Airliner Plot Had Support In Pakistan, Officials Say
Saturday, August 12, 2006
U.S. and European officials described Pakistan yesterday as the hub of a plot to down transatlantic flights, saying the young British men allegedly behind the planned attacks drew financial and logistical support from sponsors operating in Karachi and Lahore.
At least 17 suspects in British custody for the aviation plot have family ties to Pakistan, and several had traveled there in recent months to seek instructions and confer with unknown conspirators, intelligence officials said yesterday, discussing several elements of the investigation on the condition of anonymity.
Pakistan's government, portraying itself as a reliable ally against terrorism, said it had made at least seven arrests connected to the plot but insisted that the conspiracy was centered in neighboring Afghanistan. Two of the men in custody there were British citizens.
Officials emphasized that they were not certain the alleged conspiracy had been entirely broken up. "There is serious concern about potential operatives still out there plotting," a senior U.S. administration official said. "There are people we are still concerned about and people we want arrested and questions we need answered."
One U.S. law enforcement official said British authorities and the FBI were investigating whether some of the suspects attended training camps in Pakistan. "The Pakistan connection is the big focus now," said one intelligence source. "Everything is coming out of there."
Investigators say the conspirators hoped to down as many as 10 U.S.-bound flights by sneaking liquid-based explosives aboard and detonating them in flight. British police arrested 24 people, and airline security officials on both sides of the Atlantic imposed new passenger screening regulations that snarled air traffic on Thursday. Some delays continued yesterday, but in places normal flow resumed.
Among those arrested in Pakistan was Rashid Rauf, a British citizen who was detained along the country's border with Afghanistan. His brother, Tayib, was among the people arrested in Britain. A statement from Pakistan's Foreign Ministry described Rashid Rauf as a central figure in the plot and said he had an "Afghanistan-based al-Qaeda connection."
Five Pakistani citizens were arrested in separate raids in Lahore and Karachi. Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri said in an interview with CNN that the suspects "had been monitored for quite some time" before they were detained.
U.S. and British investigators were also looking into the potential role of a Pakistani identified as Matiur Rehman. Several intelligence officials said Rehman is not a member of al-Qaeda but may have some link to Osama bin Laden's group. "His possible role in the plot is being looked at," one official said yesterday. "People are interested in it, but it is not resolved."
Pakistani authorities were also investigating the financial transactions of a Muslim charity made through at least a dozen bank branches in Karachi and the Pakistani city of Peshawar.
U.S. intelligence analysts say they believe that the principal remaining leadership of al-Qaeda is hiding in Pakistan. Despite increased cooperation between the Islamabad government and Western powers since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, they say, the number of extremists inside the country may be on the rise and elements of Pakistan's intelligence services remain sympathetic to their cause.
On Friday, the British government portrayed Pakistan's cooperation as vital in undoing the alleged bombing conspiracy, but some U.S. officials said that five years after the Sept. 11 attacks, they are far from countering, or even understanding, the level of threat emanating from Pakistan's lawless regions and bustling cities.