By Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Two intelligence sources suggested that Pakistan had replaced Afghanistan as a center for terrorist activities and expressed frustration with the attempts of Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, to exert control over huge swaths of territory.
The senior administration official did not play down the problem but insisted that the situation is better today than it was five years ago. "Prior to 9/11, the whole region was a safe haven," the official said. "You see attempts from Pakistan to affect this, but it's still part of a long-term element of our battle against terrorism." Pakistani officials say the country's efforts are sincere and pursued at major cost in lives and money.
In the days before the alleged airliner bombing plot was exposed, more than 200 FBI agents followed up leads inside the United States looking for potential connections to British and Pakistani suspects. The investigation was so large, officials said, that it brought a significant surge in warrants for searches and surveillance from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the secret panel that oversees most clandestine surveillance.
One official estimated that scores of secret U.S. warrants were dedicated solely to the London plot. The government usually averages a few dozen a week for all counterintelligence investigations, according to federal statistics.
The purpose of the recent warrants included monitoring telephone calls that some of the London suspects made to the United States, two sources said.
At the Justice Department, prosecutors have debated and identified possible criminal charges that could be filed against those arrested, because they were targeting U.S.-bound flights. One official said they would defer to British prosecutors in the case, but wanted backup options in case their London counterparts encountered problems.
U.S. authorities were still unsure about how the plot may have tied into al-Qaeda.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Friday that the case bore the "hallmarks of an al Qaeda-type plot," because of its similarity to an abortive 1990s plan directed by Khalid Sheik Mohammed, a senior al-Qaeda operative now in U.S. custody, to blow up a dozen airliners over the Pacific Ocean.
"We do not have evidence that there was, as part of this plot, any plan to initiate activity inside the United States or that the plotting was done in the United States," Chertoff told reporters at Reagan National Airport.
Researcher Julie Tate and staff writers Dan Eggen and Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.