A major terrorism trial here was interrupted Tuesday when a defendant accused Pakistan’s intelligence service of threatening his relatives in the South Asian nation after he testified that the spy agency played a role in training Islamic militants.
Omar Khyam, an accused leader among seven men charged in 2004 with stockpiling half a ton of explosives in an Al Qaeda-linked bombing plot, took the stand Tuesday long enough to refuse to continue his testimony. The judge temporarily adjourned the trial, which began in March.
On Monday, Khyam stunned his own lawyer when he declared that his relatives in Pakistan had been intimidated in recent days by agents of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, which has a shadowy history of contacts with Islamic extremist networks.
“The ISI has had words with my family in Pakistan regarding what I have been saying” about the agency, Khyam, 24, said on the stand Monday. “I think they are worried I might end up revealing more about them, and right now the priority has to be the safety of my family there.”
“I am not going to discuss anything related to the ISI anymore or my evidence,” he said.
Despite longtime allegations that Pakistani agents have trained Islamic militants and protected fugitive Al Qaeda leaders, Khyam’s testimony provided a rare account in a Western courtroom about the ISI’s role in militant training camps. His accusation also raised concerns that Pakistani intelligence officials might be seeking to disrupt a significant prosecution of alleged Islamic extremism in Europe.
There was no evidence presented to suggest that the ISI had links to preparations in Pakistan for the alleged plan to bomb a nightclub and shopping center in the London area. But Khyam’s allegation raises the possibility that he had been on the verge of revelations related to the case, which has parallels and suspected links to last year’s bombings on the London transportation system and a recent alleged plot to attack transatlantic airliners, observers said.
“We are in uncharted territory here,” said Sajjan Gohel of the Asia-Pacific Foundation, a counter-terrorism think tank here. “It hasn’t happened before. The ISI has always been a murky organization. There have always been suspicions of a nexus between them, terror groups in Pakistan and Al Qaeda. But here you have a guy from the UK giving testimony that is very relevant because the ISI is supposed to be the key ally in the hunt for [Osama] bin Laden. And it’s concerning that a country that is supposed to be an ally in the war on terror is intimidating witnesses, almost ‘Godfather'-style.”
Pakistani diplomats in London did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
If the allegations about intimidation are true, they raise troubling implications for the trial and the other pending cases involving British suspects of Pakistani origin with alleged connections to terrorist networks in Pakistan -- as well as family ties there.
It is almost unprecedented in a British court for a defendant to cite fear of a foreign government as an obstacle to testifying, said Rhiannon Talbot, a professor at Newcastle University and an expert on terrorism law.
“It’s not unusual for a witness to refuse to give testimony in cases of organized crime, but it is unusual for a defendant to do so,” Talbot said.
Talbot and court officials said the trial was likely to continue Thursday with a new defendant testifying.
Khyam’s defense appears to be over, however.
Khyam is a central figure in the case. In 2003, he led defendants on a trip to a Pakistani training camp near Afghanistan and met with a top Al Qaeda figure who told him to carry out attacks in Britain, according to prosecution witnesses. Wiretaps played in court documented his conversations about scenarios, including the possible bombing of London’s biggest nightclub to massacre patrons.
Khyam readily admitted during testimony last week that, as he became radicalized, he had set off for Pakistan in 2000 to become a holy warrior. “A lot of my family were officers in the military and the ISI” and encouraged his aspirations, he testified.
After telling his family here that he was going to France to study, he made his way to a training camp in the mountains above the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi. He spent three months learning firearms skills and guerrilla tactics for combat, according to his testimony. He said ISI operatives had provided explosives training at the camp but that he did not learn those skills.
“People there were selected by the ISI,” Khyam testified. “The ISI works with Islamic groups. The group I was with, they wouldn’t let us train with the local Pakistanis. There would be a separate camp for the foreigners.”
The Islamic militants were being prepared for combat in Kashmir, where Pakistani security forces deploy them in “a proxy war” with India over the contested region, he testified.
“The ISI was setting up training camps in what we call Free Kashmir, funding it with money and weapons, and people that would train people, and logistical supplies, everything,” he told the court.
Kashmir, along with Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Russian republic of Chechnya, is one of the battlegrounds that has provided a multinational flow of aspiring Islamic militants to Al Qaeda and its allies.
Khyam testified that he did not reach Kashmir. His Pakistani relatives, alerted by his worried parents here, used intelligence service connections to track him down, he said.
He returned to Britain, where prosecutors allege the cell came together. His group made trips to Pakistan in 2003 for training, logistical support and direction from Al Qaeda-connected networks, prosecutors said.
Khyam denies any role in a bomb plot. But the abrupt halt to his defense has raised new questions.
“Khyam has revealed more information than was expected,” said Gohel of the Asia-Pacific Foundation. “He has given a lot of insight into how very many British Muslims have been recruited.... I think everyone was shocked. The question now is whether the whole truth will come out.”
Rotella reported from Paris and Stobart from London.