Counterterrorism specialists and other investigators sorting through a terrorist plot to simultaneously blow up 10 aircraft heading to the United States say the clues overwhelmingly point to Pakistan, the difficult U.S. ally in the war on terrorism.
On Friday, a senior government official in Pakistan said his country arrested two Britons of Pakistani descent last week as part of the coordinated operation to foil the airline plot.
“They are British nationals. They were arrested 8 to 10 days ago. One from Karachi and one from Lahore,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
Pakistan said the plot was thwarted after active coordination between Pakistani, British and U.S. intelligence agencies, leading to the arrest of 24 people in Britain.
“In fact, Pakistan played a very important role in uncovering and breaking this international terrorist network,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam said.
British police arrested 24 people Thursday, saying they were confident that they had captured the main suspects in what U.S. officials said was a plot in its final phases that had all the earmarks of an al-Qaida operation.
Other officials told NBC News that they believed the mastermind of the plot was still at large in Pakistan.
While British officials declined to publicly identify the 24 suspects, French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said in Paris that they “appear to be of Pakistani origin.” He did not give a source for his description, but he said French officials had been in close contact with British authorities.
Sources familiar with counterterrorism efforts said some of those arrested in London had recently traveled to Pakistan and, while there, were believed to have trained in explosives, NBC’s Lisa Myers reported. In addition, money was wired from Pakistan to London, presumably to buy plane tickets, the sources said on condition of anonymity.
Uneasy alliance with Pakistan
Pakistan — whose intelligence service originally created the militant Taliban government of Afghanistan, which harbored al-Qaida before and after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States — has been a difficult ally of the United States in the war on terrorism.
President Pervez Musharraf has publicly thrown his support behind the U.S. campaign, launching military operations against Islamic militants along the Afghan border and arresting key al-Qaida leaders, including Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.
But Musharraf has often been accused of hedging his bets as he negotiates a difficult path between being sufficiently tough on militant groups to satisfy pressure from the United States but not so tough that he disaffects Islamic political leaders, who have threatened a no-confidence vote in Parliament.
Pakistan, meanwhile, remains a haven for militant Islamic groups blamed for violent attacks as far afield as Europe. Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden himself is believed to be hiding somewhere in locally governed Waziristan or the Northwest Frontier Province on the border with Afghanistan, where Musharraf has refused to allow U.S. forces to enter Pakistani territory to hunt down al-Qaida and Taliban members.
In addition, three of the four suicide attackers in the July 7, 2005, bombings of the London public transport system, which killed 52 people, were British Muslims of Pakistani origin. One of those bombers visited a pro-Taliban seminary run by the hard-line Jamaat al-Dawat group in the eastern city of Lahore before the blasts.
Thursday morning, Pakistan placed the leader of the hard-line group, Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, under house arrest for a month in Lahore. There was no immediate indication that the detention was linked to the aircraft plot, but Saeed headed the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba until 2002, when it was banned by Musharraf because of suspected terrorist links.
Washington includes Saeed’s group on a list of terrorist organizations for its links to Lashkar-e-Taiba.
MSNBC.com’s Alex Johnson, NBC News’ Lisa Myers, MSNBC TV’s Rick Francona and The Associated Press contributed to this report.