Thursday, July 21, 2005

Top al-Qaeda Briton called Tube bombers before attack

Zahid Hussain, Daniel McGrory and Sean O’Neill, The Times UK:
THE British al-Qaeda leader linked to the London terrorist attacks was being questioned by police in Pakistan last night after the discovery of mobile phone records detailing his calls with the suicide bombers.

Haroon Rashid Aswat has emerged as the figure that Scotland Yard have been hunting since he flew out of Britain just hours before the attacks which killed 56 people. READ MORE

Aswat, 30, who is believed to come from the same West Yorkshire town as one of the bombers, arrived in Britain a fortnight before the attacks to orchestrate final planning for the atrocity. He spoke to the suicide team on his mobile phone a few hours before the four men blew themselves up and killed fifty-two other people.

Intelligence sources told The Times that during his stay Aswat visited the home towns of all four bombers as well as selecting targets in London.

Aswat has been known to Western intelligence services for more than three years after the FBI accused him of trying to set up al-Qaeda training camps in the US. When he was arrested in a madrassa (religious school), Aswat is understood to have been posing as a businessmen and using a false name. He was picked up in a raid at a madrassa at Sargodha, 90 miles from Islamabad, by Pakistani intelligence officials and flown to a jail in the capital.

Security sources there told The Times that he was armed with a number of guns, wearing an explosive belt and carrying around £17,000 in cash. He had a British passport and was about to flee across the border to Afghanistan.

Aswat, who is thought to have stayed in the madrassa with two of the British suicide bombers, is being questioned over claims that one — Mohammad Sidique Khan — telephoned him on the morning of the July 7 attack.

Intelligence sources claim that there were up to twenty calls between Aswat and two of the bombers in the days leading up to the bombing of three Tube trains and a double-decker bus. A senior Pakistani security source said: We believe this man had a crucial part to play in what happened in London.”

Tony Blair has telephoned President Musharraf about the crackdown on militants which has led to more than 200 arrests in Pakistan since the weekend.

Officials in Islamabad say that eight men are directly linked to the London investigation, and were in telephone contact with Shehzad Tanweer, 22, and Khan, 30, a former primary school assistant.

Aswat is believed to have had a ten-year association with militant groups and met Osama bin Laden while attending an al-Qaeda training camp at Khalden in Afghanistan.

FBI documents obtained by The Times reveal details of how a London-based cleric sent Aswat to America in 1999 to set up camps in Oregon for US-born recruits.

The papers indicate that Aswat spent three months in America and engaged in firearms and poisons training but decided against using a remote ranch in Bly as an al-Qaeda camp. The CIA is keeping in close touch with Aswat’s interrogation and British detectives are seeking permission to speak to him.

The FBI is to question a number of figures held in the US, including James Ujaama, an American convert to Islam who met Aswat, and a second al-Qaeda emissary in Seattle.

Ujaama has pleaded guilty to assisting the Taleban and is now a “co-operating witness” who has given details of Aswat’s activities in the US.

Aswat flew into New York on November 26, 1999, on an Air India flight with Oussama Abdullah Kassir, who has Swedish nationality.

Kassir, 38, described himself as “a hitman for Osama bin Ladenand claimed to have fought in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

Ujaama drove the pair to the ranch but they complained that it did not have the facilities — especially barracks for otential recruits — that they had been led to believe existed.

During November and December 1999, Aswat and Kassir met potential candidates for jihad training.

The FBI document details how they secured the Bly property with guard patrols and passwords and they and others received training in firearms and “improvised poisons.

Aswat and Kassir were still in the United States in February 2000. They were living in Seattle where they “expounded the writings and teachings” of their London-based mentor in lectures to young Muslims at a city mosque.

Kassir also provided what the FBI described as “urban tactical training.

In 2002, an associate of Kassir was arrested in Stockholm, the Swedish capital, attempting to board a flight to London carrying a revolver.

Kassir, a Lebanese-born Swede, was jailed for ten months in November 2003 for possessing illegal weapons at his home in Stockholm.

Charges that he was planning a terrorist attack were dropped.