September Issue 2006

By | News & Politics | Published 18 years ago

All the leads of the investigation into the plot to blow up trans-Atlantic airliners point once again to Pakistan. Despite Islamabad’s claims that Pakistan is the frontline state in U.S. President George Bush’s war against terrorism, it is also seen by the world community as the epicenter for international terrorism, where new recruits are trained and abetted.

The plot was made public in the first week of August at which time British authorities said the militants were at the final stages of their plan to bring down at least 10 American airliners over the north Atlantic. At least two of the suspects, held from raids in Birmingham, had received explosives training in Karachi, and five of the plotters, all of whom are Britons of Pakistani origin, had recorded “martyrdom videos” in Pakistan’s tribal areas, which were to be released by Al-Qaeda in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. Investigators believe that if they had failed to foil the plot, the world may have witnessed the worst terrorist attacks ever, causing even more carnage than 9/11 or the 7/7 events.

Pakistani intelligence sources suggest it all began when they obtained a “lead” at least a month earlier from “their source in London,” who asked them to do checks on some individuals suspected of directing a fresh terror plot in the UK from Pakistan. Following the tip-off, Pakistani officials said they picked up an unnamed British national of Pakistani Baloch descent from a guest house in the Zhob district in Balochistan who gave them vague details about the plot and some of the participants involved. Officials then not only squeezed information and vital clues from the Balochi-Briton, but also passed on details to the UK authorities. It prompted senior MI5 officers to call for “executive action” back in Britain. As a result, 21 suspects were arrested.

Again, it was Pakistani information that led to this major bust. In fact, this time key information was picked up from a mobile phone text message. According to Pakistani officials, the sms, which contained a code ordering the attack on the airliners to go ahead, was sent by 26-year-old Rashid Rauf, yet another British national of Pakistani origin. “He sent this message from his mobile phone, which originated from a Lahore tower. He was tracked and was immediately arrested,” revealed a senior intelligence official.

A cloud of mystery surrounds Rashid Rauf. In 1981, when he was just one year old, his family took him to the UK. But a life of opportunity in the west escaped him when, in 2002, in his early twenties, Rauf became a suspect in the murder of his uncle in Birmingham and went into hiding.

After he was picked up in Bahawalpur recently, Rauf was grilled by Pakistani intelligence agents, who were soon joined by detectives from MI6 after Islamabad delayed his extradition to UK , citing the need to tie up “loose ends.”

Rauf is the eldest of four sons of Abdul Rauf, a bakery owner from Birmingham and is believed to have been living in Pakistan since 2002 after he fled the UK. His father, Abdul, hails from a small village, Haveli Beghal, in Mirpur district, and moved to the UK in the late 60s. Today, only two of Rashid’s unmarried aunts remain in their ancestral village; the rest of the family has moved to the UK.

“He was a very quiet boy, but we cannot say anything about him at this stage until the inquiries are completed,” Mian Naseer, his maternal uncle, told Newsline. Naseer said they had no knowledge of where Rauf was or what he had been doing since he left England.

According to Naseer, all the family members are very religious and say their prayers five times a day, but have nothing to do with militancy or any kind of extremism. “Even in our village, our family is known for carrying out religious rituals such as washing the dead, conducting marriages and leading prayers,” he said.

Locals in Bahawalpur claim that Rauf was arrested from a passenger bus while he was on his way to Lahore, but officials said he was picked up from the house of a local where he was staying as a guest. “We have arrested his local host and are trying to reach his other connections,” says a security official privy to these arrests.

Locals of the area, however, insist that he was living in Model Town C block in Bahawalpur for the past few years and was known there as Khalid Rauf. He married into a religious family and now has two daughters. According to locals, Rauf had purchased the house sometime back for Rs 1,750,000, but disappeared soon after shifting his family there. In his absence, his family was looked after by his brother-in-law, Hafiz Omair. His in-laws are running Jamia Dar-ul-Uloom Madnia, a religious seminary in Model Town B Block in Bahawalpur. Intriguingly, the wives of Rashid Rauf and Maulana Tahir Masood, brother of Jaish-e-Muhammad chief, Maulana Azhar Masood, are sisters.

While controversy still surrounds the circumstances of Rashid Rauf’s arrest, both Pakistani investigators and diplomatic sources describe him as a “key” suspect and said that most of the arrests in the UK were made on the basis of information gleaned from him.

Those arrested in UK include Kausar Ali, 24, of Walthamstow, east London, who is accused of failing to disclose information about her husband, Ahmed Abdullah Ali, who could have helped prevent an act of terrorism. They are just two of eight individuals accused of conspiracy to murder and of intending to commit acts of terrorism.

Investigators from the UK and Pakistan are now focusing on discovering the remaining loose ends in the terrorist plot, including details about the mastermind as well as the financial transactions of these militant groups. Pakistani officials say they are investigating 114 charity organizations that were involved in the October 2005 earth quake relief work. Officials believe some of these organisations, which have received millions of dollars from Britain and elsewhere in the name of charity work, have ties to militant groups. “There are definitely scams, and some of the funds donated to charity have gone into the accounts of militant organisations, but we are still investigating the matter,” says a senior government official.

Officials say there were large amounts of money wired into individual accounts instead of to organisations. In one such case, officials said 300,000 rupees wired through Money Graham, an UK-based financial institution, was deposited into someone’s personal account. Similarly, officials reveal that Western Union, another UK-based enterprise, was used to funnel money into personal accounts.

