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Airline plot suspect linked with Jaish

August 17, 2006

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BAHAWALPUR, Aug 16: Rashid Rauf, identified by Pakistan as a key player in the failed plot to blow up transatlantic airliners, was in a Pakistani militant group before he joined Al Qaeda, a senior group member said on Wednesday.

The father of Maulana Masood Azhar, head of the banned militant organisation Jaish-i-Mohammad fighting Indian rule in Kashmir, told Reuters that Rauf left the movement to join rivals more interested in Al Qaeda’s anti-Western message.

“He was member of our group but later he deserted and joined our rivals,” Hafiz Allah Bukhsh said at Jaish’s headquarters in Bahawalpur.

“Our cause is Kashmir, while their main cause is Afghanistan. They are anti-American but we are not,” Mr Bukhsh told Reuters here.

Pakistani intelligence officials say Rauf was arrested in Bahawalpur on Aug. 9, just hours before British police detained 24 people suspected of being part of a plot to blow up passenger planes bound for the US.

A phone call made by Rauf from Bahawalpur triggered the decision taken by the Pakistani, British and US intelligence agencies to launch raids to foil a conspiracy they had been monitoring since late last year, according to the officials.

Under pressure from Washington, President Pervez Musharraf banned several militant groups, including Jaish, in 2002. Some groups splintered and morphed after the ban and some members left to join Al Qaeda, experts say.

Rauf, whose family moved to Britain when he was a young child, returned to Pakistan in 2002 after his uncle was stabbed to death in Birmingham.

Mr Bukhsh said he spoke with Rauf several times after he left Jaish, and that the Briton was related by marriage to one of his own sons.

In Bahawalpur Rauf was known as Mohammad Khalid, according to residents who attended his wedding around three years ago.

He has two young daughters — one less than a year old and the other around two years old — according to another relative.

Because of the Bahawalpur connection, suspicions in the airline bomb plot fell on Jaish and affiliated militant organisations like Jamaat-ul-Furqan, although Pakistani officials were quick to identify Rauf as an Al Qaeda member. Officials now say they are hunting an Al Qaeda operations commander who planned the attacks.—Reuters