ISLAMABAD, Aug 15: ‘Al-Qaeda’s No. 3’ was the mastermind behind the plot to blow up transatlantic flights, an intelligence source said, here on Tuesday. “It is not Osama bin Laden and it’s not Aiman Al Zawahiri, but someone close to the rank of Abu Faraj Al-Libbi,” the source said.

It is an Afghanistan-based Al Qaeda connection, the source said requesting he not be named. “It is the top hierarchy,” he said.

Abu Faraj Al-Libbi, a third-tier Al Qaeda operative was believed involved in an attempt to assassinate President Gen Pervez Musharraf and was arrested from Mardan in May 2005. Seventeen people had died in the attempt in Rawalpindi in December 2005.

The intelligence soured said the plot to blow up US-bound planes was similar in pattern to the one hatched to kill President Musharraf. “There was a mastermind, there was a planner and there were the executioners.”

The source said that Al Qaeda’s link to the London airline bombing plot was established.

Stressing the importance of Rashid Rauf’s arrest, the source said that without his capture the plot would not have been foiled.

“Without arresting Rashid Rauf, it would not have been possible to foil the plot,” he said.

He acknowledged that there had been some hype about the bombing plots but said the plotters were in the planning stage and were procuring chemicals and equipment. They were not in the execution stage, he said.

The source said that the Mirpur-born man with dual (Pakistani-British) nationality had gone to the UK in 1981 when he was less than one year old. He returned to Pakistan in 2002 and had since been living here.

Rashid Rauf, he said, had been involved in the murder of his uncle in the UK and had been wanted by the British police.

He had been living in Pakistan and not in Mirpur, the source clarified but declined to say when and where he had been arrested.

The source said that Pakistan was withholding the information due to British legal sensitivities and a team of their legal experts was in Pakistan to discuss the case.

He said that Pakistan’s Interior Ministry was trying to find whether the UK had placed any request for his extradition for his involvement in the murder of his uncle.

Reports indicated that Rashid Rauf was arrested from Bahawalpur in Punjab, 48 hours before the British crackdown and arrests of main plotters.

Acknowledging reports of disagreement between the United States and Britain over the timing of the arrest, the source said that Pakistan had gone along with Washington’s assertion that the plot should be disrupted before it entered the execution stage.

The British wanted the plotters to go through the dry-run owing to their own legal requirements; the Americans thought it would be best to disrupt the plot before it could enter the execution stage. “Our argument was disruption”, the source said.

He said that Pakistani security agencies had arrested six to seven suspects, including Rashid Rauf, and all of them were Pakistani nationals.

This is an ongoing operation and there could be more arrests, he said. “Certainly, there will be more arrests as the investigation proceeds”, he said.

The source agreed that some of the London plotters might have come to Pakistan but said that Islamabad was awaiting information, including antecedents and passport details of the plotters to ascertain facts. Some of them would have definitely come to Pakistan.

He ruled out any possible involvement of wanted Lashkar-i-Jhangvi militant, Matiur Rehman, in the transatlantic bombing plot.

The 32-year-old head of Lashkar-i-Jhangvi incidentally hails from Bahawalpur.

Accused of involvement in the plot to assassinate President Musharraf and the Sheraton Hotel bombing in Karachi, Matiur Rehman is on top of the list of the most wanted list and carries a bounty of Rs10 million.

He also denied involvement of any charity organisation, including Jamaat-ud Dawa in financing the bombing plot.

The source said that Pakistan was investigating the source of funding for the airline bombing plot.

Dawn has learnt that a team of Britain’s National Terrorist Finance Investigation Unit had visited Lahore in April to investigate financial transactions between UK-based militants and their Pakistani contacts.

He also denied that any intercept had triggered the arrests in Pakistan or in the UK. He said that the arrests in the UK were triggered by the arrest in Pakistan of Rashid Rauf.

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