By Dafna Linzer and Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 22, 2005
U.S. and British authorities investigating the deadly attacks in London two weeks ago searched yesterday for information on Haroon Rashid Aswat, a Pakistani man allegedly connected to a foiled plot to create a terrorist training camp in Bly, Ore.
Aswat's cell phone received as many as 20 calls from several of the bombers, said intelligence and law enforcement officials, one of whom said the last call was made in London the night before the July 7 bombings.
Authorities here, in Britain and in Pakistan cautioned yesterday that they did not know what role Aswat might have played in the attacks, whether he was the one using the cell phone or when he might have been in London last. In recent years, U.S. officials have even questioned whether he is alive because of unconfirmed reports he was killed in Afghanistan. But new evidence, and Aswat's U.S. connections, set off a search by the FBI for clues that would help determine his whereabouts.
U.S. officials scurried to follow up on thousands of pieces of information provided by their British counterparts since the July 7 bombings, which killed 56 people, including the four British bombers, and wounded 700. One intelligence official, who like others would discuss the investigation only on condition of anonymity, said that the list of wanted suspects was growing and that the inquiry had become far more complex in recent days.
The FBI's Document Exploitation team, based in Washington, has sent several people to work out of the U.S. Embassy in London, while the main London-based FBI team has been deployed to Scotland Yard, officials said. American officials are cross-checking investigative data with information and prisoner debriefings from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a U.S. law enforcement official said.
Another official involved in the investigation said there was some evidence Aswat might have left Britain on a ferry two weeks ago, suggesting that he left his phone behind for accomplices to use.
Aswat, 31, grew up in Batley, a rough-and-tumble town in north-central England nicknamed "the Bronx" and brimming with immigrants from India and Pakistan. The town is near the homes of the suspected July 7 bombers, but it is unclear whether Aswat knew them. Aswat has not been in touch with his family in years, relatives and neighbors there said.
U.S. authorities first heard of him while investigating attempts by Muslim extremists to set up a training camp in the Oregon woods in 1999.
Aswat was an aide then to Abu Hamza Masri, a fiery Muslim preacher who was arrested in April 2004 and charged with a variety of terrorism-related offenses including involvement in the Oregon camp and a role in a deadly hostage-taking in Yemen.
Aswat's name does not appear in the August 2002 federal indictment of James Ujaama, an American charged with planning to set up the camp, but law enforcement sources said he was one of the unindicted co-conspirators referred to in the document.
According to the indictment and officials, Aswat arrived in New York in November 1999 on an Air India flight and flew on to Seattle before traveling to Bly. He and others inspected a potential training camp there and interviewed prospective candidates. Aswat stayed in the country, living at a Seattle mosque until February 2000, but it is unclear where he went from there, according to the indictment
Ujaama pleaded guilty in 2003 to charges of conspiring to provide goods and services to the Taliban and was sentenced to two years.
By the time of Ujaama's conviction, law enforcement authorities had received U.S. intelligence from Afghanistan indicating Aswat had been killed when American forces raided an al Qaeda safe house. British officials, however, believe that the man they are looking for is the same Aswat and that his cell phone could be a key piece of the emerging puzzle that includes investigations in Egypt, Pakistan and elsewhere.
In Cairo yesterday, Egyptian authorities continued to question Magdy Nashar, a chemist who left the British city of Leeds several days before the bombers set off for London. Investigators said Nashar knew one of the bombers and had given him keys to his apartment, where officials allege the bombs were made.
Three of the four alleged bombers were of Pakistani descent and had traveled to Pakistan in the last two years. Pakistani authorities have announced a series of arrests.
Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, called yesterday for a "jihad against extremism" but said his country did not deserve all blame for the July 7 bombings.
"We are together in the fight against terrorism," Musharraf said in a televised address. Britain, he said, has its own problems with extremist Muslim groups who "also give sermons of hate and anger and violence."
In Batley, police officers patrolled outside the Aswat family's two-story brick home, but no one came out to speak with reporters. Someone in the house turned over a printed statement reading: "There is no story we can provide. He has not lived at this house and we have not had contact with him for many years. We ask the press to go away."
Raghavan reported from Batley. Special correspondent Kamran Khan in Pakistan, staff writers Dan Eggen, Dana Priest, Susan B. Glasser and Robin Wright in Washington and researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.