Najibullah Zazi , a 25-year-old Afghan citizen with permanent resident status in the US, was arrested by the USA’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in September 2009 on a charge of belonging to an Al Qaeda motivated and trained cell, which was allegedly planning suicide bombings in the New York City subway system. He pleaded guilty along with one of two other co-conspirators. The third co-conspirator did not plead guilty. The case is reserved for judgement in June.
According to the prosecution, the three had planned to attack the subway system at the instance of Saleh al-Somali, Al-Qaeda's head of external operations, and Rashid Rauf, who was described by the prosecution as an Al-Qaeda operative. Rashid Rauf, who was reportedly killed in a US Drone (pilotless plane) strike in North Waziristan in November,2008, belonged to the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM) of Pakistan and was related by marriage to Maulana Masood Azhar, the Amir of the JEM.
Zarein Ahmedzay, a 25-year-old former New York taxi driver, one of the three co-conspirators, who pleaded guilty to charges including conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction, claimed the three had bought ingredients to make explosives similar to those used in the July 7 2005 bombings in London which killed 52 people on three tube trains and a bus. Ahmedzay told the court that he travelled to Pakistan with Najibullah Zazi and Adis Medunjanin in the summer of 2008. They went to a training camp in North Waziristan and volunteered to join the Taliban and fight the US forces in Afghanistan, but were told they would be "more useful if we returned to New York City... to conduct operations." Asked by the judge what kind of operations, he said: "Suicide-bombing operations.” Zazi told the court: "During the training, al Qaeda leaders asked us to return to the United States and conduct a martyrdom operation. We agreed to this plan." It was reported on April 13, 2010, that a fourth suspect in the case--not yet named as a co-conspirator--had been arrested in Pakistan and that the US authorities were trying to get him to the US for interrogation.
Rashid Rauf, who motivated them, was from a Mirpuri family of Birmingham. The Mirpuris are the Punjabi-speaking residents of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK). He disappeared from the UK in 2002 after the British Police suspected him in connection with the murder of one of his relatives in Birmingham. On August 9, 2006, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) claimed to have picked him up from a house in Bhawalpur, southern Punjab, which he had bought after coming to Pakistan in 2002. The Pakistani authorities claimed that he was in close touch with Al Qaeda and that it was his arrest that gave them an inkling regarding the imminence of the plot of a group of jihadi extremists based in the UK to blow up a number of US-bound planes. The discovery of the conspiracy and the arrest of many UK-based suspects of Pakistani origin were then announced by the British Police.
Despite his alleged involvement in the August 2006 plot to blow up a number of US-bound planes with liquid explosives, the Pakistani authorities avoided handing him over to the British Police for interrogation. The government of Pakistan told a court on October 30, 2006, that Rashid Rauf had been detained under the Security of Pakistan Act. A Rawalpindi Anti-Terrorism Judge, Justice Safdar Hussain Malik, passed orders on November 21, 2006, approving his judicial custody in the Adiala jail. This ruled out his early transfer to the British Police for interrogation. He escaped from custody under mysterious circumstances on December, 16,2007, while being taken back to jail from the court. Many alleged that the ISI had allowed him to escape to avoid pressure from the British Police to hand him over for interrogation.
Quoting an unnamed senior Pakistani security official, an Islamabad datelined report of the Agence France Press (AFP) stated as follows on November 22, 2008:
"The alleged mastermind of a 2006 transatlantic airplane bombing plot was killed in a US missile attack in northwest Pakistan early Saturday (November 15, 2008) .The transatlantic bombing plot alleged mastermind Rashid Rauf was killed along with an Egyptian Al-Qaeda operative in the US missile strike in North Waziristan early Saturday," a senior security official told AFP. The Al-Qaeda operative killed in the strike was identified as Abu Zubair al-Misri, the official added. He and the Egyptian Al-Qaeda operative were killed along with at least two other militants in a US drone attack on the house of a local tribesman in the village of Alikhel, part of a district known as a stronghold for Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, officials said. The missile strike came days after another US drone attack which killed six rebels, including an Arab Al-Qaeda operative. That attack prompted Taliban militants based in the rugged tribal territory bordering Afghanistan to warn of reprisal attacks across Pakistan if there were more strikes by the US. "
According to the Daily Telegraph, Rauf had been suspected of involvement in almost every significant terrorist plot in Britain since his escape to Pakistan in 2002, including the explosions of July 7, 2005 in London, the failed attacks of July 21, 2005 in London and the plot to blow up airliners over the Atlantic. He was also behind an alleged plan to attack shopping centres in Manchester during Easter 2008.
Maulana Masood Azhar used to be a leader of the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM), a founding member of Osama bin Laden’s International Islamic Front For Jihad against the Crusaders and the Jewish People formed in 1998. Its then Amir, Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil, was a signatory of bin Laden’s first fatwa calling for attacks against the US. Azhar had fought as a member of bin Laden’s group in Somalia in the early 1990s. In 1994, he entered India and was arrested by the Police and kept in custody in Jammu & Kashmir. He was one of those released by the Government of India in December,1999, to secure the release of the passengers of a plane of the Indian Airlines hijacked by the HUM to Kandahar to demand the release of Azhar and others. After his return to Pakistan from Kandahar, Azhar developed differences with Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil, left the HUM and formed his own organization in January 2000 called the JEM. bin Laden failed in his efforts to patch up the differences between the two. He then switched his support from the HUM to the JEM.
The JEM was very active in J&K and was suspected of involvement in the attempted attack on the Indian Parliament in New Delhi on December 13,2001. Unlike the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET), which never indulges in an act of terrorism in Pakistani territory and against Pakistani targets, the JEM has been involved in acts of terrorism in Pakistani territory. It was suspected of involvement, along with Al Qaeda, in the two unsuccessful attempts to kill Pervez Musharraf in Rawalpindi in December,2003.It supported the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in its operations against the Pakistan Army in the Swat Valley and then in South Waziristan. It is now believed to have its training camps in North Waziristan along with those of Ilyas Kashmiri of the 313 Brigade.
Since Rashid Rauf joined it in 2002, the JEM has been training members of the Pakistani diaspora in the UK. The Zazi’s case was the first indication that it may be training jihadi volunteers from the US too. As part of the investigation into the attempted incendiary attack in Times Square of New York by Faisal Shahzad, a US citizen of Pakistani origin, on May 1, 2010, four suspected members of the JEM in Pakistan are reported to have been detained by the Pakistani authorities. Among those detained is one Muhammed Rehan, a suspected associate of Shahzad. According to a senior Pakistani official, Rehan made possible a meeting between Shahzad and at least one senior Taliban official. He alleged that Rehan drove Shahzad on July 7, 2009, to Peshawar. They also went to the Waziristan region, where they met with one or more senior Taliban leaders.
The suspected involvement of the JEM in the training of Faisal, if proved correct, would indicate, in the wake of its involvement in the motivation and training of the Zazi cell, a possible link between the members of the Zazi cell and Faisal. It would also indicate the possibility that like Zazi, Faisal was not acting alone. The JEM is becoming as worrisome as the LET as a surrogate of Al Qaeda using angry elements in the Pakistani diaspora for acts of terrorism not only in the UK as it had done in the past, but also in the US now.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.
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