By Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank -- Islamabad and New York
Five British citizens, four of whom are of Pakistani descent, were convicted Monday of planning to attack targets in the United Kingdom under orders from al Qaeda using fertilizer-based bombs. Their convictions underline the fact that from its Pakistani hub al Qaeda now has the capability not only to plan once-off attacks in the U.K., but is also able to plan a sustained campaign of terrorist operations against the United States’ closest ally. And the ease with which al Qaeda has recruited operatives from the U.K. suggests that a future attack on the United States by British militants trained in al Qaeda’s training camps in Pakistan is a real possibility.
Several U.K. terrorism plots involving British Pakistanis in recent years can be traced back to a senior al Qaeda commander, Abdul Hadi al Iraqi, (who it was announced on Friday is now in custody at Guantanamo.) A number of the fertilizer plotters and two of the suicide bombers who on July 7, 2005 killed 52 commuters on London’s transportation system attended a Pakistani terrorist training camp under Abdul Hadi’s orders. Abdul Hadi also reportedly met with Rachid Rauf, a British Pakistani, with reported ties to Kashmiri militants, who is alleged to be a key figure in last summer’s aborted al Qaeda plot to down as many as ten American airliners over the Atlantic. (According to the Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir, Abdul Hadi – a former Iraqi army major before he joined al Qaeda in the late 1990s – operated mainly out of Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan where he planned his terrorist operations.)
A possible al Qaeda link has also emerged in the case of five men suspected of attempting additional attacks on the London transport system on July 21, 2005. In their separate ongoing trial, not only did a government scientist testify that the explosive devices they used were remarkably similar in design to those used in the July 7 attacks, but a prosecution witness testified that the alleged ringleader of the plot trained in a Pakistani training camp with Kashmiri militants.
In fact, almost every significant terrorist plot uncovered in the U.K. in recent years has some link to a Kashmiri militant group, which is significant because most British Pakistanis are of Kashmiri origin. Since 9/11 al Qaeda has significantly deepened ties – dating back to the 1980s Afghan jihad against the Soviets – with such groups, helping it to revive its operational capabilities in Pakistan.
A perfect example of the worrisome nexus between British militants, Kashmiri groups and al Qaeda is Omar Khyam, the ringleader of the fertilizer plotters who was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the plot. Khyam is the cricket-mad son of middle-class Pakistani immigrants who grew up south of London in the tranquil, green commuter town of Crawley. He testified during his trial that around the age of sixteen he began to take the practice of Islam “quite seriously” and that it was above all the Kashmir issue that radicalized him after falling in with Al Muhajiroun, a British al Qaeda support group. In 1999, a year after his spiritual awakening, he went on a family holiday in Pakistan, one of four hundred thousand visits to the country made by British-Pakistanis each year. Near the capital, Islamabad, he stumbled across a rally organized by Al Badr Mujihadeen, a Kashmiri militant group, where he picked up some literature about the Kashmir jihad.
That chance encounter would plant the seed for his next trip to Pakistan in January 2000. Khyam told his family he was going on a brief trip to France. In fact he went to Pakistan for three months training with the Kashmiri militant group Lashkar-e-Toiba. Linking up with the group was surprisingly easy, Khyam testified that on landing in Islamabad, knowing that Kashmiri militants “had offices all over Pakistan in every major city,” he had simply told his taxi driver to “take me to the office of the mujahideen.” He was subsequently taken to a training camp in the mountains of Kashmir where he was trained on a wide range of weapons such as AK-47s and rocket propelled grenades. At the camp explosives training was also provided to the recruits by officers of ISI, the Pakistani military intelligence service. Eventually, Khyam’s concerned family tracked him down in Pakistan, sending an uncle to bring him back to the U.K.
