The radical with a perfect cover

He was the Pakistani equivalent to the Avon lady. A successful cosmetics salesman who travelled frequently on business, Rashid Rauf was above suspicion in his middle-class neighbourhood.

The man now regarded as one of the prime suspects in the alleged air terror plot moved into a smart area of Bahawalpur, in southern Punjab, just three months ago.

Like a social climbing yuppie he even gazumped a bidder for his new house by offering 200,000 rupees (£1,700) on top of the asking price. The £15,000 purchase allowed Rauf to rub shoulders with lawyers, doctors and other professionals in the dusty cotton town’s smartest neighbourhood.

Few in the area would have known that the seemingly successful businessman was also active in radical politics with impeccable family connections.

Certainly there was nothing to suggest, as is alleged, that he may have been one of the pivotal figures in an international terror plot to bring down up to nine transatlantic airliners.

This weekend a clearer picture was emerging of Rauf’s life in the four years after he left his home town of Birmingham to start a new life in Pakistan.

His arrest in Pakistan began an unprecedented manhunt in Britain with 25 young Muslims being hauled into custody by anti-terrorist police. Two have been released while the rest are still being questioned.

Intelligence officials in Pakistan have claimed that Rauf may be the pivotal figure linking senior Al-Qaeda figures in neighbouring Afghanistan to the alleged plotters in Britain.

Sources close to the investigation claim that the contact in Afghanistan may have been a son-in-law of Ayman al-Zawahiri, second-in-command to Osama Bin Laden.

Back in Britain, one of the common factors linking several of the alleged plotters is that they attended seminars run by Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic missionary group.

What is known about Rauf, the suspected linchpin? He moved to Pakistan as a 21-year-old following the murder of his uncle in Birmingham in 2002. He had apparently prospered, marrying into a family that was the nearest thing Bahawalpur has to royalty.

His wife is the daughter of Ghulam Mustafa, who founded the radical madrasah, Darul Uloom Madina, in 1965. It is one of Pakistan’s most controversial fundamentalist seminaries, teaching the Deobandi Muslim philosophy — espoused by Bin Laden — to more than 1,000 boys at a time.

When Rauf became Mustafa’s son-in-law, one of Pakistan’s top terrorists, Masood Azhar, became his brother- in-law. Azhar had been jailed in India for leading terror attacks in Jammu and Kashmir in the 1990s. But he was released in 1999 after his colleagues hijacked an Indian Airlines jet to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

He was freed alongside a comrade, Omar Saeed Sheikh, the British militant who was later to be convicted for taking part in the kidnapping of Daniel Pearl, the murdered American journalist.

Like his brother-in-law, Rauf joined the “family firm”: Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), the notorious banned Islamic militant group based in Bawahalpur.

He had been introduced to its leaders and senior clerics at the Darul Uloom Madina soon after he arrived in the country.

According to JeM sources, he impressed them with his devout manner. Maulana Soheib, a teacher at the Madina who was to become his brother-law, said he was introduced to the family under a different name.

“We were told his name was Khalid, a rich businessman and very religious,” he said. “We did not know that his actual name was Rashid Rauf. Even on the marriage certificate he identified himself as Khalid.”

JeM has its roots in the Afghan mujaheddin who fought the Soviet occupation but turned their attention to Kashmir after the Russian withdrawal. Soon after the September 11 attacks, a faction within JeM allied itself with Al-Qaeda to adopt a wider global jihad rather than concentrate on Kashmir.

Rauf became a leader of JeM but sided with the new faction. This is how he may have come into contact with Al-Qaeda, it is believed. His brother-in-law said that Rauf was rarely in Bahawalpur. His wife lived with her parents until he bought the three-storey house in Model Town in May.

Neighbours say they rarely saw the family. Rauf kept his wife and two young daughters indoors in line with his devout religious beliefs. While women in the staunch Sunni neighbourhood visited each other for tea and gossip, Rauf’s wife was banned from socialising.

Last week his family were away “travelling”. The house was locked up and neighbours said they have not been seen since Rauf was arrested.

The date of Rauf’s arrest is a subject of dispute. Soheib says his brother-in-law was seized two weeks ago but Pakistan maintains that the arrest took place on August 9, hours before the police raids in Britain.

His brother Tayib was also arrested in Birmingham and his father Abdul, 52, who had been visiting relatives in Pakistan, was reported to have been detained before boarding an international flight in Islamabad. He is thought to be being questioned as a witness.

Rashid Rauf’s role in the alleged British plot remains the subject of speculation in Pakistan. In briefings, Pakistan’s intelligence officials claimed he was in contact with Al-Qaeda.

However, diplomats and former senior officials were sceptical of the claims. They said that Pakistan’s fear of being branded a terrorist haven may have led it to overstate the role of Afghanistan when the evidence is sketchy.

Further details have emerged linking the groups of arrested men in High Wycombe, Birmingham and east London. One suspect in High Wycombe helped to organise donations for the Pakistan earthquake appeal for Crescent Relief. The charity was set up by Rauf’s father, although he left the board of trustees some years ago.

Another cross-over between High Wycombe and east London is the secretive Tablighi Jamaat. At least six of the suspects have attended study groups and meetings held by Tablighi, a global movement which promotes an austere lifestyle and encourages followers to reject secular society.

A number of the suspects may have gone to Pakistan to do missionary work as part of a Tablighi group, said a Muslim source close to two families of the suspects.

The main role of Tablighi is to encourage Muslims to lead their lives according to a strict interpretation of the Koran and the sayings of the prophet Muhammad. The movement, which means the Proselytising Group, also tries to convert non-Muslims.

Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker in the 9/11 attacks, was a regular worshipper at a Tablighi mosque in Paris. Richard Reid, the jailed shoe bomber who tried to blow up a flight to America, attended mosques run by the group.

Investigators believe that all four of the July 7 London bombers worshipped at the British headquarters of Tablighi Jamaat in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire. Mohammad Sidique Khan, ringleader of the bombers, lived near the mosque.

Waheed Zaman, 22, a biochemistry student at London Metropolitan University, has attended study groups at the London headquarters of Tablighi Jamaat in West Ham.

Zaman, from Walthamstow, east London, is understood to have become religious from late 2002. Kamran Siddique, 24, a friend of Zaman, said: “We attended Tablighi Jamaat events across the country.” Zaman’s local mosque, the Masjid-E-Umer, where a number of the other suspects also prayed, was frequently visited by members of Tablighi Jamaat.

Assad Sarwar, 26, from High Wycombe, also attended regular study groups held by Tablighi Jamaat, according to his brother Amjad.

Last week a Tablighi spokesman said the movement had no terrorist links: “So many thousands of people pass through our doors each week, we just don’t know who is whom.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Sunday Times, UK
Aug. 20, 2006

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday August 21, 2006.
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