Global Hunt Nets More Suspects
The contours of an alleged plot to blow up airplanes over the Atlantic Ocean grew wider Friday when Pakistani authorities said that they had arrested at least nine people in the case and that one of them had admitted meeting with the reputed head of Al Qaeda’s operations in Pakistan.
The link to Matiur Rehman, Pakistan’s most-wanted terrorism suspect, was the strongest indication yet that Al Qaeda may have been involved in the alleged plot, although some intelligence analysts caution that any ties may be informal.
The arrests underscore Pakistan’s central -- and conflicting -- role in the fight against terrorism, both as an ally of the United States and Britain and as a seedbed of violent Islamic fundamentalism.
“The Pakistan connection appears to be falling into place,” a senior U.S. intelligence official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. He added that any link to the Al Qaeda terrorist network “appears to be more clearly apparent today.”
His assessment was not shared by all, however. Another senior U.S. official cautioned against reading too much into the Al Qaeda link.
British authorities arrested 24 people Thursday, most of them Britons of Pakistani descent, saying the move had foiled a plot to smuggle materials to make liquid explosives aboard as many as 10 U.S.-bound airliners and detonate the mixtures in flight.
Italian officials also announced arrests they said were prompted by the alleged plot.
The case has caused a sharp escalation in security measures at airports in the U.S. and Britain, leading to long delays. Airports in both countries had largely adjusted by Friday, with passengers checking more bags and carrying less luggage aboard.
One of the men arrested was released Friday without being charged, and police applied for judicial permission to keep 22 of the others in custody until Wednesday, and one until Monday.
Nineteen suspects have been identified by the Bank of England, which froze their assets. A British anti-terrorism official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the 19 were likely to remain in custody but that some of the others might be released in coming days.
It was unclear whether other suspects were being sought.
Police believe the alleged plotters planned to conceal the liquids in sports drink containers and bring them aboard in carry-on luggage or in their hands, the British official said.
Authorities think they have the would-be bomb makers in custody, he said.
The official also confirmed news reports that one of the suspects worked at London’s Heathrow Airport. But his job did not appear to be vital to the development of the plot, the official said.
Pakistani authorities said the crucial break in the case came in recent days when they arrested Rashid Rauf, one of two British citizens of Pakistani origin who were taken into custody about the same time.
Rauf was described as a close relative of Tayib Rauf, 22, of Birmingham, England, who was among the men arrested in Britain on Thursday.
British press reports described the two as brothers, but that could not be confirmed.
During questioning in Pakistan, Rashid Rauf revealed details of the alleged plot, said the Pakistani officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
They said the information was immediately shared with British security services. Rauf remains in custody in Pakistan, the sources said.
Pakistan’s press attache in Washington, M. Akram Shaheedi, said Rauf was arrested on or around Wednesday as a result of a tip from British authorities. He described him as the key person among those held in Pakistan.
Shaheedi also said that the case clearly involved operatives outside Pakistan and Britain.
“There are indications of Afghanistan-based Al Qaeda connections,” Shaheedi said. “The case has wider international dimensions.”
U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials spent Friday working with counterparts in Britain and Pakistan to unravel details of the alleged plot and search for any additional suspects.
Frances Fragos Townsend, the White House advisor on domestic security, confirmed in televised interviews that the FBI was pursuing leads in the U.S., but said there was no indication of any plotting on American soil.
A senior U.S. law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said authorities had no indication that there were suspects in the United States, but added that the investigation was ongoing.
“Once you arrest 24 people,” he said, “everything associated with that -- all the searches and seizures, the interviews and interrogations -- provide you with a wealth of information you didn’t have before.”
In another indication of the global nature of the investigation, Italy’s Interior Ministry announced the arrests of 40 people.
A crackdown at “Islamic gathering spots,” including telephone call centers, money-transfer businesses and Internet cafes, was carried out in 14 cities Wednesday and Thursday, the ministry said in a statement. Most of the people taken into custody were arrested for residency regulation violations.
In Britain, searches of the suspects’ homes continued Friday and “are likely to take some time,” given the number of locations, a Scotland Yard spokesman said.
The areas where the arrests occurred remained under surveillance, cordoned off from public access and guarded by police. Television reports described officers emerging from houses carrying computers, videos, DVDs and other evidence in bulging black garbage bags.
In Pakistan, officials said Rauf had been under surveillance for six months, his phone calls and Internet communications monitored.
The anti-terrorism official in Britain said Rauf was known to have been in touch with the suspects arrested there.
He described Rauf as a significant figure but not necessarily the alleged plot’s leader.
“There was a lot of traffic of communications between him and the people here,” the official said in London. “But I wouldn’t say that he was the mastermind.”
Rauf admitted under interrogation that he had met with Matiur Rehman, a senior Interior Ministry official said in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital.
The official described Rehman as Al Qaeda’s new operations chief in Pakistan, since the arrests of the network’s previous local leaders.
The Pakistani group is believed to be a subsidiary of the umbrella network run by Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri, both of whom are thought to be hiding in Pakistan’s rural western region.
Rehman is ranked No. 1 among 166 people in a “red book” of suspected terrorists compiled by Pakistani intelligence agencies that was made available to The Times.
He is wanted in connection with a 2003 assassination attempt against Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, and one in 2004 against Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz. Pakistan has offered a $1.7-million reward for his capture.
Still, one U.S. counter-terrorism official cautioned that there might be little significance to Rauf’s apparent meeting with Rehman.
“It isn’t clear what that individual’s significance is or his connection, if any, to the plot,” the official said. “I’d lean toward not overstating his position.”
Pakistan’s interior secretary, Syed Kamal Shah, who oversees law enforcement agencies in Pakistan, said Rauf was arrested in Punjab province, a hotbed of militant activity.
He added that Rauf, who holds dual British and Pakistani citizenship, was born and raised in London, where he has a home.
“Right now, I can only say that he was a very important man in the plot,” Shah said.
In addition to the two Britons arrested earlier in the week, Pakistani officials said they arrested seven people Friday, three of them at the Islamabad airport and four in a village south of the capital.
Watson reported from Karachi, Meyer from Washington and Rotella from Ferrol, Spain. Times staff writers Mitchell Landsberg in Los Angeles and Janet Stobart in London and special correspondents Mubashir Zaidi in Islamabad and Shamim ur-Rahman in Karachi contributed to this report.