Britain Sees More Links to Al Qaeda
Investigators have linked one of the suspected London suicide bombers to a group of alleged extremists arrested here last year in a foiled terrorist plot by a Pakistan-based Al Qaeda group, authorities said Wednesday.
Mohamed Sidique Khan, a 30-year-old primary school teacher, has emerged as a key figure among the four suspected bombers, European and U.S. investigators said. Although officials had said that Khan and the other three were unknown to security personnel before last week’s attack, investigators now think Khan was an associate of some of those arrested in last year’s plot.
That strengthens suspicions that the London attacks were carried out by an Al Qaeda branch that teamed Pakistani masterminds with Pakistani British operatives and had tried to strike Britain before, investigators said.
Authorities believe that Khan and the other suspects, who traveled extensively to countries including Pakistan, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, received training from Al Qaeda specialists. Khan may have helped recruit and prepare his fellow bombers, who, like him, were Pakistani Britons from the northern city of Leeds, investigators said.
“That’s a connection that they are following right now,” said a U.S. law enforcement official familiar with the investigation who asked not to be identified. “Khan is a pretty key individual. He’s a common denominator between the two cases.”
The Pakistani connection distinguishes the London bombings from other recent attacks in Europe, such as last year’s Madrid train bombings, which allegedly were carried out by North African networks shuttling militants between Europe and Iraq -- a battle theater dominated by a new generation of Al Qaeda figures such as Abu Musab Zarqawi.
In contrast, the London case seems to point toward the classic inner core of Al Qaeda, whose surviving leaders are thought to be hiding in the Afghan-Pakistani borderlands. The London attacks also were the first suicide bombing attacks in Western Europe.
As the investigation continued, British police said they were searching for an associate of the four men from Leeds. Authorities said they knew his name, but they disclosed few details about him and another suspect already in custody, a Leeds man who was arrested Tuesday. The latter will remain in custody for at least three more days under British anti-terrorism law.
On Wednesday night, police searched a house near Luton, the north London suburb where the suspects apparently assembled and took a train to London’s King’s Cross Station early July 7. From there, investigators say, the four dispersed on a mission that killed at least 52 people aboard three subway trains and a bus. The blasts appear to have been choreographed to emblazon a symbolic “flaming cross” on the map of the British capital, authorities said.
On Wednesday, investigators in Europe, Pakistan and the United States continued to search for missing pieces to the puzzle: potential bomb makers and masterminds who may have traveled between Pakistan and Britain.
Pakistan’s interior minister said his country’s authorities were helping in the British investigation. He also said his security forces had helped British police thwart a plot that had been timed for Britain’s parliamentary elections in May.
Pakistani investigators are likely to be key to the pursuit of leads linking the London attacks to past plots. Investigators have found that the men from Leeds had contact with a group of Britons of Pakistani descent who were charged in April 2004 with stockpiling half a ton of bomb-making material, European and U.S. officials said. The suspected plotters allegedly planned to target shopping malls and other public places, according to British counter-terrorism officials.
One of those Britons now facing trial was arrested in Pakistan last year and extradited. The 29-year-old allegedly had a senior role, traveling back and forth as an emissary to operatives in Pakistan who were providing leadership and expertise -- a potential model for last week’s London plot.
“The external connections to Pakistan are what needs to be looked at,” a senior European police official said. “The same network appears to be involved.... The London attacks would be the development of that project which they had attempted. In that [previous] case, there was intelligence from the Americans and Pakistanis that stopped them. The idea is, after the arrests, they reorganized and tried again.”
Investigators said some of the men jailed last year in the global investigation, which was dubbed Operation Crevice, were associates of Khan, who was the father of an 8-year-old girl and a part-time martial arts instructor.
Although British authorities say they now have identified all four of the men believed to have carried out the bombings, they have not named them publicly. In addition to Khan, however, two have been identified by relatives, neighbors and news reports as Hasib Hussain, 18, a deeply religious and troubled youth who lived with his parents, and Shahzad Tanweer, 22, who worked in his father’s fish-and-chips shop.
Police are investigating whether Khan’s comrades also had contact with the Operation Crevice group before the arrests in April 2004, investigators said.
“It seems that some of these suspects may have been on the margins of the group that was arrested last year,” the European police official said. “There appear to be personal contacts.”
That raises the possibility that the Leeds suspects had come to the attention of British security personnel, at least tangentially, in the past. The suggestion generated acrimony Wednesday at a meeting of Europe’s top law enforcement officials in Brussels, headquarters of the European Union.
After talking with his fellow ministers about the terrorist threat in Europe, French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy told journalists, “A part of the team to which [the London bombers] belonged was the object of a partial arrest during spring of 2004.”
Apparently interpreting the comment to mean that some of the London suspects had been arrested and released, British Home Secretary Charles Clarke quickly declared that Sarkozy was wrong. In a later effort at clarification, a French diplomat told reporters that Sarkozy had merely cited British sources who told French officials that the bombers belonged to the group arrested last year.
The suspicions about links to past plots were reinforced by Pakistan’s interior minister, Aftab Khan Sherpao. He said Pakistani intelligence had detected a plot against Britain before the May elections.
“Let me be specific that before the general elections in the U.K., we had received reports that this sort of situation may arise, which was passed on,” Sherpao told journalists in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. He said the plot “was aborted because of the information provided by the government of Pakistan, after which arrests were made in various countries, including the U.K. and Canada.”
Sherpao declined to comment on reports that a Briton arrested in Peshawar, Pakistan, in the alleged May plot was now under investigation in the London bombings.
Pakistani officials identified him as Zeeshan Siddique, 25, of London and said he might also be tied to the Operation Crevice group, as well as to an alleged plot to attack financial institutions in New York and New Jersey that was dismantled in August. U.S. agents are reviewing possible links between the London suspects and the U.S.
Although the Leeds group has been portrayed in some media accounts as thoroughly local products of one of Britain’s faded industrial backwaters, several of its members traveled extensively, according to investigators, family and associates.
Khan and Tanweer both traveled to Pakistan; Khan apparently made several trips, investigators said. In December, Tanweer went to the city of Lahore to take a course in religious studies, spending at least two months there, a close family friend, Bashir Ahmad, told television interviewers. A neighbor also told ITV that Tanweer had gone to Afghanistan on that trip.
In addition, Tanweer and Hussain reportedly made the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, in recent years.
Police think the travel may have had a clandestine purpose: to make contact with terrorist masterminds and trainers. Although Osama bin Laden’s complex of camps in Afghanistan was destroyed by the U.S. military in late 2001, smaller Al Qaeda-connected training facilities survive in the Pakistani-controlled part of Kashmir and elsewhere in Pakistan, investigators say. Several young Dutch militants allegedly trained at camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan before plotting the November slaying of an Amsterdam filmmaker.
European and U.S. investigators think the Leeds suspects who went to Pakistan may have been trained there, then returned to train the others. It’s also possible that Pakistani operatives came to Britain to perform tasks such as building the bombs, which the U.S. law enforcement official described as potent but relatively simple to assemble.
“The idea was that the trainer came in from Pakistan, whether it was one of them or somebody else,” the U.S. official said.
Times staff writers Carol J. Williams in London and Achrene Sicakyuz in Paris and special correspondent Mubashir Zaidi in Islamabad contributed to this report.