Among the 114 charity organizations under scrutiny in Pakistan are Al-Asar Trust — a trust linked to Jamaat-e-Furqan — a Kashmir-based militant organisation, Al-Rasheed Trust, Al-Rehmat Trust (both the organisations are linked to an outlawed militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed), and Crescent Relief, which was set up by Abdul Rauf, father of Rashid, in which both Rashid and his brother, Tayyab Rauf, were registered as members.

The Crescent charity was involved in relief work in Pakistani Kashmir during last year’s earthquake and had also gone to Indonesia for relief work during the tsunami. Close family members in Mirpur said Rauf’s family had been supporting the Kashmir Jihad.

Pakistani officials, who have arrested at least three British nationals and several dozen of their local facilitators, now have learnt that a shadowy group called Al-Jihad was also involved in the trans-Atlantic airliners plot, as well as the London bombings.

Security officials do not have details of the new group, but say “it is a conglomerate of Al-Qaeda-linked jihadists and Pakistani and Afghanistan-based militant groups,” which, according to them, is led by Abu Adil, an Arab national of Saudi descent. “The group was launched in 2003, with the aim to train and assist the brigade of new international recruits and facilitate them to carry out terrorist acts against western countries,” says a senior Pakistani security official.

The group is a truly international outfit as it comprises various nationalities, who have pooled their skills and expertise. For example, Arab militants are leading the group because they have a network of foot soldiers across the world, while Afghans who live in the tribal areas, work as their hosts. Uzbek and Chechens act as trainers, while militants in Pakistan — Pakistan has become the main transit point for international militants — act as facilitators.

Some core members of the group include Ustad Fakir Mohammed of Bajaur agency in the lawless Pakistani tribal areas, who had earlier given a fatwa to kill those who may oppose or conspire against the Taliban. In fact, Fakir Mohammed’s house was attacked in Bajaur agency last year by the US on suspicion that Bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, was hiding there.

According to officials, new recruits had been using Madrassah Nizamia, in South Waziristan as their main transit point before being sent to various camps in Tangir valley or Matta Cheena village in the Khost province of Afghanistan. “These camps are not huge facilities, they only offer specialised courses needed for specific operations,” says an official.

Pakistani security officials said since 2003, the group has trained over two dozen militants from the UK in explosives, mainly in Matta Cheena village. So far only seven militants have been tracked down and arrested. “Those still at large are like ‘loose cannons’ and can strike whenever they get an opportunity.”

Pakistani officials said even though they have obtained rough details of some of the militants, they have failed to obtain solid facts about the others who are missing because these organisations have evolved a fool-proof method in which one militant is not even aware of the other.

A senior official involved in these investigations revealed some of the basic elements followed by the group leaders: one trainee is not given details about the other trainee; usually when they train, group sizes are kept small, at the most two to five individuals; and soldiers are given very little detail about the place where they are being trained.

Similarly, he said, trainers are subjected to similar rules and only those conducting training are allowed to meet their trainees, limiting the training team’s exposure. “That is why it is always very difficult for the agencies to break the complete chain,” says an official, who said that while one militant might lead them to the next, ultimately it ends at a dead-end.

Insiders privy to investigations, say Rashid Rauf had been visiting the lawless borderlands of Miramshah and Mirali in Pakistan since January 2004 and had been using these routes to cross over into the Khost province in Afghanistan in order to coordinate various acts of terrorism — mainly in the UK. “He even had knowledge of the 7/7 atrocities before they had taken place,” says an official.

Rauf not only revealed details about the plot to security officers, but also divulged valuable details about the number of young men trained in explosives by the Al-Jihad group. According to officials, the Al-Jihad group’s trainers include Ustad Khalid, Ustad Daud and some Uzbek militants, but the training facility in Matta Cheena village in the Khost province of Afghanistan, where the British-born militants were mainly trained, was supervised by Abu Nasir, an Al-Qaeda expert in the explosives field. “He is an explosive expert who has effectively devised methods of explosives using easy-to-get ingredients that are virtually undetectable or can raise no alarms for authorities,” says an intelligence source. “All these boys who had visited these camps have obtained training in IED (improvised explosive devices) and other specialised explosives,” says an official source.

While these young men may get indoctrinated in their own countries to the idea of “global jihad,” they still need training to become militant soldiers. And Al-Jihad provides that training, planning and tactical support.

Despite apprehending three UK nationals and several dozen locals and their facilitators, Pakistani officials say they have failed to learn more about Abu Adil, who they believe is the mastermind. Pakistani security officials do not know much about Abu Adil, but suspect that he could be Saif-ul-Adil, who is on the FBI’s list of “most wanted” Al-Qaeda men. Pakistani officials confirm that Jamaat-ul-Furqan, which is a breakaway faction of the defunct Pakistan-based militant organisation Jaish-e-Mohammed, has been working as the group’s facilitator in Pakistan. They had been keeping these new recruits from the UK and US in safe houses in Pakistan and successfully dispatching them to Miranshah in South Waziristan. Mati-ur-Rehman and Qari Abdul Karim Khosa, who are associated with the group were facilitating the group’s activities in Pakistan.

Mati-ur-Rehman, 29, is a high-ranking Al-Qaeda militant, who is reported to have facilitated many young British Muslims in Afghanistan and is suspected of being behind an attempt to assassinate General Pervez Musharraf. Rehman, one of Pakistan’s most wanted men, first emerged as a senior Al-Qaeda figure last March when the ISI said it believed that he was involved in the early stages of planning a big attack on Britain and America to mark the fifth anniversary of 9/11.

Although the presence of a Pakistan connection is clearly evident, security sources point out that the central threat is very much a home-grown British affair. In the words of one source: “The brains behind this operation were British, it was planned on British soil and the suspects are British.”