Khyam returned to Pakistan in the summer of 2001 and traveled into Taliban-controlled Afghanistan where he said he found the Taliban to be “very close” to the ideals of the Prophet Muhammad and he resolved to move to Afghanistan at some point in the future. Back in the UK in September 2001 Khyam started a computing course at a college in North London. When the 9/11 attacks happened he testified that “I was happy…because America was and is the greatest enemy of Islam.”
Subsequently Khyam spent much of his time with a circle of radical young men, most of whom were second-generation British Pakistanis. Khyam testified at his trial that the 2001 war in Afghanistan against the Taliban turned his group of friends against their home country for the first time and that the war in Iraq was “just sort of the final [straw].”
By then Khyam had already started working for al Qaeda according to the testimony of Mohammed Junaid Babar, a Pakistani-American accomplice in the fertilizer plot turned-prosecution star witness. In the spring of 2003, as the Iraq war was getting under way, Khyam’s group traveled to Pakistan determined to get further training in jihadist camps. According to the confession one of them gave British police, the group was at this stage intent only on fighting in Afghanistan. However, Abdul Hadi sent word to them that because al Qaeda “had enough people…if they really wanted to do something they could go back [to the U.K.] and do something there.” Abdul Hadi’s deputy then met Khyam in Kohat, Pakistan and instructed him to carry out “multiple bombings” either “simultaneously” or “one after the other on the same day.”
Under Abdul Hadi’s orders, Khyam’s group exploited their contacts with Kashmiri militant groups to set up a training camp in Malakand, a district on the northern Afghan-Pakistan border where, together with two of the July 7 bombers, they were instructed in bomb making techniques (including fertilizer-based devices) and explained the rewards of martyrdom. Khyam’s group became much more serious after attending the training camp and started buying bomb-making supplies that they intended to ship back to the U.K.
Khyam and most of his group returned to the U.K in the fall of 2003 where they purchased 1,300 pounds of fertilizer and considered a variety of possible targets including a well known London nightclub, a shopping center, trains and synagogues. In February 2004, according to the confession one of the group gave British police, Khyam contacted Abdul Hadi’s deputy to check the precise bomb-making instructions he had learned in the camps the previous year.
That same February, the court was told that just before police swooped down on Khyam’s cell, he was visited by Momin Khawaja, a Canadian citizen of Pakistani descent, who had also attended the Malakand training camp in Pakistan, demonstrating al Qaeda’s ability to coordinate with many spokes from its Pakistani hub. Khawaja, who once had a job as a software developer for the Canadian government, worked on developing a remote-control detonation device for the fertilizer bomb Khyam planned to construct. The two kept in touch by saving emails in draft form in shared Hotmail and Yahoo accounts (“you don’t actually send the emails”, testified Khyam). Such techniques are standard al Qaeda practice and were used by the 9/11 hijackers under orders from their operational commander Khalid Sheik Mohammed.
The fact that al Qaeda has trained several separate cells of British recruits from its Pakistan base in recent years should be of great concern to U.S. national security officials because of the ease with which British passport holders can enter the United States.
That recruitment, however, has not been limited to the British Pakistani diaspora. Pakistani-Americans, such as Iyman Faris who plotted to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge, also trained with al Qaeda in Pakistan. Mohammed Babar, the star prosecution witness in the fertilizer trial is also a case in point. Babar, a one-time resident of Queens, was arrested in New York shortly after the arrest of the fertilizer conspirators in the U.K. He subsequently pled guilty to supplying money, night-vision goggles and sleeping bags to al Qaeda militants attacking U.S troops in Afghanistan. Babar testified that he also met with the senior al Qaeda commander Abdul Hadi al Iraqi four times in quick succession just before he returned to New York in early 2004 and he conceptualized (but did not plan in detail) an attack on Times Square during New Year’s Eve celebrations.
Unfortunately, it may be only a matter of time before an al Qaeda-trained British- Pakistani or Pakistani-American launches a successful attack in his own country.
Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank are research fellows at the NYU Center on Law and Security. Bergen, author of the book “The Osama bin Laden I Know,” is also a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation.
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