acquire the services of local “suicide bombers” and to arrange for them to travel to Britain to carry out attacks. The idea was dropped, however, because of the likelihood of detection when entering the country. Investigators believe that Al-Qaeda planners in Pakistan then suggested that British youth be recruited for the purpose and their ideological suitability for such missions be assessed in Pakistan, if necessary.
The question now is, how many men were recruited and trained — and how quickly can MI5, Scotland Yard and their ISI counterparts unravel the conspiracy and break the chain of terror that continues to threaten Britain.
According to an intelligence official, using data from British police, Pakistani authorities are delving into the background of the people who are believed to have received calls from or made calls to the alleged bombers. Sources disclosed that some phone lines which were used were found permanently disconnected, while others, still in operation, are being thoroughly probed.
Counter-terrorism experts in Pakistan believe that the number of suicide bombers that were used in London in one day indicates that the operation’s organisers have access to many more militants who may be willing to sacrifice their lives. It has been observed from other such attacks that militant organisations normally use one, or at the most two suicide bombers at one time. “The fact that four men were recruited for the London mission, and four others tried to strike in a similar fashion two weeks later, indicates that the people who are organising or supervising these attacks definitely have access to a large number of volunteers. If this group is not caught, it is simply a matter of time before they strike again,” contends a counter terrorism official.
To identify the links in the terror network, MI5 is presently seeking to establish whether Tanweer Khan, a special-needs assistant at a primary school in Leeds, met Haroon Rashid Aswat, a 31-year-old Muslim of Indian descent, who is believed to have studied at the London School of Economics and was once a senior aide to Abu Hamza, the radical hook-handed Finsbury Park cleric who was arrested in Britain last year. Aswat is regarded by the ISI as a prime suspect in having masterminded the London bombings. Apparently 20 calls were made by the four bombers to Aswat’s mobile number. Aswat was apprehended in Zambia on July 28, and will, in all likelihood, be extradited to the UK. The ISI had been desperately looking for Aswat in Pakistan. A few weeks ago, a ceramics salesman from London, who shares the same surname as Aswat, spent 48 hours in the custody of Pakistani agency sleuths after being arrested near Islamabad.
Some investigators delving into the movements of the three suicide bombers while in Pakistan suggest that Tanweer Khan, who is thought to have been the leader of the London suicide team, spent much of his time liaising with an Al-Qaeda operative now considered central to the plot.
Sources identified Khan’s possible contact as Mohammed Yasin, alias Ustad (“the teacher”) Osama, an explosives specialist with the Harkat-e-Jihad-e-Islami. A veteran of terrorist training camps along the remote Afghan-Pakistani frontier (he lost two fingers in the course of his work), Yasin is in his 30s and reputed to be an expert at manufacturing “suicide jackets” and other explosives. He is believed to have prepared the explosives used in the assassination attempt on General Pervez Musharraf and in the Sheraton and US Consulate bombings in Karachi.
Yasin, included on a list of 70 “most wanted” terrorists issued by Pakistani officials in December, is believed to have prepared British Muslims to fight in Afghanistan and Bosnia. It is now suspected that he may have trained Khan in how to make the sort of home-made bombs used in the London attacks.
Pakistani and British intelligence agencies are working in close collaboration to bust the sleeper cells operating in the UK. Reportedly ISI and MI5 investigators have, once again, been grilling Naeem Noor Khan and Zeeshan Siddiqui, both presently in ISI custody.
Twenty-six-year-old computer whiz, Naeem Noor Khan, was arrested in Lahore last year. Although not a British citizen, he had visited London several times, and rented a flat in Reading in late 2003.
Khan was one of the 20 Al-Qaeda suspects captured by Pakistan in July and August 2004, along with a key suspect in the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, two South Africans and a Nigerian who was carrying coded messages as he tried to fly out of the country.
Earlier interrogation of Naeem Noor Khan revealed that he had not only been creating websites and secret email codes for Al-Qaeda operatives to communicate with each other, but that he had also been actively involved in plotting the London terror attacks as well as playing intermediary between international Al-Qaeda cells and the operational wing of Al-Qaeda based in Pakistan.
Material unearthed from Khan included three-year-old surveillance records of Heathrow Airport, London’s public transport system, key financial institutions in the city, photos, maps, and coded emails.
