In a further link, the father of Rauf's wife and her sister runs Darul Uloom Madina, one of Pakistan's biggest and most hardline seminaries, with some 2,000 students, in Bahawalpur, Azhar's hometown. Rauf's arrest in Bahawalpur was one of the events that prompted British police to swoop in on the suspected London conspirators last Thursday, for fear they would become suspicious if they lost contact with such a central figure in their plans.
Although Azhar, in his late 30s, is now in hiding, he continues to lead the militant group Jaish-e-Muhammad, which is opposed to Indian rule of the disputed region of Kashmir and is said to have been behind the 2004 assassination attempt of President Pervez Musharraf and several other terror attacks. Azhar founded the group after he was released from an Indian prison in December 1999 in exchange for 155 passengers from a hijacked Indian airliner. Another prisoner released at the same time was Ahmad Omar Saeed Sheikh, a militant close to Jaish-e-Muhammad who was subsequently convicted of abducting U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl and sentencing him to death. At a rally in Karachi in January 2000 Azhar exhorted the crowd that "Muslims should not rest in peace until we have destroyed America and India."
While senior Pakistani officials do not believe Azhar is directly linked to recent terrorist activity in Pakistan or to al-Qaeda, it is believed rebel members of his group are now forging links with Osama Bin Laden's Afghanistan-based network.
Rauf, who is believed to have two daughters, aged two and eight months, is known to have shuttled between his base in Pakistan and Kandahar and Paktia in Afghanistan. Until 2002, he lived in Birmingham, England, but left after the murder of his uncle, which was never solved. His younger brother Tayib was one of two suspects arrested in Birmingham last week in the wave of British raids that has netted 23 people in total. U.K. intelligence officers are now expected to fly to Pakistan to interrogate Rauf and hope to bring him back to the U.K.; however, there are no formal extradition treaties with Pakistan.
A charity called Crescent Relief founded by the Raufs' father, Abdul, which collected money for last year's Pakistani earthquake relief effort, is also under the microscope. A London-based independent security analyst said money was transferred from Crescent Relief late last year into three accounts in three separate banks in the Mirpur region of Kashmir. The accounts belonged to suspects arrested in the U.K. and Pakistan in the past week, the source said. Officials at Crescent Relief were unavailable for comment, and Pakistan's Foreign Ministry has dismissed reports that a tie to earthquake relief funds is being investigated. "Rashid Rauf had nothing to do with any charity involved in the earthquake relief work or with any relief work as such," said Tasneem Aslam, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson.
In a separate development, Tuesday evening a senior Pakistani intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters in Islamabad that an al-Qaeda leader based in Afghanistan masterminded the British plot. While he did not identify the leader, the official suggested he was close to the rank of Abu Faraj al-Libbi, a Libyan said to have been a high-ranking operative arrested in Pakistan in May last year and later turned over to the U.S. But the direct involvement of Osama Bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahri on this particular plot was ruled out by the official.
At the same time, investigators are examining links between the British detainees and known Islamic extremists in Germany. Counterterrorism officers there are trying to ascertain the connection between at least one of the London suspects and the wife of a Hamburg al-Qaeda cell fugitive linked to the Sept. 11 attacks in New York.
The international dimension of the investigation has mobilized European politicians eager to present a united front against terrorism. Wednesday morning, British Home Office minister John Reid, who earlier this week warned that another 24 plots had been detected in the U.K., briefed his E.U. counterparts on the London investigation and urged them to ensure security measures were consistent across the Continent. "We face a common threat and must respond in common fashion," Reid told them, warning that threat was evolving all the time.
He didn't have to do much to convince them. Near the end of the meeting Franco Frattini, vice president of the European Commission on Liberty, Justice and Security, mapped out the enhanced practical measures that E.U. leaders will announce in a formal plan over the next few days. They include extending existing research on explosives (particularly liquid explosives), a tougher crackdown on inflammatory websites or those that detail bomb-making expertise, and encouraging security officials to share biometric data of suspected persons more often and more rapidly.
Nicolas Sarkozy, French Interior Minister, also suggested the establishment, at an E.U. level, of counterterror expert teams ready to help member states when needed. These would be similar to the "rapid reaction teams"at the disposal of the E.U. under its solidarity agreement, which aid member states in preventing illegal immigration.
Meanwhile, police in London Wednesday were granted by the courts more time to question the suspects in their custody, who include at least one woman. New powers granted under the 2006 Terrorism Act allow the police a maximum of 28 days to detain the suspects without charge, subject to request. Some 46 properties and 20 vehicles have already been searched and vast swaths of woodland near High Wycombe, scene of six of the first wave of arrests, are currently being combed for evidence of stashed explosives.
with reporting by Ghulam Hasnain/Bahawalpur, Aryn Baker and Syed Talat Hussain/Islamabad and Adam Smith/London.