Authorities seek plot links

Police investigate whether suspects crossed paths with subway bombers in Pakistan


LONDON -- The detectives who rounded up 23 suspects accused of conspiring to bomb U.S.-bound planes in midair knew their quarry well: They had been tracking their every move for months.

Despite all the evidence amassed through surveillance of the men's travel, phone calls and Internet communications, however, police still must answer key questions about the masterminds, international connections and potential ties to previous plots here, British officials said yesterday.

Investigators have focused on one potentially significant lead, officials said: suspected links between the airline plot and the suicide bombings of four subway trains that killed 52 people July 7, 2005.

Police are investigating whether several suspects crossed paths with two of the subway bombers in Pakistan, where the two are believed to have trained with al-Qaida figures, said a British security official.

If the investigation confirms that figures from the two cases crossed paths in Pakistan, it could help fit the plane bombing plot into a string of previous, sometimes interconnected cases in which Pakistani-British jihadis acquired expertise, inspiration or both from militant networks in their ancestral homeland.

That pattern occurred in the subway bombings, an aborted truck-bombing plot here in 2003 and a plot that allegedly targeted U.S. financial institutions. It also, curiously, surfaced in the failed follow-up subway attack two weeks after the July 7 plots, in which four East African immigrants have been charged.

Although the latter case was initially seen as a copycat attempt, the discovery that at least one of the July 21 suspects also traveled to Pakistan suggests at least an indirect link, officials say.

The investigation in the murky militant underworld of Pakistan, where 17 suspects have been arrested in the alleged airline plot, will help determine the extent to which the operation was the work of al-Qaida or its allies there.

"One of the big questions is if this is an al-Qaida attack or an al-Qaida-inspired attack," said the British security official. "It's very big, it's very well-coordinated. As has been said, it has the hallmarks of al-Qaida: big, well-planned, very bold."

Other aspects of the case are becoming clearer, officials said. Despite reports that as many as five dangerous fugitives were at large and other networks might be preparing imminent attacks, authorities believe they have captured the major players: leaders, bomb-makers and aspiring suicide bombers.

Meanwhile, a theory is coming together about the group's plan to bring down as many as nine airplanes over the mid-Atlantic. Investigators believe that the group planned to deploy two-man teams to smuggle the liquid explosives aboard in containers of sports or health drinks, along with rudimentary ignition devices concealed in iPods or flash cameras, the official said.

If the theory is correct, it could mean as many as 18 suspects intended to die in the attack. But the security official cautioned that it has not been determined whether the plan called for two-man teams for every plane, or whether all the would-be bombers had been recruited.

Sebastian Rotella writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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