Pakistan eyes Afghan link in foiled London plot

Suspect Rashid Rauf said he had connections to an Afghan national with Al Qaeda ties.

More than a week after the foiled London terror plot, investigators in Pakistan say they have shifted their sights to Afghanistan, after the prime suspect in custody, Rashid Rauf, divulged his liaison with a high-level Al Qaeda operative possibly based in Afghanistan's Kunar Province.

"So far, all agencies have failed to break [Mr. Rauf] in identifying the Afghan national who works as a frontline man of Al Qaeda," says an intelligence official, speaking anonymously. The official added that Rauf admitted to traveling to Afghanistan several times since 2002 to meet with the operative, who conveyed commands on Al Qaeda's behalf.

Against the backdrop of the investigations, evidence suggesting the role of Pakistan-based militants in the terror plot has sparked a fresh round of soul searching here in Pakistan. Over the weekend, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf reiterated a call for cracking down on extremism, and the federal government has reportedly put 400 alleged extremists linked to banned organizations on a watch list. Amid the debate by analysts and religious leaders, many are questioning the efficacy of such measures, calling them cosmetic solutions that only fan extremism while failing to address root causes.

Investigations into the alleged plot to blow up planes over the Atlantic took a new turn over the weekend. Intelligence sources say Rauf admitted to having an Al Qaeda liaison who is an Afghan national, purportedly a wealthy businessman with a high rank in the organization. Other news agencies, quoting intelligence sources, have identified the operative as an Arab who works out of Kunar Province, where US and coalition troops are battling Taliban forces. He is said to be a close associate of Al Qaeda's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Despite repeated interrogations, intelligence officials say, Rauf would not disclose the operative's true identity.

Pakistan's Interior Ministry would neither confirm nor deny these reports. "We have said that this has got an Al Qaeda connection to Afghanistan," says Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Sherpao.

Afghan officials have repeatedly rejected such claims, characterizing them as diversionary tactics. Casting some doubt on any Afghan connection are the facts that Pakistan and Afghanistan frequently exchange accusations and the possibility that Rauf may be saying what his Pakistani interrogators want to hear.

London investigators are also facing skepticism over the magnitude of the alleged plot given the paucity of hard evidence made public during what is still an ongoing investigation. The BBC reported, quoting unnamed police sources, that laptops were found with martyrdom tapes, and that a bomb kit was found as well, but the police have refused to comment on this.

Even the simple detail of where the central suspect, Rashid Rauf, was arrested remains unclear. Mr. Sherpao maintains that Rauf was arrested in Bahawalpur, his family's hometown in southern Punjab and the alleged headquarters of Jaish-e Muhammed, a banned militant group. Intelligence sources, however, allege that Rauf was in fact detained in Zhob, near the Afghan border. Wearing a shalwar kameez and looking disheveled, according to investigators, he spent five hours on the Internet at a cafe, where he also made two phone calls to England. The phone calls roused the suspicion of the owner, who called the police, intelligence officials say.

After his arrest, Reuters identified Rauf as a member of Jaish-e Muhammed, notorious for extremism. The group, however, has denied that Rauf was ever a member, or that it had any role in the plot. Still, Rauf himself has admitted to investigators that he is connected by marriage to the group's leader. "As far as the family relationship, we admit it," says Talha Saif, a family spokesman. "But as far as Rauf's link to Jaish-e Muhammed, we deny that."

As these details continue to unfold, analysts here are compelled once again to question the extent of extremism on Pakistani soil, and the government's tactics in addressing it.

Some eight or nine months ago, the police began a sweeping crackdown on religious hatred here, marshaling police forces and government agencies to monitor the activities of the city's 5,000 mosques. Approximately 900 religious leaders in Lahore have been arrested so far, many allegedly for using their loudspeakers to spread sectarian hatred, and more than 2,000 in Punjab Province as a whole, according to police.

Police officials trumpet the measure as a resounding success, citing an absence of sectarian violence or militancy in Lahore. "I'm very satisfied with the campaign," says Aamir Zulfikar, chief of operations for the Lahore city police. "In 14 months, there has not been a single sectarian killing."

In Lahore's religious community, however, there is a growing tide of resentment toward such policies. "It is a wrong policy," says Mohammed Sarfaz Naeemi, general-secretary of Tanzeemul Madari, a congregation of Sunni religious schools. "[People] will simply turn against the Musharraf government," he says.

Many analysts agree, saying that while crackdowns may prove effective in the short term, they mask the inherent inability of a military-run government to harness public support for its efforts.

"It's a lack of political capacity. That political capacity comes from legitimacy and popular support, and this government does not have that," says Rasul Bakhsh Rais, head of social sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. "They're more concerned with the political mechanisms of survival. They cannot really look deep down into the society and see the problems."

Those problems, other analysts add, are festering at the expense of political cohesion, creating pockets of sympathy for extremists groups.

"I for one don't drink water," says Sajjad Naseer, a political science professor at the Lahore School of Economics. "I have to put a filtration system in my house or buy a bottle of [mineral water]. The state can't even provide basic services."

The absence of a strong state, he argues, compels the alienated and the disenfranchised to seek support from nonstate actors, including extremist groups.

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