Interrogators say Khan had been at the centre of a complex communications network through which he would take messages from Al-Qaeda operatives he had met in the tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan and send them in coded e-mail messages or in a covert way on the internet. The computer discs seized from Khan were made up of heavily protected and encrypted computer files.
Naeem Noor Khan’s interrogators say he had also met an unnamed weapons expert, possibly Adnan el Shukrijumah, identified as a bomb-maker and commercial pilot. Khan has reportedly also provided investigators details of a secret meeting in Lahore between Issa al-Hindi, who had travelled from Britain, Shukrijumah, who was of Arab-Guyanese origin, Mohammed Junaid Babar, a Pakistani-American, and another unknown youth, who congregated in Pakistan ostensibly to hire suitable operatives from Pakistan for carrying out serial bombings in London.
Thirteen people, including al-Hindi, were subsequently arrested by British police in London. The arrests were followed by raids, as police continued to search a number of addresses in London, central England, and the northwestern town of Blackburn. Most of the 13 people arrested in these raids were of South Asian origin.
The other man currently under reinterrogation, 25-year-old Zeeshan Siddiqui, was arrested from Shabaqdar village, located 20 miles north of Peshawar last May. Pakistani intelligence officials said Siddiqui, from Heston, Hounslow, had initially identified himself as Shehzad from Madina Colony, Hyderabad. Later it was ascertained this was a fake identity, and in subsequent interrogations, he revealed he was a British national wanted by the British intelligence agencies for involvement in a failed plot to bomb several pubs, restaurants and train stations in London.
According to some reports, the investigators are focusing on notes they had retrieved earlier in one of which Siddiqui had stated that one of his comrades was ‘chickening out,’ while another addressed to him said that the ‘wagon’ had now been called off. The security officials are now taking a fresh look at the notes and have reopened the case with particular reference to the London bombings.
Sources disclose MI5 has been eager to interrogate Zeeshan Siddiqui. One of the alleged suicide bombers, Mohammad Siddiq Khan, was linked to a man arrested in London last year in an anti-terrorist operation after he was found involved in failed attempts to carry out bombing attacks in London earlier. The link is believed to have emerged from telephone records of Khan and this man. However, Khan was left out of the surveillance loop after British intelligence officials termed him an “ordinary citizen.” Now MI5 and ISI officers are hoping that Siddiqui might provide valuable information about the mission that probably replaced the aborted one: the dispatching of suicide bombers to London on the morning of July 7.
One line of inquiry being pursued, both by the ISI as well as Scotland Yard detectives, centres on the activities of the Hizb-ul-Tehrir (The Party of Liberation), a “missionary” group which has offices in Lahore and London. “Hizb-ul-Tehrir members play a vital role in indoctrinating many of the youth who are subsequently used in various Al-Qaeda missions,” said a Pakistani intelligence official.
However, Hizb-ul-Tehrir’s UK office insists that it rejects violence, armed struggle and terrorism. A Hizb spokesman says that the organisation is apolitical and that the “rules of Islam do not allow the harming of innocent civilians.”
But Pakistani officials on their part believe that members of the HUT have been frequenting universities in London for years to recruit potential suicide volunteers and to ship them out to Pakistan and other countries for training. The HUT’s other target area is believed to be Muslim neighbourhoods, where its members have repeatedly clashed with longer established, and more moderate bodies.
In his televised address to the nation soon after the blasts, General Musharraf announced what appeared to be a tough crackdown against extremists. So far 600 suspected militants have been rounded up in a week-long crackdown that followed the July 7 London attacks. Of those arrested, 295 belong to banned militant outfits, while the remaining detainees include clerics, mosque prayer leaders and those propagating anti-west hatred through sermons and provocative literature. Pakistani officials have denied that these arrests are in any way linked to the London blasts, but rather, are part of its own ongoing operation against suspected terrorists. However, the London connection cannot be ignored.
At a protest in Islamabad after Friday prayers, demonstrators chanted slogans denouncing General Musharraf as a dog being stroked by Tony Blair and George W. Bush. “Shame on you Bush-Mush-Blair,” proclaimed the main banner while youths carried placards that read “Mr Tony Bush, We Are Human Too” and “We Are Not Involved in the London Blasts.” Abroad it was a different story. General Musharraf won the praise of British officials who described his cooperation in the London bombings inquiry as swift and exemplary. “It’s unclear how many assassination attempts there have been on him, but it’s at least five,” said one diplomat in Islamabad. “He’s now very publicly pinning his colours to the mast. If he survives, he might just be successful.”