Alleged leader of terrorist cell identified

August 20, 2006|By JOHN CREWDSON, KIM BARKER AND STEPHEN J. HEDGES | JOHN CREWDSON, KIM BARKER AND STEPHEN J. HEDGES,Chicago Tribune

LONDON -- Investigators have identified the leader of an alleged terrorist cell broken up by police here 10 days ago and have traced his contacts to Pakistan, where U.S., British and Pakistani intelligence agents are pursuing the man's suspected connections with al-Qaida.

Ali Ahmed Khan, who was taken into custody with other purported cell members, was acting as the chief "facilitator" of an alleged plot to bomb several trans-Atlantic airliners headed for the U.S., according to a U.S. intelligence official.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, compared Khan to Mohamed Atta, the Egyptian university student who, acting on instructions from top-ranking al-Qaida members in Afghanistan, organized the Sept. 11 hijacking plot that killed more than 3,000 people.

"He is a cell leader in Britain," the U.S. official said.

The question the authorities are trying to answer, he said, is: "How strong an al-Qaida affiliation does he have?"

The U.S. official said Khan had been taking directions from Rashid Rauf, a dual Pakistani-British citizen who was arrested in Pakistan shortly before British police rounded up Khan and 23 others believed to be members of Khan's cell. Days later, a 25th person was arrested in Britain. Two of those arrested have since been released.

Pakistan authorities now believe that an al-Qaida leader in Afghanistan hatched the plan, said a top Pakistani government official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of British requests that he not talk about the case. Afghan officials have denied that the plot came from their country.

Some terrorism experts have expressed caution about whether there is a link to al-Qaida.

Rauf, 29, was either responsible for the planning of the attack or acted as the liaison between al-Qaida in Afghanistan and planners in Britain, according to the Pakistani government official.

Rauf's arrest Aug. 9 in Bahawalpur in eastern Pakistan, a hotbed for Islamic militants, triggered the unraveling of the alleged plot.

Rauf "is certainly a key figure - not a mastermind," the Pakistani official said.

Pakistani authorities have said the interrogation of Rauf has produced many leads, but it's not clear where he's being held or how the interrogations are taking place.

He appeared briefly before a magistrate last weekend and can be held indefinitely in Pakistan on suspicion of terrorist activity.

At some point, Rauf may be sent to Britain for more questioning, but only after the Pakistanis are finished, the Pakistani official said.

Since the arrests began, British police have launched an intense search for evidence, serving 46 search warrants. The BBC reported Friday that 11 locations were still being searched.

Crime technicians have been picking through the modest homes of the suspects in the working-class northeastern London neighborhood of Walthamstow and suburban High Wycombe, west of the city.

After a closed-door, daylong hearing Wednesday, a magistrate agreed to let the police hold the suspects for seven more days without filing charges.

Police have removed items from several homes, including computers, bottles and documents. They have also taken computers from Internet cafes. The alleged plotters are thought to have exchanged messages on the computers.

Police have also spent days combing a woods near High Wycombe. The BBC reported Thursday that police found a suitcase in the woods containing bomb-making supplies. Scotland Yard has declined to discuss the report.

The U.S. intelligence official said some of the evidence that was seized pointed to the manufacture of liquid bombs whose components could be carried onto an airliner and then assembled. The official confirmed that British police had uncovered "high-grade" evidence such as chemicals, diagrams on how to make liquid bombs and components for detonators.

But the U.S. official said that no evidence had been found that prototype bombs had been built and tested. The official also said British investigators had "misconstrued" ordinary travel by some of the participants as a "trial run."

The official said there was solid evidence against eight or nine principals in the plot, but that some of them still held might be released for lack of evidence.

The extended search period after the arrests suggests that British police were not prepared to move on the suspects when they did, some believe.

The government official said that the arrest of Rauf came after the United States pushed Pakistan and it was made despite British concerns that it might force them to move on the case before they were ready.

"In the U.K., their concern was to discover evidence because it was happening in their country," the government official said. "But the U.S. approach was to do it immediately in case they tried to blow up a plane."

Pakistan favored the U.S. approach. "The last thing we would like is anything happens anywhere, and they say, `Oh, it's Pakistan,'" the official said.

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