U.S. Strike in Pakistan Kills Suspected Mastermind of British Airline Plot

By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 23, 2008

KABUL, Afghanistan, Nov. 22 -- A suspected al-Qaeda operative linked to a 2006 plot to blow up British airliners was killed Saturday in a suspected U.S. missile strike in northwestern Pakistan, according to two Pakistani intelligence officials. At least four other extremist fighters were also killed.

The officials said the al-Qaeda suspect was Rashid Rauf, a man who held dual Pakistani and British citizenship. The attack came from an unmanned U.S. Predator aircraft, which fired at least two Hellfire missiles at a suspected Taliban compound in the village of Ali Khel in the restive tribal area of North Waziristan, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly about missile strikes.

The dead also included at least three foreign fighters, the officials said.

Rauf, a former resident of the British city of Birmingham, was suspected to be the ringleader in an alleged al-Qaeda plot to blow up commercial jetliners flying from Britain to the United States. He was arrested by Pakistani authorities in Bahawalpur in August 2006 after British officials learned of the alleged terrorist operation, which authorities said included a plan to smuggle liquid explosives and camera flash detonators on board at least 10 airplanes. The plot led to widespread restrictions on items travelers could carry onto planes.

In London, a Foreign Office spokesman said British officials were investigating reports that Rauf had been killed but could not confirm his death.

Before his arrest, Rauf's alleged ties to the Pakistani terrorist group Jaish-i-Muhammad stirred strong suspicions among intelligence experts that he also might have had connections with rogue elements in Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, also known as the ISI. Jaish-i-Muhammad, banned in Pakistan, has played a leading role in an ISI-supported proxy war with India over the disputed northern territory of Kashmir. The group is widely suspected to be behind the abduction and killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002.

Rauf's association with the group is thought to have begun around the time he married a close relative of the group's founder, Maulana Masood Azhar.

A Pakistani court dropped terrorism charges against Rauf in late 2006. Pakistani authorities, nonetheless, offered to extradite him to Britain in connection with the airliner plot. But suspicions about his connections to Pakistani intelligence agencies deepened after he escaped from custody last December. Pakistani security officials said Rauf slipped out of his handcuffs after police allowed him to stop at a mosque in the capital, Islamabad.

Rauf's attorney at the time, Hashmat Habib, said Rauf was subsequently taken into ISI custody. Until Saturday's strike in North Waziristan, Rauf's whereabouts were not publicly known.

Habib, reached at his offices in Pakistan, said he was aware of the reports but could not confirm whether Rauf had been killed.

The U.S. military has stepped up a campaign this year targeting al-Qaeda and Taliban havens along Pakistan's mountainous border with Afghanistan. Military officials say the surge in activity has had a debilitating effect on militant operations in the region.

But the attacks have drawn criticism from Pakistan's top military officer, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani. Kiyani, who formerly led the ISI, and other top Pakistani officials have said collateral damage and civilian deaths from the missile strikes could increase anti-American sentiment in Pakistan, a key ally in the U.S.-led war against Islamist insurgents in Afghanistan.

Special correspondent Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

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