Investigators probing the London terror bombings are focusing on an elusive British Muslim suspect who may have connections to previous plots to blow up landmarks in the United Kingdom and to set up a terrorist training camp in rural Oregon, according to Western law-enforcement and counterterrorism officials.
A U.S. law-enforcement official confirmed to NEWSWEEK on Wednesday that the FBI is also seeking a man believed to be the same suspect, Haroon Rashid Aswad, as part of a New York-based terror investigation. That individual has been widely cited in press reports this week as the subject of an intense manhunt by security forces in Pakistan.
Some news agencies earlier this week reported that Aswad had been arrested during a roundup of 150 militants in the eastern city of Lahore. But Pakistan's information minister denied those reports Wednesday and some U.S. law-enforcement officials say they are uncertain whether Aswad is currently in custody or still at large.
If Aswad is captured, British investigators believe it could allow them to piece together who recruited, trained and directed the suicide bombers who struck the London subway and bus systems on July 7. More importantly, Aswad's suspected links to the London plot may provide the strongest evidence yet that the attacks were part of a broader terror conspiracy with clear connections to Al Qaeda suspects who have been on the radar screen of Western intelligence officials for years.
A Western counterterrorism official described Aswad as being a British citizen of Pakistani extraction in his early 30s whose family is said to live in Leeds in northern England, where three of the four suspected suicide bombers resided. He is believed to have been a committed follower of Abu Hamza al-Masri, the fiery one-eyed Islamic cleric who preached at London's notorious Finsbury Park Mosque before being arrested last year by British authorities on a U.S. extradition warrant.
Aswad's suspected connections to the London bombings remain unclear. The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that his name was passed to Pakistani and U.S. authorities by British investigators who traced it from the cell phone of one of the suspected bombers. A Western counterterrorism official said some investigators believe he may have played a crucial support role--or even been a planner of the attacks. Aswad was certainly a "step up" from the "foot soldiers" who blew themselves up, said the official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the investigation.
A man believed to be Aswad has surfaced at least twice before in counterterror investigations. One involves Operation Crevice, Scotland Yard's code name for a case that last year led to the arrest of eight British-born ethnic Pakistanis and the seizure of 1,300 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer--material that authorities suspected was to be used to make bombs to blow up major British landmarks. Aswad is believed to have had connections to some of the suspects in the fertilizer plot, as did Mohammed Sidique Khan, one of the suspects who authorities say blew themselves up in this month's London attacks.
Aswad is also believed to have been the same suspect who surfaced three years ago in the FBI investigation of James Ujaama, a Seattle-based Muslim convert who pled guilty in April 2003 to providing material support to the Taliban. As part of that case, prosecutors unsealed documents alleging that a "Haroon Rashid Aswat" was one of two deputies dispatched by Abu Hamza, the London imam, to assist Ujaama in scouting land for and setting up a training camp in Bly, Ore. The camp was to be modeled after those previously run by Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, authorities said at the time. (A U.S. law-enforcement official told NEWSWEEK that the Aswad being sought in Pakistan "appears to be the same guy" as the "Aswat" identified in the Ujaama case.) The indictment against Ujaama charged that the training camps were to be used to train attendees in "violent jihad" as well as the commission of armed robberies, the building of underground bunkers to hide ammunition and weapons, as well as the "creation of poisonous materials for public consumption and the firebombing of vehicles." Aswat was an "unindicted co-conspirator" in the Ujaama case, a law-enforcement official said.
Aswad's alleged associate, who accompanied him to Oregon, Oussama Kassir, was said in the indictment to have identified himself as a "hit man" for bin Laden. Kassir, who was arrested in October 2003 in Sweden, was quoted by The Seattle Times as denying he ever described himself as a bin Laden hit man. But he did tell the newspaper in 2002: "I love Al Qaeda. I love Osama bin Laden."
The FBI's current interest in Aswad is an outgrowth of its case against Abu Hamza, the London cleric who was indicted last year in New York on multiple terror-related charges, including hostage-taking and conspiracy in connection with a 1998 attack on tourists in Yemen, a U.S. law-enforcement official said. Four of the eleven counts in the Abu Hamza indictment in New York related to his efforts to assist in setting up the Bly, Ore., training camp.
If substantiated, a link between the London subway-bombing conspiracy and Abu Hamza could spark new criticism of how the British intelligence and security services and the government of Tony Blair handled Islamic extremists in the past. For years both before and after the 9/11 attacks in America, Jewish groups and antiterrorism experts complained that the British government had done nothing to curb the fiery, pro-jihad preachings of Abu Hamza, an Egyptian-born former nightclub bouncer who became a British citizen after marrying a British woman. Abu Hamza, who was badly injured while supposedly clearing land mines for the Afghan mujahedin and now has hooks for hands, later became the prayer leader at the Finsbury Park Mosque in London. Before 9/11, Abu Hamza's mosque was believed to be a regular hangout for disaffected European Muslims seeking jihad action; among now-notorious suspects who allegedly visited the mosque when Abu Hamza led prayers there were failed airline shoe-bomber Richard Reid and Zacarias Moussaoui, the only suspect arrested and charged by U.S. authorities with complicity in the 9/11 plot.
In January 2003, British police raided the Finsbury Park Mosque as part of an investigation into an alleged London terror cell that was planning attacks with the homemade poison ricin. The British government ultimately responded to pressure from Washington and elsewhere to take Abu Hamza off the streets by launching legal and legislative steps against him, among them a bill in Parliament to strip him of his U.K. citizenship and a prosecution on terror-related charges which led to Abu Hamza's current jailing. Some counterterror analysts have speculated that this month's attacks may have been in retaliation for the legal moves against Abu Hamza.
If Aswad is established as a one-time associate of Abu Hamza who was known well before the subway bombings to both British and U.S. law-enforcement agencies, then he would be the third suspected participant in the plot regarding whom the U.S. and, allegedly, U.K. authorities had at least some intelligence information before the subway attacks.
U.S. and U.K. government officials have already acknowledged that Siddique Khan, the eldest of the subway suicide squad officially identified by Scotland Yard, had turned up in last year's Operation Crevice case. Counterterrorism sources have also confirmed that Mohammed Junaid Babar, a former jihadi recruit from Queens, N.Y., who turned U.S. government witness after being arrested while attempting to visit New York last year from Pakistan, has identified Khan from a photograph. Officials say Babar indicates he saw Khan in a jihadi training camp in Pakistan before Babar's arrest in early 2004. In addition, two U.S. officials say that the name of a another presumed subway suicide attacker, Jamaican-born Germaine Lindsay, also turned up in U.S. government antiterror databases. According to these officials, who could not be named because of the sensitive nature of the investigation, Lindsay's name came up tangentially during the U.K. investigation of the Operation Crevice plot.