x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Al Qa'eda fugitive believed killed

The mastermind of a 2006 transatlantic aeroplane bombing plot was killed in a US missile attack in north-west Pakistan.

Rashid Rauf escaped under strange circumstances from police custody in December after being arrested in 2006.
Rashid Rauf escaped under strange circumstances from police custody in December after being arrested in 2006.

ISLAMABAD // A "most wanted" al Qa'eda terrorist suspect was reported killed in a US missile strike today in Pakistan's lawless border tribal areas. Rashid Rauf was reported by Pakistani intelligence officials to have been killed when a missile hit a tribesman's house in the village of Alikhel in North Wazirstan, a militant stronghold near the Afghan border. Rauf, a British national, was alleged to have been the mastermind of an al Qa'eda plot to blow up passenger aircraft in mid-air after they left London bound for the United States. Also among the five killed in the strike was an Egyptian, Abu Zubair al Misri, another wanted alleged al Qa'eda operative. Hashmat Habib, Rauf's lawyer, told The National that he could not confirm reports of his client's death. "It has not yet been confirmed to me by his family circle." An intelligence official in Islamabad said intercepted communications between militants signalled that Rauf was among those killed but that government agencies were seeking more evidence he was among the dead. A British foreign office spokesman said: "We are investigating the reports." Rauf, who held dual British-Pakistani nationality, was at the centre of wrangling between Britain and Pakistan, allies in the US-led "war on terror". He was arrested in 2006 in the southern Punjabi town of Bahawalpur at the behest of Washington. His arrest prompted a worldwide security alert after intelligence agencies claimed he was part of an al Qa'eda cell that planned to use liquid explosives on flights from London to the United States. After the arrests Britain launched a massive security operation resulting in the arrest of 24 people and chaotic scenes at London's Heathrow Airport. An anti-terrorism court in Pakistan dropped terrorism charges against him relating to the conspiracy, although its order was suspended when the Punjabi government lodged an appeal. Rauf then faced charges including impersonation, carrying a fake identity card and fake documents, which he denied. Britain assiduously tried to secure his extradition because he was believed to have been a "point man" for British nationals seeking to contact al Qa'eda members in Pakistan. British authorities sought his extradition in connection with the death of his uncle in Britain before he travelled to Pakistan in 2002. British officials became exasperated with their Pakistani counterparts, who demanded something equal in return for Rauf's extradition. Pakistan had demanded that Britain arrest and extradite Balochi nationalists who were residents in London. The regime of Pervez Musharraf, the former president, was engaged in a bloody attempt to suppress an insurgency in Balochistan. Rauf escaped under strange circumstances from Pakistani police custody in December. After appearing in an Islamabad court two jail guards allowed him to go to a US-style hamburger restaurant and then to say prayers in a mosque, from which he escaped via a backdoor. Mr Habib, his lawyer, claimed that he had not "escaped" from custody but implied that he had been "disappeared" by Pakistani intelligence officials. It was thought that some Pakistani officials were not enthusiastic to hand over Rauf to Britain as it is alleged he had links with a jihadist terrorist group, Jaish-i-Mohammed, which was backed by Pakistani military intelligence. During his time in Pakistan, Rauf married a relative of one of Pakistan's most notorious militant leaders, Azhar Masood Azhar, the head of Jaish-i-Mohammed. Mr Habib said yesterday that if Rauf had been killed, he doubted that it had happened in an air strike. He likened Rauf to other terrorist suspects who have been arrested - but who have been kept in illegal custody - and who are known in Pakistan as the "missing people". "I apprehend that he was killed in custody, but his death will be covered up by a fake encounter," Mr Habib said. "I apprehend they have started killing missing people in such encounters." After escaping from police custody in Rawalpindi, Rauf may well have sought refuge in the tribal areas. "He was among the most wanted. These people often seek sanctuary there as the law does not apply and they can pay locals for their period of residence," said Shaukat Qadir, a retired brigadier and security analyst. Pakistan has officially protested to the United States that missile strikes violate its sovereign territory, although some officials say there was a tacit understanding between the two militaries to allow such action. "It goes to show that US intelligence is improving if they did hit Rauf," said Talat Masood, a retired general and defence analyst. "The effect of Pakistan's protest against such strikes will be minimal if there is convincing proof that the missile strikes are hitting senior al Qa'eda figures, which Pakistan has been unable to do," he said. iwilkinson@thenational.ae